The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
First published in 1891; 2008 Penguin Classics edition
Genre: Philosophical novel, English literature
“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”
High class intrigue and the virtues of vice are among many subjects covered in Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. A tragic tale of beauty, its merits, and corruption, the novel follows the life of eponymous character Dorian Gray. One day, the young man makes a Faustian request that entwines his fate with that of his portrait, and brings him into situations and deeds that make the loftier classes blush.
The story begins in the studio of Basil Hallward; he is in the process of describing the young man that he has been painting a portrait of to his friend, Lord Henry. Lord Henry then goes on to wax philosophical about society, art, people, and culture (you better get used to this; philosophical statements and discussions abound). As if summoned by the mention of his name, Dorian Gray makes his entrance and describes his friendship with Basil, who is enamored with Dorian. Upon completion of his portrait, the 20-year-old Dorian sees the beauty of his artificial image and wishes that it would age instead of him.
Dorian soon falls in love with a young actress named Sibyl Vane, who is the star of the stage in a local theater troupe. However, she can’t act when she is in true love and, when her performance falls flat in front of Dorian’s friends, he viciously rebuffs her. Thrown into grief, she commits suicide and Dorian notices that his portrait now has lines of cruelty around his smile; the sins he commits will not mar his aspect, but that of his painting.
Dorian’s debaucheries go on for years as he gives in to vices and unsavory behavior that tarnishes his reputation, but he remains physically youthful and unblemished. Dorian becomes paranoid of someone finding his portrait, despite the fact that it is an unrecognizable caricature of him now, and he locks it away due to his constant fear of its discovery. After eighteen years of committing social sins and ruining the reputations of many high class associates, he finally takes a life after revealing his secret. It is this mortal sin that is Dorian’s undoing.
As anyone who has read or seen one of Wilde’s plays will attest, his writing is fraught with the paradox of opposites: a couple of examples come as characters state that simple pleasures are for complex people, and that philanthropists lose their humanity. Much of the book consists of people sitting around criticizing society in the 19th century, which cannot do much besides come off as Wilde venting his frustrations and opinions of the time in which he lived. There are also a lot of references to figures and works from classical western literature to the point that my copy is filled with footnote markers.
Wilde does excel at elegant descriptions of the small details in his settings, and he refers to characters by their full names when tagging speech, which was something that stood out to me; though it could be a holdover from his time writing plays. I was rather disappointed by the abrupt end to the story; there is a lack of formal/classical narrative structure and there is no real explanation as to why or how the painting ages instead of Dorian. Though this might detract from the review, and I haven’t looked to see if there is any connection, I found that some aspects of the novel reminded me of the film American Psycho (2000); the protagonist kills and does other terrible things, but is unable to receive justice for his actions. One significant difference in plot, however, is that Dorian does meet a fitting end.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is an interesting look into the social strata and ideas of 19th century England. The characters speak a very specific way and live a singular lifestyle that causes the events in the novel to have credence in reality (magical aging portrait not withstanding). Though the novel has an interesting premise, it is bogged down by rambling discussions of morality and philosophy alongside its hasty ending and unexplained plot point. I think there is value in reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, if only to see what doesn’t necessarily work in a novel and how it is different from writing for the stage or screen.
Verdict: 3 philosophical ramblings about vices out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of Oscar Wilde, people who want to read a novel by a playwright, those who like paradoxes, philosophers, people interested in the lives of 19th century gentry, those who enjoy English literature, and people who really like the word “tremulous”.
Not recommended for: The easily bored, the lower class of the 19th century, Basil Hallward, Sibyl Vane, Dorian Gray, homophobes, people who don’t want to read a novel by a playwright, those who dislike hypocrisy, or those who dislike reading an author’s philosophical rants.