Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of those classics that everyone knows even if they’ve never read it. If you’ve been pushing it down your queue because you think you know enough about it—stop pushing! Even when you know the premise—that Dorian Gray retains his youthful, innocent appearance while his portrait ages and withers in his stead—it’s compulsively readable. The writing is sharp and descriptive, riddled with the kinds of one-liners that have made Oscar Wilde so quotable.
Despite the importance of the portrait in the storyline, its creepy attributes don’t show up for a while. Much of the book is spent building Dorian’s character and his friendship with Lord Henry (Harry). Harry is full of the kind of observations that sound more clever than they really are and Dorian, young and inexperienced, is susceptible to his philosophies. Harry’s greatest hits include pleas for self-realization and the importance of beauty:
“The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays.” (13)
“You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Each month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly….Ah! realize your youth while you have it. (17)
This latter speech has an immediate impact of Dorian who has something akin to a mid-life crisis when his portrait is unveiled. He says:
“I am jealous of everyting whose beauty does not die. I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose? Every moment that passes takes something from me and gives something to it. Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now! Why did you paint it? It will mock me some day—mock me horribly!” The hot tears welled into his eyes; he tore his hand away and, flinging himself on the divan, he buried his face in the cushions, as though he was praying. (21)
Frankly, if you’re anywhere near a mid-life crisis, this may not be the best reading material. The descriptions, not just of age, but of Dorian’s horror and fear, are persuasive. Wilde continuously finds new ways to press this point again and again. It’s almost too much, but only Dorian’s extreme anxiety makes the story plausible. There are no explanations provided for the supernatural portrait beyond Dorian’s wish and desire—it just works. This is a simple story and too many explanations would complicate it and make it flimsy.
In addition to showing Dorian’s age, the portrait takes on a twisted, terrifying expression as Dorian becomes ever more corrupt and sinful. His situation is untenable; even a pretty face can’t go on forever as a terrible person with a corrosive secret.
If this was the whole story, the book would be solid. What takes it to the next level is the inclusion of witty descriptions and social commentary:
On people who prattle endlessly at dinner:
Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners. (30)
An excellent character introduction:
She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest. She was usually in love with somebody, and, as her passion was never returned, she had kept all her illusions. She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy. Her name was Victoria, and she had a perfect mania for going to church. (35)
And astute social commentary:
“Faithfulness! I must analyse it some day. The passion for property is in it. There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up.” (38)
I read The Importance of Being Earnest last year and laughed all the way through, but it’s built on a single joke without much shading. By adding smiles amongst the horror, the writing in Dorian Gray is more impressive.
My only quibble is that some characters pop up at the mid-point with only a few throwaway paragraphs to explain their history with Dorian. Why couldn’t this history have been given in real time or these characters been included sooner? When someone that Dorian appears to trust more than anyone else showed up, I did a search on my Kindle for the name, worried I’d missed something. I hadn’t missed anything, hurrah, but how could someone so important not have elicited an earlier mention in such a detailed book? Maybe some of the time spent with Harry’s diatribes could have gone towards peripheral characters…
Overall: 4.7 It’s funny, creepy, and hard to put down. Sometimes reading the a classic can feel like reading a cliché because the original doesn’t always feel “new” after seeing tributes and references everywhere, but even with the ending in mind, I really enjoyed this book.
Translation: Read it. Then read The Importance of Being Earnest as a chaser.
Book 2 of the Reading Ireland Month 2017 Challenge
Next Up: The Gathering by Anne Enright
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift