Oscar Wilde is an author I’ve been meaning to read for years. Of course, I know a lot about his work just because I’m culturally literate, but I’ve never actually read anything he’s written, with the exception of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” And The Picture of Dorian Gray is just the same. The premise is something I knew, and indeed that almost everyone must know: a man makes a terrible bargain, that his portrait will grow old, and will show all the wickedness and corruption of his soul, while he himself stays young and pristine.
I’m not sure what I expected, but I was somewhat surprised to find that The Picture of Dorian Gray is very much a book of ideas. Dorian makes his pact with the portrait very early on, as a complete naif, a young man who has no experience of the world. When he makes his fantastic wish, he is in a sort of frenzy of terror and jealousy, believing that physical youth and beauty are the one real good. From here, he is led from innocence to experience by his wicked old friend Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry does two things to help blacken Dorian’s white-and-gold adolescent soul (though he would never admit responsibility) : he talks a great deal about his philosophy of pleasure (i.e. that pleasure is the only thing really worth pursuing in life, whereas seriousness and sorrow should be avoided), and he gives Dorian a book.
The first part, about a philosophy of pleasure, is not apparently the most dangerous. While there are long passages about beauty, pleasure, and a kind of decadence early in the book, there are also quite a few people who can listen to Lord Henry talk without being led into mortal sin. The book, however, like many another in literature, is the sweet poison that leads Dorian into a spiral of evil. It seems to be an homage to J.K Huysman’s A rebours, a very odd and dreamy French Symbolist novel about a man trying out one rather nasty experiment with decadence after another. Dorian is fascinated, and a long central part of Dorian Gray reflects A rebours, with Dorian’s own similar experiments on his way down the spiral. These experiments lead to far worse: drugs, exploitation, cruelty, and on and on. The end of the novel is fairly predictable in its way: the bottom of the spiral reached, and then scraped.
This is a strange hybrid of a book, really. In some ways it’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: fantasy or science fiction. In other ways, it’s philosophy: decadence and aestheticism and a weird kind of naturalism as Wilde talks about the importance of heredity. In still other ways, it’s Oscar Wilde writing dialogue, as he does in his plays: there’s an entire chapter that’s nothing but Lord Henry and a woman trading barbs about marriage. Here we find epigrams like “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” and “Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed,” and “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” It is witty, and sometimes it is wise.
But I don’t know that it’s such a wonderful book. The characters are very shallow, including Dorian. The long passages about Beauty and Youth and Art are a little preachy, and the parts in which Dorian is getting his thrills by being horrible are more or less nasty for the sake of it. It doesn’t shake out to much as a novel. I’m guessing that it’s been remembered because it was controversial and because it was written by Wilde, rather than because it’s such a gem in itself. That’s okay — I’m not sorry I read it — but I think I’d like to read something else and see where his real genius lies.