The Picture of Dorian Gray

picture of dorian grayOscar 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.

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20 Responses to The Picture of Dorian Gray

  1. Teresa says:

    If you ever get a chance to see his plays, do that. I’ve seen The Importance of Being Earnest (which I also read), An Ideal Husband, and (an adaptation of) Salome. They were all great to see on stage, although Salome was very much remixed and only partially Wilde’s work.

    I’ve never read Dorian Grey, but it sounds like the concept is what makes it resonant, rather than the book itself. I felt that way about Jekyll and Hyde.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, that’s a good way of putting it — the concept is resonant. It’s interesting to see what a premium the characters place on staying young, and how much they think their lives will be written in their faces. It’s also interesting to see the strange sort of Naturalism Wilde creates — the laboratory of heredity he subjects his characters to, even while he’s scoffing at science. But it’s not really very good, as a novel.

  2. Hi, Jenny. If you’d like a shorter dose of a thoroughly delightful and touching Wilde piece (I think it’s a short story, but at any rate, it’s short) try “The Friendly Giant.” It shows him at his humanitarian best.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I’d forgotten I’d read that! I read it to my children several times, as part of a book of fairy tales. I do like that one very much.

  3. Michael says:

    It’s a weird book — I’m almost inclined to say “nasty” — and the very last Wildean thing I would have recommended to you. I would call it a showing-off juvenilium, but he was 36 when he wrote it, possibly inspired by Menander’s “ὃν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῦσιν ἀποθνῄσκει νέος” and possibly trying to impress the weird — I’m almost inclined to say “nasty” — Walter Pater.

    You haven’t read The Importance of Being Earnest? Tsk. The plays are so much better and much more fun. The movie of The Importance of Being Earnest sucks rocks, though — it is the worst adaptation of anything I’ve ever seen.

    Anyway, the other day, I was asked, “What’s the best short story ever?”, and “The Doer of Good” came out of my mouth automatically without bothering to check with my head, which is as well, because my head can’t make up its mind about such things.

    • Jenny says:

      No! I’ve read none of his plays, as a matter of fact, nor seen any. I take it I ought, since both you and Teresa say so. “Weird and nasty” about sums this one up. And I’ll seek out the short story, as well, thank you.

  4. If the characters were not shallow, they would not be Wilde characters.

    Perhaps the “gem” metaphor is the problem. The book is a shoebox of gems, along with some other stuff. Parts, not a whole. The epigrams are the gems. You saw Wilde’s “real genius” as clearly as possible on the first page.

    • Jenny says:

      About a third of the way through, I realized this (that the epigrams are the gems), and began to slow way down to pick them out and enjoy them. This shift in perspective made reading the book much more enjoyable, since being harangued about aesthetics or told at length about how perfumes can send you to hell if you do it right wasn’t convincing me about the novel as a whole.

  5. Deb says:

    I believe this is Wilde’s only novel and it’s clear that long-form fiction was not his forte. I’ve always found it’s an easier book to read if you go into it expecting a sort of mishmash of philosophy, epigrams, homoerotic subtext (very apparent to our 21st century eyes, perhaps less so to all but a small number of Victorians), and a rather meandering plot. Of interest, perhaps, more as a curiosity than anything else. Stick with the plays and short stories to see where Wilde’s genius truly shines.

    • Jenny says:

      This was, perhaps, my problem: I didn’t go into it expecting a mishmash. I went into it expecting a good book, since after more than 100 years, people are still reading it. But as Tom says, it’s a shoebox of gems and other things as well.

  6. I agree completely with your assessment, and as a gay man I almost feel as if I’m required to love Wilde, but as a novel Dorian Gray is, as Tom said, shallow. But when you see the plays performed well, not read, they are every bit as refined and scintillating as Wilde is supposed to be. That’s his metier. I have not read the short stories. I just don’t think his narrative skills approach his ability to drop apercus and bons mots like pearls before swine. The biography of Wilde by Richard Ellman is one of the great literary biographies of the last thirty-forty years. Wilde’s life was better art than anything else he created.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s a great observation, and I’ll gladly put the biography on my (toppling) TBR list. It makes sense to me that we’re mostly still interested in Dorian Gray, not because of what the book is, but because of who Wilde was.

      • Michael says:

        Yeah. The whole of, say, Dickens and Shaw remains in circulation because they’re Dickens and Shaw, meaning much crap is lovingly preserved.

      • Jenny says:

        No, I don’t think that’s the same thing (about Dickens and Shaw.) We don’t revere them because of their lives, we revere them because of what they wrote — most of it, at any rate. So the less-good stuff remains in circulation because of the more-good stuff.

    • Michael says:

      Yes, the yellowed Ellman biography survives turnout after turnout.

      Also TBV is the bio-movie Wilde with Stephen Fry as Wilde and beautiful, beautiful Jude Law as Lord Alfred Douglas.

  7. Yeah, characters aren’t really Oscar Wilde’s biggest strength. I love and cherish him, as you may know, but I can acknowledge that he wasn’t perfect at everything. He does write sentences like a dream, though, doesn’t he? I’d recommend, of course, The Importance of being Earnest. The Importance of Being Earnest is everything about Oscar Wilde that’s awesome. Read that one. Or see it performed! It’s so good!

    • Jenny says:

      I do know how much you love Oscar Wilde! And yes, I agree with you about his sentences, though I’m surprised to hear you say it, since plot and character are so much more important to you than sentences as a rule. I’d love to see one of his plays. I’ll plan for it.

  8. Jeanne says:

    I don’t hate the movie of The Importance of Being Earnest as much as others, but have seen much better productions on stage (although I wasn’t that enchanted with the London group that’s been performing it since the 70’s, even though they made the lines about how old they are very funny). One way to make Wilde come alive is to read it out loud with a group of 4-5.

  9. Stefanie says:

    When I read the book a number of years ago it was not what I expected either. The language, particularly the epigrams, make the book in my opinion. It is interesting how many of them were familiar and I didn’t even know their origins!

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