As I sat on the bus the other day, thick in the midst of this novel, I heard a couple of first-year university students nattering behind me claim that they needed to read The Picture of Dorian Gray for their compulsory English class. “Oh hey! That’s what I’m reading too!” I thought gleefully, “They are in for a treat”. But then I heard it. I heard the disgust in their voices. “Man, that totally sucks. Just watch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s basically the same thing.”
The face I made when I heard this… I only wish you could have seen it. Because no. No no no. Nothing about that abomination of a film relates back to this novel in any sense, especially thematically. And while the themes of the novel may seem simple in this day and age, they are still incredibly powerful and worth more than even all the not-terrible-but-not-great movies that have been made about Dorian Gray. Yeah, I saw the recent film adaptation with Colin Firth and Ben Barnes, so I sort of knew what the whole thing was about before I got into it. But trust me when I say that that does not take away from the experience of reading the book in the slightest. Sure, you may know some of the twists and turns, but it’s the language and ideas that really sell Oscar Wilde’s work (and the best medium through which that comes across is definitely in writing). But enough nattering! What’s it all about anyways? That is, if you aren’t familiar with the mythos of Dorian Gray already.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, we find a talented painter, Basil Hallward, producing a masterpiece of a portrait of his new muse, Dorian Gray. Dorian is described as a well to-do, absolutely beautiful young man, whose appearance only accentuates the untainted purity of his youth. Basil Howard’s sly friend, Lord Henry Wotton, on the other hand, has a bit of mischief on his mind. Henry is full of so many grandiose ideas about life and the pleasures to be found in it, and finds those who do not take up experiences to be boring. Well then, why not try and plant a seed in young Dorian’s pure little mind in order to get him to take up some novel experiences and make him truly interesting? Dorian Gray is profoundly influenced by Lord Henry and his many words, and begins to learn of the fragility of his youth and beauty, leading him into vanity. His vanity is particularly noticed when Dorian expresses a jealousy that his portrait will always be younger than he is from this point on, leading him to wish that he could stay young forever, and his gorgeous painting will be the one to bear his inevitable diminishment in form.
Well, I suppose this is a serious case of “be careful what you wish for,” as Dorian finds himself never growing older. But upon learning more and more from Lord Henry about the ways of the world and the experiences of all the world’s pleasures, his portrait starts to grow hideous with each nasty or salacious act that Dorian performs. Scandal begins to follow Dorian wherever he goes, and he becomes ever more like Lord Henry in his views of the world, yet with the slightest hint of cruelty and selfishness in everything he does. While Lord Henry may like to lead young men down an interesting path, he is not without a heart down deep, and does appear to care for people, regardless of what he may say to their faces.
All in all, The Picture of Dorian Gray paints a portrait of vanity, corruption, and the influence that others may have on our lives and personalities. These may appear to be simple ideas, but Oscar Wilde is extremely effective in presenting them, in that many of Dorian’s scandals, unthinkable acts, and “sins” are not directly laid out for us. In this way, readers can decide for themselves what a true mar of the soul is, leading the consumption of this work to feel like a more personal experience. Or, at least, this slight removal of specific explanations leaves the novel open for more individual connections to be made. How exactly all this “magic” with the portrait even started to happen is also left a bit vague: is it simply a case of wish fulfillment, or did Dorian full on sell his soul to the Devil in order to stay young forever? (I’ve been working my way through “Supernatural” lately, so my mind is inclined to go with the latter, but that’s not to say it’s the truth.)
As I mentioned earlier, one of the greatest strengths of Oscar Wilde’s writing is the beautiful language he employs. There is a smart flourish at every turn. If there is a problem with the novel, however, it also comes in the form of Wilde’s use of language; every now and again, after clipping along at a sensible pace, I found certain passages to just become bogged down with the stylish flaunting of words. Typically this comes in the form of Lord Henry going on and on in cryptic little epigrams about the way of the world, which become excessive at specifically two points in the novel. I just wanted to say, “Chill out for a second! We get it; you’re really clever and have all these pompous ideas about everything. Can’t we just get on with it already?” Once you get past that slight trudging, however, the seemingly straightforward story is breezy and stunning. At least, that’s how I felt about it.
Oh, and there is a little matter of characters sitting down: they are constantly described as “flinging” themselves into couches and chairs. That’s a bit overdramatic, don’t you think? I don’t know about you, but whenever I read that I picture a series of soap-opera stars hamming it up on set. I’m not really sure why, to be honest…
But to wrap this meandering review up, I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a very enjoyable read, regardless of any preconceptions or knowledge I had of the story beforehand. Oscar Wilde’s style of writing may not be for everyone, but if you enjoy tales that are shiny and beautiful on the surface, with something darker lurking underneath, then I would definitely recommend taking this one in.
(This review can also be found on my blog.)
Oh God, that League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comment killed a little bit of my soul. But this is a great review of a great novel!