The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde. 3031 lines, Kindle. 1891.

After the Christmas holiday, I packed all my warmest clothes and headed north to Canada for a snowshoeing fitness retreat. The packing guide recommended you take ‘plenty of reading material’ for downtime. No tv or newspaper at Fat Camp. I follow directions quite carefully and decided to peruse the Kindle store and download several books in preparation for my trip (my trusty Gen-1 Kindle doesn’t download beyond the US border). Little did I know, downtime would be spent fighting off the thrall of sweet slumber or soothing my weary body in the hot tub. I ended up reading a totally of zero pages of anything (unless you count that ‘SkyMall’ catalog)…

…but with my reading aspirations at an all time high, I downloaded The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1) because I have decided that I need to read more of the classics and 2) because it was free–huzzah!

Before reading the book, I had general knowledge of the basic story, but my expectations and the actual novel had little in common.

The book opens in the Basal Hallward’s art studio. He is describing a most fascinating young man, Dorian Gray, to his friend Lord Henry. When Lord Henry insists on meeting Dorian Gray, Basal resists, fearing Henry will corrupt Dorian’s perfect young innocence. Unfortunately for Basal, Dorian Gray appears right then to sit for a painting.

The conversation between Henry and Gray that transpires whilst Basal paints sets up the novel’s main motif–Henry argues that a life of pleasure, beauty, and hedonism is a more worthy pursuit than a plain life. Indeed Basal’s fears were well-founded and Dorian Gray latches on to Lord Henry’s paradoxical charms and wayward beliefs. As I continued reading, I couldn’t help but think of the good angel, bad angel image. Basal urged Dorian to stay whole and innocent, whilst Lord Henry admittedly wanted to be the corrupting influence on Dorian’s young life. In the end Basal can only reflect Dorian’s evilness, much like the portrait can only reflect Dorian’s ugly and corrupted soul.

Had the novel been more plot driven, I probably would have enjoyed it much more. However, Lord Henry is an irksome character. He pontificates on the New Hedonism and pursuing a life of beauty and sensation. I felt that these thoughts weren’t genuine of Henry’s character, and rather, represented Wilde and his person belief system. I am not a huge fan of writers thrusting themselves into their work. I appreciate noticing small personal nuances that authors incorporate in their novels, but I don’t enjoy being beaten over the head with an author’s dogma. I decided not to judge before I knew a little about Wilde’s personal life. My research, however, proved correct. Wilde was all about aestheticism, an artistic movement in Victorian England that, as far as I can tell, focused on experiencing decadence and beautiful flourishes. I also discovered Wilde was gay, which explains the homosexual undertones of Basal’s description of Gray. Apparently in the second edition of Dorian Gray, Wilde edited out several additional homoerotic elements of the novel. I actually wonder if Dorian had male as well as female relationships in the original presentation. In the version I read, I thought there were references to Dorian having homosexual relationships, though extremely vague. As Basal put it, Dorian had a corrupting effect on male youths.

Another aspect of the novel I found off-putting was Wilde’s insistence on illustrating Dorian’s habits and decent into decadence with long lists. Lists of flowers Dorian thought were beautiful and why, lists of the jewelry Dorian wore or dead nobles wore and who gifted which jewels to whom. There is also several pages of Dorian examining paintings of his ancestors and reading which characteristics these ancestors passed to Dorian based on various elements present in the paintings.

Overall, I wasn’t thrilled with the amount of description between plot-moving events, but exciting parts of the novel were truly thrilling and especially racy for Victorian writing.

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4 responses to “The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

  1. Count me in as not a fan of dogma being over-present in novels. The story is a mere vehicle for presenting ideas. Never really been interested in this book despite it being well-known. I am trying to read more classics in general though.

  2. Have you read any Thomas Hardy? I love him. Same period-ish as Wilde, but no lecturing via fiction. John Irving actually reminds me a lot of Hardy…anyways, I mention him because I bought 6 books by Hardy for $0.99 on my Kindle.

  3. Hi Erin! I’m really enjoying reading your insightful reviews. Sometimes I wish I had a Kindle but I can’t seem to make myself spend the money. I too recently read The Picture of Dorian Grey wanting to read more of the classics myself. I actually rather enjoyed this book. Although I agree with you that the ongoing lists are tedious, and Wilde was indeed preaching, I feel like he used these discritions as a tool to point out how so much decadence and oveindulgence in pleasure, which at first seems ideal, soon becomes empty and meaningless which in turn only lead Dorian to pursue meaning/entertainment in other subjects and pastimes to no avail. I guess what struck me most about this book was the idea of beauty – envied by all – and the hollow, ugly, emptiness that lives inside that beautiful exterior. Mind you it’s been months since I read this so my memory might be a little fuzzy.

    • Olinda!!! Welcome! Thanks for your thoughts on Dorian Gray.

      Now that you point it out, I do have to agree with your assessments of Wilde’s lists. I never looked at it that way. As the reader I get bored with these meaningless lists, but Dorian must have also become bored with living this frivolously, hence his switch to new and different lists (flowers, tapestries, paintings, gems and jewels). It would also follow that the more presitgious or expensive habits, such as the jewelry, stuck with him for longer periods of time, perhaps less because they interested him and more because they were expensive and showy, his interest only enhanced his grandeur and decadence.

      Weirdly, I spent much of the book irked at Wilde for using ‘picture’ as opposed to ‘portrait’ in his title.

      I hope you stop by more often!

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