Saturday, February 20, 2010

Book #1: The Picture of Dorian Gray

WARNING: If you don't already know the plot-line of this book and have any intention of reading it, I have included spoilers in this review!

"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful."
- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray Ch. 2

The first classic/non-fiction book on my list was The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I had considered reading it several years ago, but was put off my the morbid summary on the book jacket. It sounded like a thoroughly depressing book with little to redeem it. However, I found the book on CD at the library and decided to give it a try. After all, it was the only novel that the famous/infamous Wilde published, and it holds a special place in literary history. 

The book was beautifully written and full of intellectual discourses. It is probably better suited to actual book format than audiobook simply because there was so much to take in at once, so much information to grasp. One of the central characters, Lord Henry Wotton, has so many deep monologues that one can easily miss some very important psychological point. I had to rewind more than once to catch something. The descriptions were spot on, and made you feel that you were really there, sketching a picture (no pun intended) and letting your imagination fill in the blank spots. 

The plot is fairly straightforward and simple, but riveting nonetheless. The title character is a young man of unnatural beauty, imbued with uncanny charisma, who befriends an artist named Basil Hallward. The artist is immediately "infatuated" with Dorian, finding his friendship an artistic inspiration, making Basil produce the finest pieces of his career. As a side comment, The Picture does have some slight homoerotic undertones in that Basil practically worships Dorian, but the innocent "rose-white" boy is completely oblivious. 

Basil has a friend, the worldly-wise Lord Henry Wotton, a man who smokes too much and spouts off social heresies at length, who shows an interest in Dorian after seeing the stunning portrait Basil has painted of the young man. The two are subsequently introduced, after Basil pleads with Henry, saying that "He has a simple and a beautiful nature...Don't spoil him. Don't try to influence him. Your influence would be bad." Nevertheless, Henry does speak with the impressionable Dorian, who begins to soak up his hedonistic ideas like a sponge. In a few short minutes Lord Henry convinces the boy that youth and beauty are the only things in life that matter, and that he has these in abundance. When Dorian says that he doesn’t feel like that, Henry says, “ No, you don't feel it now.  Some day, when you are old and wrinkled and ugly… you will feel it terribly.” Dorian then looks at the gorgeous picture of himself that Basil has painted an begins to envy it fiercely, for it will always be young an he will grow old. He makes a wild statement, or prayer, that he would give everything if it were he himself who would never grow old and that the picture would age in his place.

Under the influence of Lord Henry’s teachings on living life to the full, Dorian Gray soon falls in love with an impoverished young actress, who shows real theatrical genius and proposes to the girl. She rapturously accepts. When Dorian brings his friends to see her act, however, she gives a pathetic performance, nothing like what he has seen in the past. Dorian is furious and, even after his fiancĂ©e explains to him that it is for love of him that she has lost her love of the stage, he insists that by acting so badly she has lost his love forever. He leaves her sobbing in her dressing room.

The next morning Lord Henry comes to tell Dorian that the girl has killed herself for love of him, and at first the young man is distraught, saying that he is her murderer, but soon Lord Henry has spun him around with cavalier talk till the young man decides that his marriage would never have worked anyway, and that it was selfish of her to take her own life; it wasn’t his fault at all. 

Something alarming has happened while this has been going on: the picture of Dorian Gray now has a sneer on its face where it had none before. At first Dorian is shocked at the change, but then it gradually dawns on him that his mad desire has come true and now every sin and year of age that he would normally have to bear on his countenance will be transferred to the picture. This gives him license to do practically anything he wants with no repercussions. “Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins--he was to have all these things.  The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame: that was all.”

Years pass and we see a thirty-something Dorian living a life of unparalleled debauchery, yet still presenting to the world the face of a pure, innocent young man. He lives a double life—frequenting opium dens one night and going to the opera the next. He is respected by many, suspected by some. He has all but lost contact with his old friend Basil, Dorian and Henry Wotton are still thick as thieves, however.

One night Basil Hallward visits Dorian, asking him to deny some nasty rumors that the artist has heard about his old friend. On the contrary, Dorian denies nothing, and instead offers to show Basil “his soul”. For that is how Gray views the picture, as his conscience, an aged, filthy thing that silently condemns the young hedonist. Upon viewing what was once his masterpiece, Basil is astounded and begins begging Dorian to ask God’s mercy and plead for forgiveness from Heaven, that his disgusting deeds might not be punished as they ought. Dorian is seized with a fit of rage. The worst part of his convoluted nature convinces him that his portrait’s painter is to blame for the black pit of sin that he has plunged himself into, and, seizing a knife, Dorian plunges it into his old friend Basil.

Dorian removes to his home in the country to enjoy some time with friends, and while he is there an old sin comes to haunt him. He is suddenly fearful of vengeance, frightened of his black spirit and the repercussions of his past actions. Even when the cause of fear is removed Dorian retains a small measure of guilt and tells Lord Henry that he has resolved to make up for past bad behavior by being good, and that he has already begun his redemption by one good deed. Henry scoffs at this resolution and says that the one good deed is nothing but vanity and a desire for new sensation on Gray’s part. 

After Lord Henry leaves, Dorian goes to his portrait to see if it looks any better for his good deed. He finds that the face is not changed. If anything, it now looks hypocritical. He decides that nothing can cleanse him save confession, but he could never confess. It is the picture that has brought him all this pain and it must be destroyed. Taking up the knife with which he killed Basil, Dorian stabs the portrait. Some time later someone goes up to the secluded room which holds the picture and finds Dorian lying dead on the ground, shriveled and disfigured with a knife in his heart, and in front of him sits a portrait of Gray as a young man with exquisite beauty intact.

This book was impacting in that it showed many sides of a life lived for pleasure, condemning it in the end. Along the way we see that even in a circumstance where sin has no physical consequences and leaves no blight upon a spiritual conscience, it can still ruin the life of someone dedicated to debauchery. Dorian wanted to commit every sin and indulge in every vice, pushing the envelope and living the life that his youth an beauty entitled him to live. But it was all for nothing in the end.   

In a letter, Wilde said the main characters of The Picture were reflections of himself: "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps". It is the story of three very different men and three very different paradigms, a fascinating study in human psychology.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. If anyone here has also read it, please leave a comment and tell me your thoughts. Have any of you seen the movie that came out in September? I would like to hear what you thought of it.

Tata for now!
Abby Rogers


  1. You have given us an excellent and very comprehensive account of this novel.I read it many years ago, and perhaps now I should find the time to reread it.

    I did not know that there is a new filmatisation of the book; someone made one a long time ago.

    Have you read the Ballad of Reading Gaol?
    Oscar Wilde wrote this autobiographical poem after he was released from gaol after serving time for homo-sexual offences.

  2. Thank you for the suggestion, Elinjo! I've requested "Gaol" at the Library. Maybe I will also read "The Importance of Being Earnest".... I'll certainly have my fill of Wilde before this project is done!

  3. Hullo Abby,

    It's a classic for sure. You spend a lot of the post recounting the plot but not much commenting on the characterisation and your reaction to what you have read. I think what you did write on that was interesting. I'd like to hear more......


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