Reviewing a classic: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray(1891) is a classic instance of the aestheticism of the late 19th century’s English literature. The maxim of aestheticism “art for art’s sake” is reflected in the opening of the novel, which specifies art’s aim to “reveal the art and conceal the artist.”For greater emphasis, Wilde defines the artist as free of ethical sympathies and morbidity. Even books are seen as only “well written” or “badly written” and not as moral or amoral. Following this prelude on art and beauty, Wilde weaves a plot that explores the issue to its core.


Synopsis:

Three main characters, Dorian Gray, Sir Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward are being introduced while lingering in the studio of Hallward, a painter. The painter has developed a sort of infatuation with the striking beauty of young Dorian and is completing a portrait that he feels is his best work to date. Amidst the final stages of the painting, Lord Wotton engages in conversation with the two, and imparts as much of his cynicism and seemingly shallow values as he can on the impressionable Gray. Being somewhat indoctrinated with Wotton’s idea of “beauty before all else”, Gray wishes that the painting of his likeness would age in his place, so he might retain the looks that have won him so much admiration and favor. This wish somehow comes true and it would become a great regret for Mr. Gray.

Over the coming chapters, Gray meets Sibyl Vane, a very young, beautiful and very poor Shakespearean actress. Though Sibyl only knows him as ”Prince Charming” the two of them seem to be madly in love and plan to run off together. The sweet, wholesome Sibyl discusses her engagement with her family. Because her mother is indebted to the theatre manager, Mr. Isaacs, for fifty pounds, she is against the marriage unless Dorian is wealthy; they do not know that he is. Sibyl’s angry brother, James, is leaving for Australia, but he vows to kill Dorian if he wrongs his sister in any way. James also confronts his mother about gossip he has heard — that his mother and deceased father never married, which Mrs. Vane admits is true.

Oscar Wilde in New York
Oscar Wilde in New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, Dorian invites his friends along to what will be Sibyl’s last performance before leaving to be with him and her focus on her own love produces a dismal portrayal of her role as Juliet. With his love of beauty, Dorian suddenly becomes disgusted with the girl and her poor performance and breaks her heart backstage that very night. Tragically, the loss is too much for Sibyl to bear and we find out very shortly after she was found dead later that night, presumably she committed suicide. Dorian awakes the next morning regretting his actions against Sibyl but is informed of her recent end by Lord Wotton. His despair is quickly averted by Wotton’s assurances that this was just a passing love and that beauty and pleasure should be his only pursuits. This would be Dorian’s last love and over the next 18 years he leads a hedonistic life guided by an unnamed novel (a yellow book) given to him by Wotton.

Later, though still not showing his age thanks to his wish for his portrait to bear the years and consequences of his actions, Dorian begins to realize that his life somehow has not been of the quality it should have been. Brought to a head by a visit from Basil, the painter, Dorian is shocked by the effects his lifestyle has had on the once beautiful portrait of his. In the process of unveiling it to Basil, Dorian comes to blame this on him, the originator of the work, and murders Basil in secret. Using blackmail against a former friend, he is able to cover up his act, and visits an opium den for relief from his guilt. While there, by chance a whore refers to him as “Prince Charming” which is overheard by James Vane (Sibyl’s brother). In a moment of irony, James is convinced not to kill Dorian by being asked to look at him in the light and assess whether the man who broke his sister’s heart 18 years ago could possibly appear so youngful and fresh. Effectively saved by the very curse that lead him down this path, Dorian lives on.

After returning to London, Dorian becomes paranoid that James is stalking him. He believes he saw him outside his window and later, while out in the country, discovers it was James who was accidentally shot by hunters. Believing he is safe now, Dorian sets out to turn over a new leaf and live a better life, his first act being to spare a local girl the heartbreak of being in love with him. Dorian hopes this new act of “mercy” will show in the portrait, a lessening of the horrible image it now bears. Much to his dismay, the image is even worse, causing to doubt his own motives in the act. Believing his only absolution would be public confession to his acts, including Basil’s murder, which he cannot bring himself to do, Dorian tries to destroy the reflection of his life, the painting. In an rage, he stabs a knife into the painting, but is discovered in the locked room with the knife in his heart and the painting returned to it’s original form. Dorian’s body is now withered and aged, and is only identified after careful examination.

My impressions:

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a thought-provoking novel that vacillates between ambling, seemingly directionless conversation and a riveting narrative thread. Oscar Wilde has created an amusing tale that does not end very happily but ends beautifully. Still the plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray, if seen apart from the wit and epigrams of Lord Henry is serious and, at times, even somber.

The Picture of Dorian Gray addresses more than one theme. The primary appeal of the subject of beauty, as it appears to eyes, is the main focus of the novel. Wilde reveals the tenderness of self-love, or narcissism, which sometimes fails to find an object outside itself. Dorian’s beauty, unlike Basil’s art and Lord Henry’s social status, is more vulnerable to decay with time.

But it is not this weakness of beauty to age that brings the disaster upon our protagonist. It is the consciousness of the owner of beauty to his own wealth that triggers the boundless fear of perishing–fear that causes his doom. Unlike Lord Henry’s ease about his rank, Dorian’s angst about the ephemeral nature of his looks is shown as the true enemy of a person’s self.

The philosophical boundaries of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray are too deep to track to their ends. The novel addresses the issue of self-concept as portrayed in art. Further, it connects a person’s emotional response to his/her own image. While Dorian remains young and beautiful, the mere sight of an aging picture of him is unbearably painful because it reminds him of his own weaknesses and fate. The portrait begins to transform itself into the image of his soul. Dorian Gray turns himself into a work of art by making a Faustian pact that ensures that he is endlessly desirable and always youthful. It is his heart that withers so no, it doesn’t bring him happiness.

Let me also state the obvious: Wilde’s command of the English language is almost unparalleled in recent literature. His prose is almost visibly sparkling with gems and gilded bric-a-brac; reading Dorian Gray is like watching an all-out, massively expensive period film. Just take a look at this, the second sentence:

From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. (1.2)”

You might wonder whether it is still readable. Well, I was able to read my copy of the novel, about 260 pages long, in two evenings. Even though the story was written and set in a time when people drove around in horse-drawn carriages and used candles more often than light bulbs I didn’t find it dated. It is about sin and vanity, about friendship that fall by the wayside, about life choices and their consequences. These things never go out of fashion but plenty of contemporary artists and writers have problems with presenting them in an interesting way. In my humble opinion they should read Dorian Gray and take a leaf out of Mr. Wilde’s book.

Dorian destroys a lot of lives and one of the saddest parts of the book is when he murders his close friend, Basil Hallward, the only man Dorrian let see the grotesque portrait that once was a masterpiece – the picture of his true self. It proves how corrupt and how lonely Dorian has become. When, overcome with a sudden loathing for Basil and perhaps also for his own weaknesses and faults, Dorian sticks a knife in his friend’s neck he kind of sacrifices him in front of that painting, a monument to his own evilness. It was as breathtaking as if you witnessed somebody sacrificing their own humanity.

Final verdict:
A book definitely worth reading and rereading. Intelligent, funny, sparkling prose dealing with serious topics. Now pray, tell me, do you know of any good movie adaptations? 

Quotes: 

“The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play.”

“An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them.”

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 (…)”

“You are a wonderful creation. You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know.”

“I hope that Dorian Gray will make this woman his wife, passionately adore her for six months, and then suddenly become fascinated by someone else. He would be a wonderful study.”

“My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.” (haha!)

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