Friday, January 28, 2011

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — 178 pgs


Book CoverWhen we first meet Dorian Gray he is a beautiful and innocent young man with the world at his feet. Lovely beyond compare, he's the darling of society and just budding into the man that he will one day become. But when his great friend and upcoming artist Basil Hallward decides to use him for the subject of a painting, everything changes for him. First off, he meets the irrepressibly cynical Lord Henry, who fills his head with narcissistic and negative thoughts, and finds that he is charmed to the bone with Lord Henry's misanthropy. When the picture of the Dorian is finally unveiled, everyone agrees that Hallward has captured both the charming beauty and fleeting youth in the painting, and Dorian, who is already becoming more worldly through Lord Henry's influence, makes a terrible wish. Dorian decides he wants to be young and lovely forever and that the only sign of his aging and decrepitude would present itself on the painting that Hallward has just produced. His bargain will change his life and the lives around him forever. At first blush, Dorian is little changed, but after short time, he begins to mire his once pure soul in devilish pursuits and fiendish pastimes. Being a dilettante is not enough for Dorian, and as he begins to sully his soul and reputation, Lord Henry is ever at his side, egging him on to more and more misogynistic and nefarious preoccupations. Just as he had wished, Dorian's visage continues to be unstained and lovely, while his portrait begins to turn vile and misshapen. In fact, Dorian is so consumed with the painting that he has it removed to a remote corner of his home, and as he becomes more and more invested in a life filled with debauchery, he studies the painting with growing glee. One day Dorian finally crosses the line with his behavior and comes to see that his soul and mind have been extremely warped. But the bargain he made will not be easy to break, and the frightened Dorian Gray must finally pay the price for all his wicked deeds. In this penetratingly astute novel, Oscar Wilde gives the reader a look into the seared soul of a man condemned to live a life of rare beauty on the outside and frightening corruption on the inside. A life that will have bitter and horrendous consequences for not only Dorian, but those surrounding him as well.

This year I decided to make it a point to read at least one classic piece of literature each month. I started this resolution with Dorian Gray because the blogosphere has been all atwitter about this book in the last few months, and this culminated with Jill's Dueling Monsters. The two books up for consideration were this book and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with The Picture of Dorian Gray emerging as the winner by a close margin. When my uncle gave me a copy for Christmas, I knew the fates had aligned things for me and this would be my first foray into my classic-a-month project. I had expected this to be a story that stayed mostly on the surface and was very surprised to find that Wilde goes to great lengths to create the kind of tale that reverberates through all life's incongruities and passions, and creates in Dorian a man who turns so radically from an innocent into a monster.

I definitely think I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that Lord Henry was a significant impetus for the change in Dorian. Though it's Dorian who makes the wish, it's Lord Henry who is his tutor in all things gross and savage. When Lord Henry first meets Dorian, he sees his beauty and innocence as a great well in which to throw his poison, and delights in breaking the lad's composure and peace of mind. All throuought the book, Dorian seeks Lord Henry's advice and approval, and the more Dorian grows into his evilness, the more willing Lord Henry is to pollute him further. Lord Henry has an opinion on everything and most of his opinions are savage and shocking. He finds life's purity boring and believes one should live only for the senses at the expense of the soul. His opinion of women is abysmal and his outlook on society is one of repugnance. Dorian soaks up these opinions like a sponge and comes to espouse all the things that Lord Henry stands for, becoming, in essence, all of Lord Henry's putrid ideas made flesh. Lord Henry exposes Dorian to a piece of literature that invades his soul, and Dorian believes it's this book that changes him, when in reality, it's Lord Henry's influence that has been changing him all along.

There's a great deal of philosophy here, and most of it is rather sardonic and pessimistic. It's within Dorian that these beliefs are placed, and within him where they flower to become a stain on his ever-consumed soul. Man as a creature of habit and addictions, man as a repository for suffering and indulgence, and man as a terrible monster of conformity and egotism. These are all subjects that are dealt with deeply in this book, and as Dorian learns these things, his mind begins to warp into a cynical shell that bears very little resemblance to what he had once been. Deception, lies and connivance take precedence over love, honor and respect, and Wilde creates a verisimilitude of human folly and behavior within his narrative that's designed to show not only the weakness of humanity but the pits that one can fall into when the soul is left to languish with unsavory company. The book also deals strongly with the hedonism that can arise within a man who lives solely for pleasure and experience. Though Dorian is fascinated by all that pleasure can bring him, he wants none of the consequences that this may entail, and because of the bargain he strikes, he goes through life untouched by the changes and disfigurement that all humans suffer.

Another important subject to raise is the duality of Dorian Gray. He is admittedly a hedonist and concerned with earthly pleasures, but his outward appearance, and one that he struggles to maintain, is one of grace and refinement. As he continues to debase and sully himself further, he never lets go of his outward mode of composure and togetherness. This is really one of the most interesting things about the book: the extreme divergence between the lightness that is exposed on the outside and the darkness that is dominating within. The painting that is part of the Faustian bargain is the only manifestation of the evils that are going on within this strange man, and as it's hidden away, the rest of the world can never discover the sham. He manages to hide his soul's deformity from everyone, but cannot, in the end, hide it from himself.

I thought this was an exceedingly robust and interesting read, and I admit that Wilde has a way of capturing prose that is not only elegant, but also beautifully consuming. It was a very accessible read for a classic and I enjoyed it so much, it makes me feel hopeful about my new resolution. It's a book that stirred a deep passion within my soul, because as much as I enjoyed it, I couldn't help but see that we are all a little like Dorian Gray, and though we may not indulge ourselves with as much fierce abandon into the heady enjoyments of the world, there is a spark of him in each one of us. A greatly intriguing read. Highly recommended.

18 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Fantastic review Heather! I never read this book but I saw the movie a million years ago and it made such an impact on me I never forgot it. It's just such a wonderful premise. I should probably read the book too one of these days!

Jenny said...

I'm so glad you liked this (and wrote such an inspiring review) LOL. I started to read this for Jill's challenge and I don't know why I thought I'd have time to fit something like that in with my reading rut. So I never finished it. As short as it is. I did think the writing was beautiful. I am looking forward to returning to this one day because I think I might be missing out on something if I don't!

Steph said...

I love pretty much everything Oscar Wilde ever did - he was so witty! - and this book is no exception. I remember reading it when I was quite young, and I was utterly captivated by the language and the scope of the story. This is definitely one I need to reread!

Trisha said...

I loved this book so much when I read it last spring that I actually ordered it as the primary novel for my Intro to Lit class this school year. It's just so full of discussable ideas.

Zibilee said...

Steph,
He was witty, wasn't he? I just relished his wordplay and his perceptions of society. He really is an amazing talent, and I really want to explore more of his work.

Jenny,
You really do have to read this one. It's an incredible reading experience!

Rhapsodyinbooks,
I haven't seen the movie, but now I really, really want to!

TheBookGirl said...

Glad to see that your classics resolution started off so well :)
I saw the movie of this many years ago, but never read the book. Your wonderful review has made me put this on my list to read this year. The premise is such a chilling one, in part I think because as you point out, it may strike a too familiar chord in each of us.

Suko said...

Wow! I need to reread Dorian Gray, and then reread your amazing review. I read it so many years ago that I didn't have enough life experience yet to fully appreciate its genius (although I enjoyed it). Your observations are nothing short of remarkable here!

Jenny said...

I'm thrilled you like this. Wilde's prose is a bit purple sometimes, so I can understand how Dorian Gray is not everyone's favorite, but I LOVE it when people enjoy it. Oscar Wilde wrote like a dream. Being in jail wrecked him. I always get sad when I start thinking about how much more he could have written.

Jenners said...

As usual, you have written a wonderful review. I wanted to read this when I saw all the Dueling Monsters posts but had forgotten about it a bit. Thanks for reminding me ... and inspiring me ... to read it.

Nymeth said...

I'm very glad to hear you enjoyed it! I really did as well back when I read it, but that was so long ago that I feel I should revisit it.

Amy said...

Interested to hear your opinions on this! I may have to read it myself one of these days - so glad you enjoyed it.

softdrink said...

Yay...I'm glad this turned out to be a winner for you! So what classic is up next?

Vasilly said...

I'm reading the comments and now I'm starting to think I'm one of the last bloggers who haven't read it! Heather, you made this book sound so amazing. I think I have it on my e-reader.

Zibilee said...

Jill,
I think I am going to go with A Tale of Two Cities for February, and Jane Eyre for March, since that's when the movie comes out.

Vasilly,
Though I had a paper copy of this book, I read mine on the e-reader as well, as I was traveling, and it seemed to work out well. I also think that the Kindle version was really reasonably priced, which is one of the reasons that I grabbed it.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

Awesome review. I've wanted to read this book for a while, but I haven't found a copy yet. :) I'm so glad you enjoyed it, and your review made me want to read it even more.

Personally, I think Dorian is a very interesting character, and I think he's an heightened version of the difference between our inner and outer selves.

Lisa said...

I listened to this one a year or so ago and didn't really enjoy it. I'm wondering if that was because whenever I'm listening, I'm always trying to do something else and I just missed things. I should probably read it since I do enjoy Wilde.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

smart resolution! I have yet to read this piece of classic literature, but it's been on my "list" forever, it seems.

I've been (so far) avoiding reading challenges this year, but your one-classic-a-month approach might be something I could do .... unofficially, of course!

Aarti said...

So sorry for how long it's taken me to comment on this post! I have heard so many good things about Dorian Gray, and most say it's as you do- very intriguing. I think the premise and over-arcing "theme" would really interest me, too. Great review!

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