The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This one, you may remember, was one of the titles I was challenged to read last year by my work colleague BD, after he had enjoyed it. I have only just got around to reading it earlier this year after finding this copy with a very attractive cover picture. I knew of the story but had never read the book, Wilde's only novel, and was keen to do so.
Set during the Fin de Siecle high society in London, the artist, Basil Hallward has been painting the young Dorian Gray's portrait, a young and very beautiful youth circulating the aristocratic scene. Basil has become quite obsessed by Dorian because of his looks, and also his innocence and naivete. On the last sitting for the painting Lord Henry Wotton arrives at the house, an enticing socialite who thrives on excessive experience and aestheticism, being rich and therefore able to do so. His life of indulgence has bred a cynical and manipulative man and on meeting the fresh faced Dorian, he entertains himself by determining to introduce him to a more hedonistic lifestyle and viewpoint, a thrilling prospect for the young man, and against every beseechment from Basil to leave him uncorrupted. They talk about beauty and youthfulness, and in a moment of overwhelming madness after seeing his perfection in Basil's painting, Dorian wishes that the painting would take on the ageing and ravishments of life so that he can keep his youth.
"How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June... If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that - for that - I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in this whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!" (Ch2 p29)
Lord Henry's influence shapes the young Dorian's life from then on, and each selfish act is recorded in the painting. Dorian first notices a sneer at the corner of the mouth after he has cruelly let down a young woman and realises that the request has been granted, the picture will record his life while his looks will remain untarnished. This knowledge, a form of redemption against anything he may wish for, alongside Lord Henry's encouragement to experience every pleasure regardless of consequence, leads Dorian on a very dark and shady path, ending in a life of depravity and selfish disregard. The painting, now hidden in a locked room, grows hideous and deformed, while Dorian remains unaged and beautiful. The consequences are far reaching, on those around him, but also his own torments as he swivels out of control altogether.
There are many lessons in this novel, warnings of excess, the preoccupation of image, although Wilde denied any didacticism. Being a supporter of the Aesthetic movement, he believed that art was useless and should only be admired for it's own sake. There is a lot to support this movement in the novel (and indeed in his other works) because it deals with the importance of beauty, and certainly it is Dorian's looks that allow a certain amount of acceptance despite the rumours that surround him. It is only those who are immediately affected by his behaviour who shun him, but no one actively calls him to count amongst the fashionable and the rich. Wealth and good looks seem to provide him with an exemplary pass.
Cleverly, and enticingly, we never find out about some of the acts that have led various former friends (and their sisters's) to avoid him, never speak of him, and in some cases bow out of their mutual circles in a form of escape. This is most profound in the contents of a piece of paper passed to a former close friend in order to blackmail him into providing a gross and terrible service to get Dorian out of a messy situation. We never find out what is written, and it is all the more powerful in it's absence. What on earth had occured between them? It is never spoken of, but you know it will have been indecent, amoral, and probably illegal, with the other man possibly not knowing what he had got himself into before it was too late.
I also loved the details that betray Wilde's own attitudes. Basil's fawning over Dorian's perfect beauty reaches levels of eroticim and idolatory that are way beyond any formal friendship. It is obvious that Basil has been lying awake fantacising about the young man. Then there is the interesting portrayal of women. There are virtually no realistic women characters in it. The young actress, Sybil Vane, is given the most floor time, but comes over as a caracature out of a cheap romantic melodrama, all swoons and grand gestures. Other women are portrayed as pretty furniture, slightly batty and unaware of the goings-on that surround them, only serving to plump up the personalities of the men in their life (probably quite truthful for the times). Lord Henry's observation of the female sex sets the scene.
"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." (Ch 4, p 53)
Wilde's deliberate portrayals of the female characters serves to question whether he wanted to bring attention to their disregard in society at the time, or did he find them as tedious as his male characters seem to?
The first few chapters are very wordy, endless conversations between the three men, but it was after this that the plot drove it forward, becoming morally lower and lower than ever imagined, with quite a few nasty twists along the way. There is one particularly unforgettable scene that remains vividly seated in my imagination for its downright ickyness. As I say, a lot of it is left to the reader to imagine, and therefore is a lot worse than any book that provides the details.
Likewise the morality of the book goes in circles. There is no question as to Dorian's actions being bad, but what drives it is less clear, and the depths that he reaches, providing internal misery and torment in equal measure with indifference and disregard. I never knew at any time why Dorian grew into such a dislikeable monster, but I did enjoy reading about him.
A brilliant classic, with an endlessly questionable narrative, full of nuance and polarity, providing eons of discussion afterwards.
LitLovers provide a Dorian Gray reading guide with discussion questions for reading groups.
If you are ever in Paris, I recommend a visit to Pere Lachaise cemetary, where Oscar Wilde's lipstick kissed tomb is amongst many other amazing monuments to the famous and artistic personalities interred there.
Finally, on being asked about any autobiographical conotations in his novel, Wilde had noted in a letter,
"Basil Hallwood is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be - in other ages, perhaps."


The Well Read Fish said...

I hate to admit it, but I'm never one for Lit. Classics. This novel is an exception. Around 8th grade I became obsessed with this book! I should really pick it up again as it's been ages since I've read it.

Leah said...

Hi there Well Read Fish,thanks for stopping by. I am really glad that I got around to reading it too.

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