With his life spanning the later half of the 19th Century, Oscar Wilde wrote in a wide variety of mediums, ranging from poetry to plays and from essays to fairy tales, and one novel. His fairy tales are arguably the most accessible of his writings, and as is the case with fairy tales revolve around some moral theme being conveyed. For instance in ‘The Selfish Giant’ a giant places a wall around his garden to keep the children out, and thus spring never comes on his garden, causing him to realize the result of his selfishness. Similarly in ‘The Star-Child’ a beautiful boy is forced to come to terms with his prideful cruelty.
The Picture of Dorian Gray can be seen as a continuing of this fairy tale manner of writing, except in novel form (though even then the novel is fairly short).
The story begins in the art-studio of Basil, a painter who is putting the final touches on what is said to be his most greatest painting. With him is Lord Henry, a shallow obscurantist of high society who upon hearing of the figure in the portrait desires to meet with him – the figure being that of a young and impressionable Dorian Gray. The two become friends and eventually the philosophy of Lord Henry begins to have its affect on him.
In the words of Lord Henry, this amounts to “if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream–I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal–to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be… The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”
Throughout the course of the novel Dorian comes to embrace this ideal, giving into his own inner nature: “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… For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul. “
Thus Dorian Gray enters into a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of scenario with himself where he resolves to do away with his conscience – where Mr. Hyde reveals the truth of Dr Jekyll, the portrait comes to reveal the truth of Dorian Gray, and before the end he must come to face that truth.
The book is enjoyable, and at around 180pgs can be read in an evening. Like his fairy tales it comes away with a moral, though modern renditions of the character seem to miss this point.
–“You know how I love secrecy. It is the only thing that can make
modern life wonderful or mysterious to us. The commonest thing is
delightful if one only hides it.”
-“Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.”
-“Ah! in what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that
the portrait should bear the burden of his days, and he keep the
unsullied splendour of eternal youth! All his failure had been due to
that. Better for him that each sin of his life had brought its sure
swift penalty along with it. There was purification in punishment.
Not “Forgive us our sins” but “Smite us for our iniquities” should be
the prayer of man to a most just God.”
I don’t believe I have any real criticisms or complaints about this book. I do have to say that I greatly disliked the character of Lord Henry, and the book can be read much more quickly if you skip all his dialogue after his first few rants. If you’ve read one of his conversations you’ve read them all; the basic model is that he says something absurd or outlandish and then the other characters alternately gasp and fawn over his words.
Every now and then this is interrupted by him saying something exceptionally bland, such as remarking that “They are both simply forms of imitation” when Basil makes the statement that “Love is a more wonderful thing than art.” Or by making some contradiction in terms, such as “I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life.”
Little nuances of character stand out, such as Henry and Dorian constantly remarking about the shallowness of other characters while demonstrating a pointed shallowness throughout the book. Of course this isn’t a criticisms of the book or the writing, it is likely in fact a praise of the writing, that he can create such a distasteful character.
This book cover is an important lesson in advertising: of course it’s his most famous novel, it’s his only novel.