Saturday, 23 April 2011

Thoughts on 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' by Oscar Wilde

Ordinarily, when I finish a book, I post in my usual 'review' format. But how do you review a book that is not only extremely well known but extremely popular? I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that this book is worthy of your time - that much should by now be a given.

I loved this book as much as I had hoped I would and happily add my small voice to the cacophony of recommendations.

Since having finished the book, I learned that the version read today is different to that originally published - Wilde was criticised for the 'homoerotic overtones' of his work and apparently plugged in an extra six chapters in an effort not to shroud the overtones but make them relevant. "Provide background" is, I think, how it was referred to. I agree with Wilde's preface though:
"Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault...

There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all
"
A wonderful riposte.

The Story

As I am sure you know, Basil Hallward paints the work of his life in a portrait of the achingly beautiful Dorian Gray. In an almost petulant moment, Dorian, having realised just how good-looking he really is, wishes that he could retain his youth and beauty forever. But, as it turns out, eternal allure is not all it's cracked up to be...

As Dorian becomes more and more under the sway of the irritatingly verbose Lord Henry, he also comes to the realisation that his "wish" has been granted and the portrait displayed in his home is bearing the brunt of his abuse of his soul. The difference between the eager and naive Dorian who falls utterly in love with an equally naive and charming actress and the bitter Dorian who blackmails an old friend into destroying the corpse of an older friend is striking but not as ludicrous as it sounds. The evil seeps in gradually and Dorian's fall is slow and painful to 'watch'. Like when you set off walking up a hill, look round and realise just how high you've climbed...

Some thoughts...

An unusual aspect for me was how readily Dorian gives up his grip on morality. Is the only reason people don't roam around drug dens, brothels and indulge in the odd murder that we're concerened our visages will reflect our soul? I'd like to think not...

Regardless, I was fascinated by Dorian's ruminations on the nature of the soul throughout his journey and by his progressing anger at Basil for "cursing" him with a face that won't reflect his depravity. Almost as though he feels like he should be dark, just because he can. Driven by Lord Henry Wotton's influence, Dorian endlessly pursues sensual gratification with a wanton disregard of the destruction he leaves in his wake. The duplicity is, of course, disturbing but somewhat deliciously so. One constant is Dorian's immaturity - possibly because he never has the need to think through his actions. So long as he doesn't get caught out, he can be as base as he wants and swan elegently back through high society.

The writing and tone is flawless. Dorian is a wonderfully developed character and I couldn't get enough of Wilde's portrayal of such a unique man. The ending is superb and the edge of insanity is as subtly and woven into the tale as everything else. I found this not only to be quite thought-provoking but a wonderfully sinister story with just a few glimmers of light and nobility.

Dorian Gray in film...


I must also admit that I have seen the recent film adaptation. It reflects Dorian's seedy descent well but largely focuses on his 'pleasures' with a hasty recognition of his decreasing mental stability tagged on at the point where Basil tries to intervene. Rather than the novel's grim conclusion, the film diverts off and adds an utterly unnecessary 'romance'. As always, I recommend reading the novel first - it provides a psychological background to the otherwise superficial film and I can imagine that the film would be fairly hollow without.

Overall: This is one of those classics that is classic for a reason - it's brilliantly corrupt and devilishly gothic and...well, just read it!