Breaking news: I picked up a “classic” willingly–and I really enjoyed it! Though it was clearly written around the turn of the twentieth century, The Picture of Dorian Gray’s gothic and haunting plot has a timeless quality that ended up appealing to my very modern tastes.
In this celebrated work, his only novel, Wilde forged a devastating portrait of the effects of evil and debauchery on a young aesthete in late-19th-century England. Combining elements of the Gothic horror novel and decadent French fiction, the book centers on a striking premise: As Dorian Gray sinks into a life of crime and gross sensuality, his body retains perfect youth and vigor while his recently painted portrait grows day by day into a hideous record of evil, which he must keep hidden from the world. For over a century, this mesmerizing tale of horror and suspense has enjoyed wide popularity. It ranks as one of Wilde’s most important creations and among the classic achievements of its kind.
I was sucked in by the premise of this book: a guy gets a picture painted of him, and the portrait ages instead of him. Meanwhile, English society ignores his sinful nature because of his ridiculous good looks and ageless quality. I was ready to read it but hesitant of it being a “classic,” but my mom said she thought I would enjoy it anyway, so I picked it up.
I’m glad I decided to read it.
The characters in this book are fascinating. It is hard to say who exactly is the main character, because in the beginning, most of the narration is from the viewpoint of Lord Henry, the proverbial devil on young Dorian Gray’s shoulder. I loved and hated Lord Henry simultaneously. His dialogue was quick-paced and rhythmic, but I’m fairly certain that everything he ever said contradicted itself.
Had I read this book for school, I would have hated how little sense Henry’s grand declarations about art and human nature made, because I would have been forced to try to make sense of his views. Reading this book outside of the school setting, I was able to simply let the ridiculous senselessness of his speeches wash over me, and I ended up loving his presence in the book. Technically, Lord Henry is a horrible person, but his jovial character and amusing speech pattern made me unable to hate him.
About a third of the way into the novel, the narration refocuses on the title character, Dorian Gray. Passionate to the point of melodrama, half charming angel and half sinister devil, I was fascinated by Dorian. He definitely did not start out evil, though just as assuredly, he ended up evil. By the end of the book, you are trapped inside the head of a madman, but he never fully loses the whimsical and flighty innocence that drew Lord Henry to him.
There are too many side characters to count, let alone keep track of. I read this book slowly, over the course of a few weeks (for no good reason, really), so I’m sure that I missed times when characters came back, thinking them to be new people altogether. I can’t say that this really matters, because the side characters mostly serve as symbols of proper English society; their importance comes from their ignorant obsession with Dorian and their own shallow moralities, rather than who they are as individuals.
The important side characters–Basil Howard, Sibyl Vane, James Vane, Alan Campbell–were portrayed simply but well, so that I understood who they were and what they each wanted from Dorian. None of them lingered in the story long enough to develop complex characters, but their flatness never hindered the book.
I loved the plot surrounding the portrait of Dorian. It’s significance came less from showing Dorian’s age–though it did keep him from aging in reality–but from showing his sin’s effects on his character. This gave the book a chilling and creepy tone, and by the end of the book, I was exactly as enthralled and horrified by the picture as Dorian himself.
From the standpoint of literary analysis (because I couldn’t turn off the AP English student in my mind while I read this), the picture was an annotater’s dream. It was a mirror acting as a conscience, but it was doomed to fail, because none of the ruin actually affected Dorian. Guilt about his sins clawed at him and obsessed him at times, but he kept barreling down his road of corruption, in part because the painting enabled him to do so while staying in society’s graces. I loved the paradoxical nature of the portrait’s effect on Dorian, and the plot that resulted was intriguing and surprisingly gripping.
My only complaint about this book comes from the pacing. Any scene with dialogue was readable, pulling me along faster and faster into the plot. Then, a chapter break would happen, and suddenly I would be stalled in the land of page-long paragraphs musing about random settings or events, laden with allusions that went over my head and bored me until the sentences ran together. Then the action of the chapter would draw me in, and I would commit to the story again, until the next chapter break slammed me into a wall of heavy imagery and mind-numbingly long sentences.
Seriously, just because you can use semicolons to connect half a dozen somewhat related sentences into one, doesn’t mean you should, Oscar Wilde.
Still, the writing in this book is gorgeous. There are so many amazingly quotable lines–I tried to pick a few to put into this review, but there were too many to choose from. The dialogue (especially if Lord Henry was involved) was my favorite part of the book, and the banter between characters was entertaining enough to challenge some of my modern favorites.
From a modern perspective, this book is an intriguing insight into the struggle of being gay in proper English society. Honestly, I’d be willing to bet that the three main characters (Henry, Dorian, and Basil) as well as a few side characters (I’m looking at you Alan Campbell) were gay, though in the story nothing remotely homosexual actually occurs between them (that the reader is shown). There is something equal parts sad and captivating about being inside these characters’ minds–where they are drawn to and fascinated by the other male characters–while simultaneously seeing their actions–which are all focused on marrying, loving, and having affairs with women.
Also from a modern perspective, there is some pretty serious sexism in this book. I was able to laugh at it–Lord Henry’s sexist remarks about women are ridiculous–but if sweeping declarations about the female temperament being weak and nonintellectual make you want to throw things across the room, this book might not be for you.
“She is very clever, too clever for a woman. She lacks the indefinable charm of weakness.”
Despite the social situations of this book being outdated, the story itself is similar to its title character: there is something timeless about this book. The characters’ complex moral struggles, the bantering and amusing dialogue, and the undeniably creepy tone appealed to me as a modern reader, and though I knew that this book was over a century old, I feel that it would fit right in to my bookshelves.