Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Part of the reason I wanted to read this is because I've got Will Self's novel, Dorian, sitting on my shelf and I thought I might get more out of it if I'd read this first. Of course, most of us know the story, but with something this well known it can often be surprising to read the original novel and see how it can differ from your preconceptions.

The first we learn of Dorian is through a conversation between Basil Hallwood and Harry Wootton. Basil is an artist who has become completely infatuated with the young Dorian, who is fresh faced, youthful, innocent, and becomes Basil's artistic muse. His friend Harry is intrigued to meet the boy who has inspired such devotion and goes with him to watch him create his latest portrait of Dorian. This turns out to be a masterpiece which captures Dorian's beauty perfectly, and which Basil gives to Dorian as a gift.

After an impassioned speech from Harry about the golden days of youth and how precious and fleeting they are, Dorian makes a wish. He wishes that the portrait could grow old instead of him, and display all his wrinkles and blemishes, while his own face remains as clear and fresh as the day it was painted.

The book is filled with hateful people, not least of which is Harry, who is partly responsible for what happens next. Wilde is less interested in the effects of age on the features than in the effects of sin, and as Harry uses his influence over Dorian to set him on an evil path, Dorian's every cruelty shows up on the portrait. You could argue that there are religious overtones here; that even though a person may look innocent, somewhere his misdeeds are being recorded and they may be used against him one day.

The book caused a huge scandal when it was first published, and it's easy to see why. Wilde is so obviously writing about romantic infatuation between Dorian and Harry, and even more so between Basil and Dorian, that I wonder at his bravery publishing certain chapters given the attitudes at the time. In fact, it did come back to haunt him later as parts of The Picture of Dorian Gray were read out at Wilde's trial as evidence against him.

Oscar Wilde is possibly best known for his clever witticisms and, even in a book as dark as this, there are a few examples to be found that made me smile. One thing that didn't make me smile is his attitude towards women. He says some terrible things about women in general and its obvious he felt nothing but distain for the whole gender, even after making allowances for nineteenth-century attitudes. Not cool, Mr Wilde.

The idea of a portrait that grows older, and that becomes more grotesque with every sin, is pretty amazing. The passages that focus on the picture are still very creepy to read today, and Wilde does a great job of imagining how it might feel to have a thing like that in your attic. Dorian is horrified by it, but he's also compelled by it, and he can't resist going to peek at it every so often to see how it's changed.

I had some reservations about The Picture of Dorian Gray, and found it a little slow moving in parts, but the plot and characters are so strong that I can see why it's considered a classic. Four stars.

6 comments:

  1. Hooray! This is one of my favourite books EVER, despite the whole 'let's be flippant about ladies' thing, so I'm always a bit nervous to read other reviews in case people hate it! I'll be interested to see what you think of 'Dorian' - I had it once years ago, but somehow managed to lose it over the years and I've been wondering whether to look for a copy again or not... Green carnations for all! *waves flowers around cheerfully*

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    1. I can recommend the clothbound version! I love these clothbounds so much, it really feels like you're properly READING (serious face) when you dig into one!

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  2. This is one of those books whose story I generally know, but haven't had the chance to read yet. It sounds like it is worth the read!

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    1. This turned out to be quite close to the story I had in my head (unlike say, Dracula, which was miles away in the book from how I'd imagined it from various films). I really enjoyed it, and I can see why Oscar Wilde is always considered one of our greatest wordsmiths.

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  3. I kind of shy away from Victorian (or earlier) literature, but this is definitely on my list when I do make the plunge into pre-1900 books.

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    1. There are some amazing classics to read, and they're not so hard once you're past the first couple of chapters and you fall into the rhythm of the language. I'd love to be able to read Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice for the first time again! I wouldn't put Dorian Gray into that best of the best category, but it's definitely worth reading.

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