The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Emmeline warned me that The Picture of Dorian Gray was depressing* so I was expecting something more along the lines of The Bell Jar. Unfortunately I knew the basic storyline of The Picture of Dorian Gray because on the tvshow ‘Freaky Stories’ I seem to recall one where a young man stabs his painting at the end. Emmeline was disappointed when I told her that because it robbed me of the ending, or at least of being able to guess the ending!
Throughout the book I felt a little as though it was an opportunity for Wilde to show off a large amount of knowledge he had amassed on a variety of subjects, rather than him just writing a book. The descriptions of Dorian’s obsessions went on too long and there was a tendency to skim after a while. Jeffrey Eugenides** writing the introduction claims that Wilde writes witty dialogue but struggles in other areas and needs actors to bring his work to life. What dialogue there is to be had is mainly found in the first third and last quarter and, especially when it involves Dorian or Harry flirting (including with each other) is indeed snappy and one can imagine it being performed on the stage with much chemistry between the characters.
The Picture of Dorian Gray leaves me hanging out to know what it is that Dorian does to lead others astray***. It is clear that he creates ‘fallen women’ and that is not too hard to understand, but I wonder how he ruins the lives of the young men whilst escaping unscathed himself. That being said, I also love that it is left to the imagination.
[I]n his search for sensations that would be at once new and delightful, and possess that element of strangeness that is so essential to romance, he would often adopt certain modes of thought that he knew to be really alien to his nature, abandon himself to their subtle influences, and then, having , as it were, caught their colour and satisfied his intellectual curiosity, leave them with that curious indifference that is not incompatible with a real ardour of temperament.
In the light of the previous sentence (and given Wilde’s own sexual proclivities) I like to imagine that not a few of the young men ruined were taken as lovers also. Dorian has the sort of sex appeal that does not discriminate. Beautiful and self destructive people are drawn to Dorian and he obliges them by flattering their beauty then destroying them.
A few notes I made as I read the book:
Lady Henry scores the best introduction in the whole book “She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest.” How does every woman not want to look like that?
As a language-nerd I was super-excited to see that the French that was in the book was not translated into English immediately afterward, however the conversation French phrases made it clear what was being said. When Dorian reads three particular stanzas of a French poem on Venice, they are relayed to us in their original form and the meaning is made clear in the reveal that follows. This is not always well done, in Anna Karenina**** Tolstoy throws French around like it’s Christmas and mostly I found it annoying and pretentious.
Harry to Dorian: “You will soon be going about like the converted, the revivalist, warning people against all the sins of which you have grown tired.” There is indeed no one so passionate about the evilness of x than the one who has turned from x themselves!
Is this a book everyone should read? I can’t decide. I think it has some interesting ideas but the package does not call for universal recommendation.
(read Emmeline's review here)
(read Emmeline's review here)
*she later retracted that statement saying that she meant something else
**Author of Middlesex which I have read and have yet to review, Emm’s review is here
***Apparently the first version which he was commissioned to write was ‘mawkish and nauseous’, ‘unclean’, ‘effeminate’ and ‘contaminating’ . I wonder if it details some of Dorian’s dalliances and if so are there still copies around?
****A book I read before we started the challenge and have not as yet retrospectively reviewed