A week away from blogging was just what I needed.
My thoughts are still frayed around the edges, but things are making much more sense than they were before. I think I was just a little burnt out.
Anyway. I’m back now. Thanks for being patient with me.
Every ten years/weeks here at Book to the Future, I do something a little out of the ordinary.
I decided that just moving from one decade to the next would be really boring. So, every ten weeks, I travel further back in time than ever, and I review a book written before the year 1900. Here’s what happened last time.
(If you’re wondering what all this time travel malarkey is all about, click here to read the story behind Book to the Future – and all will be revealed)
This week, to my surprise, I found myself in the 1800s again. Here’s what I read when I finally found my way to the nearest library…
The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde
Published in 1891
“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” says Oscar Wilde in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray; “Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”.
Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is without doubt, a well-written book.
Wilde added the Preface to Dorian Gray, containing the above quotation and a selection of other aphorisms about art, literature and morality, when the novel was printed for the second time, in response to the moral outcry that followed the book’s initial publication. Only a few years later, extracts from Dorian Gray were read aloud to the courtroom as evidence of Wilde’s lack of morality. Wilde was found guilty of “acts of gross indecency with another male person” – a crime for which Wilde served a two-year prison sentence.
Thankfully, these days, things are different. According to the Introduction of the edition I read, The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the most popular of Penguin’s Popular Penguins series. What was once considered immoral is now mainstream.
Pretty much everyone has read Dorian Gray. Except for me, that is. This week, I tackled it for the very first time.
Dorian Gray is young, beautiful and utterly clueless. In other words, he’s the perfect prey for a ruthless, cynical man like Lord Henry Wotton.
When Lord Henry’s artist friend, Basil Hallward, hesitantly mentions that he’s painting a portrait of charming, innocent young Dorian, Lord Henry insists on meeting him. Despite Basil’s misgivings, the two are introduced.
As Basil paints Dorian’s picture, Lord Henry hypnotises Dorian with words, drawing the teenager under his influence with an intoxicating cocktail of compliments and ideas. As the painting is finished, Dorian, upon seeing it, flies into an intellectual tantrum:
“I am jealous of everything whose beauty does not die. I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose? Every moment that passes takes something from me, and gives something to it. Oh, if only it where the other way! If the picture could change, and I could always be what I am now! Why did you paint it? It will mock me some day – mock me horribly!”
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, page 28
Six months on, Dorian and Lord Henry are firm friends. But there’s one problem: Dorian is in love. He’s fallen for a young actress named Sibyl Vane. Before long, the two are engaged to be married – an event that both Lord Henry and Basil are determined to prevent.
But Dorian falls out of love with Sibyl Vane just as suddenly as he fell in love with her, and breaks off the engagement. He wakes the next morning regretting his actions, only to discover that the young girl has committed suicide.
Upon looking at the portrait of himself on the wall, he notices for the first time that it has changed. Dorian’s young, innocent face is now marred with unmistakable cruelty.
Dorian’s fateful wish has come true: his picture bears the physical evidence of his actions. At first, this thought horrifies him. For a moment, Dorian ponders changing his life for the better, and restoring his image to its former perfection. But the temptation is too much: after all, imagine if you could give in to every desire you’ve ever felt, without the physical signs of it ever showing on your face? What if no one ever had to know?
Dorian Gray makes it his mission in life to experience everything he can. He breaks the hearts of women – and men. He experiments with drugs. And with each and every sin, the portrait Dorian keeps locked away in the attic grows a little more terrible…
This double life all has to end somewhere, of course. Eventually, Dorian is drawn to the ultimate evil – the taking of another human life…
The Picture of Dorian Gray is an eerie, compelling story, brilliantly told. As a playwright, Wilde’s strength obviously lies in dialogue, and when his characters are engaged in discussion, Wilde’s writing sparkles with brilliance.
In particular – Lord Henry Wotton. If Dorian Gray were a play, Lord Wotton could be said to have stolen the show. His speech is rendered in a series of witty epigrams. Whenever he speaks, it comes out something like this, from page 47…
“Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.”
Or this, from page 11,
“Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship, and it is far the best for ending one”
Or, from page 98
“One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar.”
And so on. Lord Henry can’t open his mouth without a clever epigram tumbling out. Even Dorian notices, protesting “You cut life to pieces with your epigrams”. It seems to me that Wilde is parodying himself – or, rather, the myth of himself – in the character of Lord Henry.
It’d almost be funny – if only Lord Henry wasn’t such a cynical, cold creature. The way he purposefully sets out to influence Dorian is particularly calculating, as is the manner in which he consoles Dorian after the death of Sibyl Vane. There’s something fascinating about the way Lord Henry uses language – maybe even a little frightening.
That’s not to say that Dorian Gray is entirely without humour. The scene where Sibyl Vane tells her mother of her marriage is quite funny, especially because the mother and daughter, both actresses, seem to be performing to imaginary audiences. One theme that runs through the book is that of the truth; in particular, the way art conceals the truth. Ironically perhaps, the character closest to the truth throughout the whole book is that of Basil Hallward, the artist. He’s the book’s sole sane voice.
Wilde’s characters are works of genius. And even though, as I mentioned above, his real strength lies in dialogue, the moments when Dorian is alone are, for the most part, brilliantly written. There’s one scene in particular where Dorian leaves London to visit an opium den that sticks out in my mind. As Dorian’s state of mind towards the end of the book becomes more manic and disturbed, so too does the narration, working its way to a frenzy on the book’s final page.
There’s a kind of fin de siècle fatalism that hangs about Dorian Gray that I found intoxicating. It’s like the book is written in a certain key, a minor key, evoking a sense of carelessness, as if everything is about to end, and God or consequences or morality no longer matter.
I quoted Wilde at the beginning of this review, asserting that a novel is neither moral nor immoral. I think he’s right; any work of art can be reduced to brushstrokes on a canvas, or black markings on a white page.
But when you look at it, The Picture of Dorian Gray is essentially a morality tale. Dorian had the choice between living a good life, and keeping his soul pristine, or giving in to the temptation to lead a bad life. Dorian made the wrong decision – and, in the end, he pays the price.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic novel for a very good reason. It’s a chilling tale of gothic horror you won’t go forgetting in a hurry…
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Oh yes. It’s short. It’s easy to read. And, if you buy the Popular Penguins edition, like I did, it’s really cheap!
Really, in all honesty, your life is missing something if you haven’t read this book. It’s one of those stories that stays with you…
In a word: