The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Dorian Gray is a bastard of a person. Strong language, I know, but sometimes the truth has to be said. Sure he started out like a nice enough guy (much like your uncle) but in the end he caught you with your pants down without even having the courtesy to call voyeurism curiosity. You see, Dorian Gray began life as an innocent, bright eyed, young man and ended life as a wrinkled, terrible old man; the kicker is that for his whole life he has lived-appeared-as though he was in his early twenties. So when you awaken your servants in the night and they find you with a knife in your heart and more wrinkled than a prune, you have some explaining to do; not really- you’re dead! And those rumors of you selling your soul to the devil for eternal youth sound awfully close to the truth.

The plot is simple and filled with more moralizing then you are likely find in an Ayn Rand novel (only replace capitalism with sin/beauty). In it Dorian Gray is a youth who sits for a renowned painter (Basil) as he captures his image for a portrait. One day while sitting, however, a friend of the painter (Henry) drops by for a visit. Dorian and Henry, to the annoyance of Basil, hit is off and began what will be a lifelong friendship. When Basil finishes Dorian’s picture, however, and everyone sees such beauty and grace upon the canvas, Dorian is struck by a sudden existential despair and wishes that the portrait of him may endure his sins and aging instead of his own body. To his horror his dream comes true. Over the years the painting changes according to Dorian’s degradation. So after a series of bad events correlating to sins (vanity, murder, ego, lying and so forth) the picture is distorted beyond recognition. Eventually Dorian can no longer stand gazing at the picture and in a fit of desperation tries to stab the image in order to destroy it; yet, in stabbing the image he unwittingly kills himself and so restores the image of youth and purity to Basil’s portrait.

One of the strongest features of the novel is the character development. In the beginning Dorian is an honest, pure, and earnest lad. By the end he is vain, twisted, and hopelessly self-deluded. This transition is made with skill on Wilde’s part: though his other characters do not display this same evolution, Dorian’s transformation is subtle yet pronounced in morals. The overbearing text collides with the moralizing and homosexual sub-text to project an image of coming to terms with who one is without being able to express one’s truest desires. To this end everything in the book is well constructed to mirror a subtextual narrative of change. So when understood in this manner, of Dorian’s acts actually being code for “homosexual desire”, the plot and its subsequent development is natural.

There are issues with the writing, however. Over all I could not stand Wilde’s lengthy monologues: of the trite usage of his characters as nothing more than his personal mouth pieces for his beliefs. After the second dozens’ diatribe on the virtues of indulgence and sin you will feel like you stumbled onto wither Anton LaVey’s lost tome, or a twelve-year old’s diary. Many, if no tall authors, impart a little of themselves into their characters but most do so with a bit more grace than Wilde’s skill; building off of this, while we are on the subject, nothing much outside of Dorian’s life, is talked about. The other characters in the novel are there largely to act as moral interlocutors, therefore rendering them nothing more than mirrors for Dorian’s self-reflecting and motivation.

Regardless though I liked the book. It is not something I fancy myself reading again anytime soon, but the story is a classic in its own way. It could have had more depth, yes, and more personality outside of Dorian, but if we take into consideration the length of the book and the author’s intent (to depict socially unacceptable desire and its psychological effects) then the length and focus on Dorian makes perfect sense. For anyone interested in an intriguing introduction to Oscar Wilde, I would recommend The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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