The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is primarily a book of ideas. It is rich with allusions to art, mythology, poetry and literature, as well as containing page-long ruminations on philosophy – mostly through the poisonous exertions of Lord Henry Wotton. A focus on aestheticism and ‘modern’ modes of life flows through into the prose, which is as opulent (and poetic) as the life of Dorian Gray. In the later pages of the book, this beauty jarrs heavily with the consequences of Dorian’s sins, but it results in the creation of a gruesome sort of harmony.

Dorian’s corruption begins early; in fact, Henry exercises a strong influence on our innocent protagonist from their very first meeting:

For nearly ten minutes he stood there, motionless, with parted lips, and eyes strangely bright. He was dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences were at work within him. Yet they seemed to him to have come really from himself. The few words that Basil’s friend had said to him – words spoken by chance, no doubt, and with wilful paradox in them – had touched some secret chord that had never been touched before, but that he felt was now vibrating and throbbing to curious pulses.

Dorian’s greatest fault is that he does not comprehend the negative influence Lord Henry has had on him, until it is too late (or perhaps he never quite realises it) –

Lord Henry had the charm of being very dangerous. But that was all. He was too clever and too cynical to be really fond of. Would there ever be someone who would fill him with a strange idolatry? Was that one of the things that life had in store?

While reading this book, I often paused to wonder at Wilde’s own mind. Some of the ideas contained within Dorian Gray are truly fascinating, and it must have taken a great amount of genius – or wickedness – to conceive them. Some of the ideas presented, such as this – “knowledge would be fatal. It is uncertainty that charms one. A mist makes things wonderful” sound relatively harmless, but…

I left that sentence hanging not only for dramatic effort, but also because I couldn’t quite think of what it was. And that’s the power of this book – through its playfulness, it leads one to think and to wonder about the  ‘maybe’s. Unfortunately, I couldn’t reach a conclusion. The reason why I’m frustrated with my posts are because they are so unpolished. And that’s inevitable, because most of the books I write about are first-time reads. Normally it’ll take two or three re-readings before I get anything worth mentioning out of a book. Most of these reviews are hazy impressions.

Reading Dorian Gray, particularly, was a mystifying and confusing experience. Of course, I could state the obvious themes – morality, aestheticism, science vs religion – but it’s all so wooden. I’m not sure what I’m trying to say, except that I liked this book and I have no idea how to express myself.

Also I find that these days I’m more interested in writers than literature, and I’m finding it harder and harder to enjoy writing about literature because I get enough of that from having to write papers for my horrid history and culture electives. For instance, when I was reading Tender is the Night, I found myself thinking more about Scott Fitzgerald’s feelings towards his wife, than the development of Rosemary and Dick’s relationship. Here, I spent a ridiculous time contemplating what sort of person Wilde was.

Ever since I first heard about this book, I was intrigued by the thought of a soul trapped in a portrait, and yet I didn’t expect Wilde’s prose to be so beautiful. This is stupid, considering that he’s known primarily for his poems and I’ve read his poetry before – namely, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Athanasia.

In vain the sad narcissus, wan and white
At its own beauty, hung across the stream,
The purple dragon-fly had no delight
With its gold dust to make his wings a-gleam,
Ah! no delight the jasmine-bloom to kiss,
Or brush the rain-pearls from the eucharis.

The extent to which he valued aesthetics eluded me until I searched for photographs of him. I like the bow-tie and the velvet, but the haircut is a little tragic.

» The Picture of Dorian Gray was read as a part of the 2009 Decades challenge

(Please excuse the sloppiness of this ‘review’. I promise the next one will actually be in coherent English)

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18 thoughts on “The Picture of Dorian Gray

  1. I don’t taking a liking of Dorian Gray, whom I find very vain from the beginning. His naivete makes him vulnerable to Lord Henry’s detrimental influence. As he groped his way through the labyrinth of passions, he gave in to the corruption of his soul, reaping pleasure but not happiness, indulging in sensation of crime to the point that his conscience raised such fearful phantoms to peer at him from silent corners, to mock him from secret places, to make him feel an icy coldness creeping to his heart.

    1. Matt – Of course I wouldn’t like Dorian Gray if he was anything more than a fictional character, but I found that it didn’t really matter whether I liked him or not, because his vanity and naivete made him so suitable for the role. Characterisation was probably not one of Wilde’s greater concerns for this book

  2. I just finished Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and I definitely share your frustration at not being able to form a coherent response to a canonical work of literature. Part of that for me is not wanting simply to tread paths that have already been walked by other readers/critics, and part of it is struggling with my personal response to the book. I find I need a lot of contextual information about the author, the historical period and the book to really feel comfortable with a book’s legacy to me. Haven’t read this yet, but it’s no my “in the next 5 years” list — seriously.

    1. estelle – I agree completely! Particularly about treading paths that have already been travelled so many times before by people more informed and open to ideas than myself. Hahah, Hemingway (not a specific book, just generally) is also on my “in the next five years” list :)

  3. I read this years ago and I don’t think I got much out of it — except what Matthew says, that Dorian Gray was self-centered vain and annoying. I like how in your review you show that the book is about so much more: the ideas.

    I think I do need to reread it more critically. I know you say your review is sloppy, but I think it’s just wonderful, as always!

    1. Rebecca – same here! I find that try as I might, I never quite manage to effectively/critically read books the first time round. Which is another reason why I like to buy books for my shelves rather than borrow them from the library :)

  4. Even though I found Dorian’s character to be totally unadmirable, the prose was so beautiful and the ideas so interesting I did like the book.

    1. Jeane – that’s how I felt too. In this particular circumstance, I didn’t mind that I hated the character. Gone with the Wind, on the other hand … (hem, Scarlett, hahah)

  5. It’s been ages since I last read this (well over 10 years, I’m sure), so I really can’t speak to any specifics in this one, but I do recall really enjoying it. Even if it is quite dark, I think Wilde’s writing is marvelous here, and I do like this can be read on many different levels: a basic morality tale, yes, but also many other topics for discussion are viable avenues as well (such as the major themes you pointed out). I suppose I wasn’t bothered by the general “weak” character of Dorian, simply because the story itself was so macabre and compelling! I’ll have to read it again one of these days. Tony’s relatively recent reading of the complete works of Oscar Wilde has made me think that I should revisit this story at the very least.

  6. >And that’s the power of this book – through its playfulness, it leads one to think and to wonder about the ‘maybe’s.

    I agree with this, and will add that I like ambiguity. I like to read books that unsettle my conventional views and make me think. Reading to validate my preconceived throughs gets a bit boring after awhile.

    Wilde is a very seductive writer…he’ll get you rethinking all sorts of things you never thought you’d consider. There’s more than a bit of Byron in Wilde.

    1. Steph and JaneGS – his writing is marvelous. And dark in such a mesmerizing, enthralling way that it made me feel like I was doing something illicit, hahah. I agree completely that Wilde is a seductive writer. And I do also like ambiguity (and books that are unsettling), although it’s a pain to try and write about them afterwards

  7. Your review is intriguing! That’s the wonderful thing about using a blog this way. We can get “polished” reviews anywhere. Even if your thoughts feel hazy, you come across very clearly. I like it that you are thinking more about the author and sharing that, rather than just giving us a plot synopsis, some thoughts and quotes. To see how a book makes other people think, to me, is much better than just hearing whether they liked it or not. :)

  8. thanks for writing this post. this book is one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve also read Oscar Wilde’s play, A woman of no importance.

  9. His plays are very different from Dorian; they’re much wittier (the man loved a pun, and could really turn a phrase) and far more lighthearted. They tend to poke fun at societal “comedy of manners” type pieces. Start with “The Importance of Being Earnest” and go from there…

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