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)