The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Published: 1994, Public Domain Books (Originally 1890)
Source: Personal ebook
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The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.
First a funny story: I actually downloaded the free ebook of The Picture of Dorian Gray back when I first got my Kindle in May of 2011. I got to 40% and then just stopped reading it. As this is a free book that was presumably put together by volunteers, there are a few errors and formatting issues with the ebook. That, along with the fact that it took me months to get used to reading full books on my Kindle, made me put down the story temporarily. But since it was selected as my work book club pick for June, I was able to return to Dorian Gray's story. And what a story it is.
Dorian Gray is rich, young, handsome, and an incredibly naive young man. He befriends artist Basil Hallward and spends many months acting as his muse. During one of their sessions, Dorian encounters Basil's friend Lord Henry, who is everything that Basil and Dorian himself are not. Lord Henry is worldly, cynical, and charismatic. His honest words allow Dorian to reconsider his values in life, especially the importance of beauty within society.
After meeting Lord Henry and seeing Basil's latest masterpiece, a picture of Dorian himself, Dorian laments the fact that while he'll eventually become old, his portrait will remain youthful and perfect forever. And through those words Dorian makes an unconscious bargain: over the years he is able to retain his youth and good looks while his portrait ages and displays all the imperfections of his soul.
At its heart, The Picture of Dorian Gray is nothing less than an in-depth study of the driving forces behind our decisions: morality vs. immortality, youth vs. maturity, intelligence vs. beauty. Due to the Faustian bargain he makes, Dorian finds himself physically distanced from the repercussions of a hedonistic and amoral lifestyle. Each and every decision he makes do not affect him, but instead affect the portrait of himself he keeps hidden away in an upstairs room in his house. How do people act once all blame and culpability is removed from their actions? And, the bigger question, do people really act much differently even when their actions do affect them? Dorian can actually witness the consequences of his actions through the ever-changing portrait, but because it is the portrait changing rather than himself, he does nothing to change his life.
In many ways, Dorian truly deserves his curse. Although I found it strange that all Dorian had to do to enact the curse was to wish out loud that he did not age (not a truly Faustian bargain in my opinion, since Dorian did not consciously make any agreement), once he finds himself cursed it's like he loses all sense of goodness. When Dorian first discovers the changes in his portrait, he's driven by grief and understandably isn't ready to do anything different with his life. But this goes on for over eighteen years. The closest he gets to trying to be a better person (as far as the readers know) is when he admits to Lord Henry that he'll break off a dalliance with a young country girl now rather than delaying it any longer. The few attempts that Dorian makes to better himself are half-hearted at best, especially when he realizes that the little effort he makes doesn't seem to change much in the grand scheme of things.
And yet, Dorian is not quite the villain of this tale. The reason his portrait first begins to change is due to an act of selfishness and a bit of cruelty, but it's not due to anything completely horrible. His decision to embrace a hedonistic lifestyle is at least partially due to the fact that he comes to believe in an inner darkness, and that it's inevitable. None of the characters in this tale are without flaws, and it seems very possible that Wilde was actually criticizing the entire British upper class through this novel. Dorian, along with other characters, acts irresponsibly, cruelly, and superficially. Not all of his actions are condoned by others, and yet presumably his affluence and general standing prevent him and others like him from becoming complete social pariahs.
The focus of this novel is on an actual picture, and so Wilde does spend a fair amount of time contemplating the role that art has within our lives. In fact, these ruminations make up some of the strongest parts in the novel. To what extent is art something created for the viewer to enjoy, and to what degree is it a reflection of the artist? Should art be viewed purely for aesthetic purposes or can it also be a form of education? Wilde addresses conflicting sides of this debate, at one point noting that "all art is useless" and at another praising "art for art's sake." It's definitely thought-provoking and worthy of greater discussion.
Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray reminds me why I love to read classics, particularly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classics: the language. Beautifully poetic, and rife with poignant truths and witty observations about life and humanity. Not only is The Picture of Dorian Gray well worth its classic status, but it is an incredibly accessible work of literature. Although certain terms and concepts are a bit obsolete in our time, the story itself remains pretty relevant. Dorian is the perfect anti-hero, and his tragic story is something that should be experienced at least once by every reader. Both classic lovers and those more reluctant to read classics should give this book a try.
Rating: 4 stars