Written by: Oscar Wilde
Synopsis: Written in his distinctively dazzling manner, Oscar Wilde’s story of a fashionable young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty is the author’s most popular work.
You know how you might have tried to read a book 100 different times and a bunch of different ages but for some reason it never resonated, and then the 101st time you take a look at it and *click* suddenly the language and style and characters just...work?
Well that's what The Picture of Dorian Gray has been for me. I first tried to read it at 16 and got about 2 sentences in and had to put it down, the next time I was a little bit more successful but after putting it down one night 2 chapters in I was never motivated to keep reading. I can't say I have a reason why I could never get into it, but something stonewalled every attempt I made and I was mostly resigned to the fact that me and Dorian were never going to get to know each other. As luck might have it, this was one of the reads for the "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Challenge" and when I decided to start it for the 101st time I somehow got straight into it. Weird right? For whatever reason, this time around I had no issue with the language or connecting with the story. I never really got far enough into it to make any judgements, but this time around I found myself loving everything about it, the language, the characters, the jokes and cynicism, the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) homo-eroticism that Oscar Wilde weaves into the story.
The premise of this book is one all of you probably know already. A young and impressionable dude decides he likes his face and the fact that the youth get all the fun, and when he sees an exceptionally good painting of himself, wishes that he could stay as he is and stain the picture with his age and disgrace and anger. As supernatural and borderline horror as this seems, it really makes up a small part of the story. Even after the deal has been made (to which Dorian is somewhat unaware) and he notices some imperceptible differences to the portrait, the book remains attentive to Dorian and his crazy ego and the crazy ego of his best friend Lord Henry. The why and how of the painting is never explored, and instead is used as a literal marker to demonstrate the deplorable nature of Dorian Gray and how much his actions tarnish his soul and his character.
Dorian Gray, to me, is a pretty boring character. He's snooty and upper-class-y and seems to be in a perpetual funk. He also has an obnoxious habit of making the fault of his actions the fault of someone else. Like when he decides he no longer loves Sybil because he realises she's an actual person and not a constant parade of sad and desperate Shakespearean heroines, he blasts at her that she's destroyed his love and that it is unfair to him for her to do such a thing etc etc. That's one of the mildest of examples, but without spoiling the events of the novels I can't unpack the true extent of his jackassery. Jackassery aside, he's a pretty vanilla character. What makes him interesting, other than owning a painting that does the ageing for him, is how easily shaped he is by the people around him. He's like a sponge or a lump of clay, just bending easily to the thoughts and opinions of whomever his number 1 friend is at the time. It happens that Lord Henry is this friend most of the time and, in some ways, responsible for the entire crap-fest that follows Dorian's regrettable deal with the devil/painting gods.
Lord Henry is amazing. Like, I actively hated him after hearing the first sentence out of his mouth, but he's so god damn entertaining and completely makes the book. He obnoxiously has an opinion on absolutely everything and ALWAYS has to deviate from whatever the popular opinion is. Madame Whats-it thinks love is for losers? Lord Henry thinks love is what makes the world go round. Young Lady Hoo-ha thinks love is lovely, and suddenly Lord Henry thinks it's demonstrative of her youth and naivete and femininity and one day she'll realise there is no such thing as love. His greatest opinion, and the one that sways Dorian the most, is about the importance of beauty over intelligence. Over and over through the story, and you should know this spans about 20 years (maybe a little under), Henry waffles on and on about how unlucky you are if you're intelligent, why it's such a bummer and how lucky Dorian is for being such a pretty faced boy. He champions vanity as truth, and intelligence as the cowardly disregard for what is true and honest in life. Actually, the way he champions this dichotomy in conversation after conversation with Dorian made it feel as though Dorian was a project that Henry had taken up to see how far he could drive a person to think his way. I can practically imagine the young scholar that Henry visits after stopping by Dorian's to spin the same argument but in reverse. This isn't to say Dorian is a victim in this book, he certainly isn't, but I can't help but wonder what would have happened if Basil the painter had had his way and kept Lord Henry from Dorian.
The story is pretty slow-going to start, and there were probably about three conversations between Dorian and Henry in the first section of the book that could have been done away with, but after Dorian falls in (and out of) love Sybil and notices the first difference in the painting it begins to pick up the pace and once it get going it's much easier to stay engaged. Oscar Wilde is a delightful writer, verbose at times, but he manages to be both lyrical and poetic while also very acerbic and sharp prose. The dialogue is where he truly shines, which, you know, for a playwright is to be expected, but seriously, there are zingers and potshots in just about every single conversation line. It makes it much more bearable to read conversations between rich old white dudes, and also makes me think Oscar Wilde and I could have been good friends.
And on that note, here are a few excerpts to demonstrate Mr Wilde's awesomeness;
"A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her"
(on the painting) "The very sharpness of the contrast used to quicken his sense of pleasure. He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul"
"We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities"
"I felt that this monstrous London of ours, with its myriads of people, its sordid sinners, and its splendid sins, as you once phrased it, must have something in store with me"
"The basis for optimism is sheer terror. We hink that we are generous because we credit our neighbour with the possession of those virtues that are likely to be a benefit to us. We praise the banker that we may overdraw our account, and find good qualities in the highwayman in the hope that he may spare our pockets. I mean everything that I have said. I have the greatest contempt for optimism. As for a spoiled life, no life is spoiled but one whose growth is arrested. If you want to mar nature, you have merely to reform it"
"Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals"
So yeah as that last quote hints, It's very male-centric, and women get a pretty bad run in it, but aside from that (which was hard to bear from time to time) and a few pacing issues it was an interesting, humorous and provocative story which has some real parallels with life in our modern society. If, like me, you've had trouble reading this one, maybe pick it up and give it another go and you might find yourself, for some reason, plowing straight through it and thoroughly enjoying it this time around.