The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Lord Henry Wotton has to be in the running for the greatest fictional dinner guest. He is incredibly charming, provocative, and sharp. I am half-inclined to believe that The Picture of Dorian Gray was conceived as a vehicle for Harry’s witty persona. Comparatively, Dorian and his picture are rather drab.

“What of art?” she asked. [Gladys, Duchess of Monmouth]

“It is a malady.” [Harry]

“Love?”

“An illusion.”

“Religion?”

“The fashionable substitute for belief.”

“You are a sceptic.”

“Never! Scepticism is the beginning of faith.”

“What are you?”

“To define is to limit.”

“Give me a clue.”

“Threads snap. You would lose your way in the labyrinth.”

The book is full of delicious exchanges like this, and I’ve cut this one short. While, in some ways, Harry is the villain of the story, he is the most pleasant character with whom to spend time, in this or any other novel that comes to mind. “Harry spends his days in saying what is incredible and his evenings in doing what is improbable.”

Among Harry’s “incredible” sayings are some enviable zingers:

[S]he is a peacock in everything but beauty.

[S]he tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant.

“You must admit, Harry, that women give to men the very gold of their lives.”

“Possibly,” he sighed, “but they invariably want it back in such very small change.”

While Harry is busy entertaining, Dorian descends into a darkness without conscience. I was taken by the extent to which Wilde anticipates Camus’ Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall:

There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.

Camus builds his novel around this insight, while for Wilde it seems to register as little more than one of Harry’s provocations. Or, maybe Wilde just examined the proposition from another angle. Dorian Gray could be put forward as a counterexample to Clamence. Clamence avoids the judgment of others through self-reproach, but Dorian is unable to do so.

The overt message to the story is that, after all, one cannot escape the consequences of action, even with the help of a supernatural painting. As I am learning about Wilde, he likes to put forward in his writing both a proposition and its opposite, perhaps the better to inoculate himself from criticism. It could be that, instead, his proclamations, as in the introduction to this work, that he has a love of artistic beauty above everything are the true key to his work. His “no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” gives him license to make a well-written book without answering for any deeper meanings within. I believe that his warning that “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril” is apt.

I am not sure what I pull from the work other than a delight in Wilde’s dialogue and playfulness. Dorian could serve as a warning against vanity, lack of conscience, or the destruction of art. But I do not think he is a warning. I think that Dorian’s ultimate punishment is not for his vanity, but for his effort to try to destroy art.

There are other possible readings. Wilde, of course, was a homosexual at a time it was dangerously illegal to be openly so. Like Dorian and his painting, Wilde necessarily kept a portion of himself hidden from prying eyes. But that part, like Dorian’s painting, could not be destroyed without obliterating Wilde himself. This view seems a little too convenient and too focused on Wilde to be convincing to me, though the theme of duplicity and split-selves is certainly recurrent. My point is only that there is a wealth material for speculative (half-baked, in my case) interpretation if one is so inclined.

Wilde, of course, says it best: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

There is an abundance of shiny surfaces in which to gaze. Harry’s goading statements should stir readers:

The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play.

or

I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.

And, so too, will the beauty of the prose and the construction of the narrative. There is an early passage in which Dorian Gray focuses on a bee as a distraction from Harry’s “strange panegyric on youth.” Later, a bee returns.

A bee flew in and buzzed round the blue-dragon bowl that, filled with sulphur-yellow roses, stood before him. He felt perfectly happy.

Dorian picks up the thread of the thought ignored many pages before. It is excellent craftsmanship on Wilde’s part and something I had not noticed until re-reading the quotes I had marked (I love the Kindle for this) while on my first time through.

Remember, Wilde’s highest praise is that a book is well-written. This one is and exquisitely so.

(Sarah reviewed this same work recently at her blog, A Rat in the Book Pile. I definitely recommend a trip over there for another perspective.)

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11 Responses to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

  1. Sarah says:

    Kerry, I love your review! I loved the book too, but struggled to extract a meaning, unable to decide which way Wilde was arguing. But your insight wrt Wilde making both the proposition, and the opposite, validates that reading, and makes it a point in itself. Cleverly backed up by your apposite quotes.

    Although you could probably find a quote for virtually anything in this book. It is a pleasure to read again from Harry’s dialogue, and fascinating to see which sayings appeal to others.

    Thank you for highlighting my blog, but I think reviews of Dorian Grey reach their apotheosis right here!

  2. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    You are too kind, of course. But I really enjoyed your review which was an excellent prelude to reading the novel. I think Wilde was being deliberately coy, not least because there are a number of references to Dorian’s possible homosexuality (or at least sexual attractiveness to men) which, however subtle, were targeted for criticism when the work first appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. Wilde later revised the work, taking out or minimizing some of those references, in response to the criticism.

    The introduction was also added after the initial criticism, which may be why he focuses so much on the moral/immoral question and its purported irrelevance. Perhaps I put too much stock in that being his view, rather than that being a convenient position to take in the face of intolerance.

    His ambiguity is part of what I love about Wilde. He asks so many questions and strikes so many poses, the reader can only treat the work as a mirror. Whatever moral, lesson, or portrait the reader sees is likely to say more about the reader than about Wilde.

    Thanks for the discussion!

  3. A marvellous review. I like how you bring out the possible lack of meaning, the glittering superficiality of it all.

    I read this as a teenager, and at the time as a horror novel. I suspect I’d get far more out of it today. It hadn’t occurred to me to revisit it, but reading this I think perhaps I should.

  4. Kerry says:

    I found it an enjoyable and quick read. Harry’s little bombs keep things lively even when there is not a great deal of action. The novel is very efficiently constructed and full of ideas that pop up in subsequent literature, so I am confident you would find good value in a revisit.

    Thanks for the compliment.

  5. I forgot to add, that really is a lovely cover for it. Shame it’s a hardback.

    The Vintage cover is quite nice too, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Picture-Dorian-Gray-Vintage-Classics/dp/0099511142/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273059820&sr=1-3, I may pick that one up.

  6. anokatony says:

    Nice review. Oscar Wilde always makes one look at things differently than one otherwise would.
    On a different point, I had never thought the Kindle could be used to mark passages you want to refer back to. I find that there are passages I want to keep track of, but either I don’t have pen or paper or don’t want to stop reading at that point. Then when I get a chance to write it down (which does take a lot of time), I can’t find the passage.

  7. Kerry says:

    Max,

    I love that Vintage cover. I read it on the Kindle with no cover art, so I picked the one I liked best for a picture. There are some really ugly covers. The worst try to capture the story quite literally. Bad idea. That Vintage, however, looks great. Thanks.

  8. Kerry says:

    Tony,

    You are absolutely right about Wilde. He challenges without, somehow, being challenging.

    The Kindle is absolutely, positively, fantastic for marking passages, highlighting new words (and instantly looking them up), and taking short notes (e.g. passage reminds me of Camus), without breaking (too much) the flow of reading. Certainly less than searching for a pencil and much easier to find later. This is one of the huge advantages of e-readers over normal text. Combine that with a decent search feature, and, even if you do not mark something, you can find it if you remember a fairly non-generic word within the passage. E-readers are a definite help to studying and referring back to a text.

    Is my enthusiasm apparent?

    Thanks for the comment and the opportunity to gush (about e-readers generally, I have insufficient experience for a comparison).

  9. […] The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde […]

  10. Justine says:

    A wonderful book. I read this one for a student who was writing a thesis on texts by male writers depicting men in mid-life crisis. The project introduced me to a range of fascinating books which included My Melancholy Whores by Marquez and Roth’s The Dying Animal.
    I particularly enjoy the way that Wilde puts so much subtlety into his characters, they are somehow simultaneously flat and multi-dimensional. Does this make sense?

    • Kerry says:

      It does make sense. He does use archetypes, but somehow invests them with an all-too-real amount of life.

      Your student’s project sounds fascinating and more like a treat for you than work. Roth, Marquez, and Wilde sound like nothing but pleasure.

      Thanks for the comment!

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