Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This post contains spoilers.


The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde's fantastical tale of a man who stops aging. This famous novel is a philosophical and character-driven narrative.

Dorian is a young man who is described over and over again as beautiful and youthful looking.  He is also charismatic.   Basil Hallward is his artist friend who becomes obsessed with him. The artist creates a magnificent portrait of Dorian. Over the course of the book, as Dorian descends into immorality and malevolence, the portrait begins to slowly change as it manifests ugliness in Dorian’s image. Likewise, Dorian stops aging as the portrait takes on the toll of his passing years.

Lord Henry Wotton, another friend of Dorian and Basil, is a key to this story. Much of the book is filled with Henry’s observations on life and his philosophizing. Henry is a cynic. He rejects conventional morality. He values experience for experience’s sake and advocates for the seeking of sensation and pleasure, regardless of ethics or any consideration of others.

Early in the story, Dorian is portrayed as innocent and naïve. As the narrative proceeds, Henry begins to corrupt him. When the two first meet, they are in an idyllic garden. I do not think that I am stretching it to suggest that there may be an analogy a between this meeting and the Serpent’s encounter with Eve in The Garden of Eden.

At one point, Henry muses,

“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. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.”

Henry’s belief system is a key component to this story. His philosophy seems to be a sort of twisted form of Romanticism. He believes that one can only live through experience and feeling. He rejects the intellect at several points. He champions the seeking of experiences without regard to morals, however. At times he revels in experiences that involve great cruelty to others. When Sibyl Vane, a young woman engaged to Dorian, commits suicide as a result of Dorian’s cruelties, Henry only sees the great drama in her death.

He observes,

“There is something to me quite beautiful about her death. I am glad I am living in a century when such wonders happen. They make one believe in the reality of the things we all play with, such as romance, passion, and love." 

Henry’s musings, ghastly as they are, take all sorts of turns as he relates them to art, literature, philosophy, etc. Both his pontificating and the words and actions of other characters allow Wilde to explore many facets of art, aesthetics and morality, as well as other topics. In contrast, Basil, who becomes highly critical of Dorian’s descent into wickedness, provides a morally based counterpoint to all this.

Wilde was accused of a lack of morals upon the publication of this book. In his preface that was included in later editions of the book, Wilde even famously wrote

"there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book"

However, it seems clear that this book is a scathing indictment of the moral vacuity that Henry preaches and that Dorian practices. In the above quotation, I think that Wilde was defending the need for an author to portray pernicious behavior and to ask questions about the nature of morality. This fits in with the revolting way that Henry and Dorian are portrayed. Dorian’s depravity, violence, drug use, corruption of others, etc. is described in a series of ugly passages. Furthermore, Dorian is punished in the end.

There are a lot of aspects to this book that I have not touched on above. There are all sorts of themes at play. The character of Dorian is fascinating, and I could write a lot about him. The story is interesting. The writing and descriptions are often dark but brilliant.

Thus, this book is a philosophical feast for readers so inclined. It also has much else to recommend it. I highly recommend it for those who like philosophical tales, fantastic tales and nineteenth century English literature.







38 comments:

CyberKitten said...

I've enjoyed the various films made from this book and am a huge fan of Wilde's witty comments. This book has been sitting on my shelf for far too long I think. It's about time I actually read it!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - As I recall some of the film versions were very good.

I want to read more Wilde, If you read this, I would be curious as to what you thought about it.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian,

I wonder how much of Oscar Wilde there is in Henry? Henry is a cynic and throughout his life many cynical things have been said by Wilde "a true friend stabs you in the front" for example. But the Portrait of Dorian Gray sounds like Oscar Wilde was quite critical of cynicism whether he found it in himself or others.

thecuecard said...

I'm not sure I ever read this one despite how classic it is. Dorian does sound pretty awful by the end. Oscar Wilde seems like an interesting author / bold in his different-ness. Thank goodness for Basil in the story.

relevantobscurity.com said...

This is such a good review and reminds me even more so that I really need to read this book!

James said...

Wilde is another favorite of mine and this short novel is one reason. When I reviewed it nine years ago I focused on the idea of selling one's soul to the devil ala Faust. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian cries out, expressing his desire to sell his soul to ensure that the portrait Basil has painted of him would age rather than himself. Alas, like Faust and others before him, he fails to consider the consequences of the bargain until it is too late.
I agree that there are many ideas expressed in the novel that are worthy of consideration. It is also one of the greatest "Victorian" psychological novels and in that sense I would compare it with others like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Hound of the Baskervilles. The latter of those two is definitely more than just a mystery novel while Wilde and Stevenson wrote idea-laden psychological novels that were also mysterious.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - I wondered about that. I have not read much else by Wilde. But I have heard that he was cynical. At first I thought that Henry was a stand in for Wilde. However, by the end of the book, the indictment of Henry was scathing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Indeed this book has some terrible people in it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Laurie - If you read this I would love to know what you thought of it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - There is so much going on in this book. I agree The Faustian bargain is a major factor in its appeal.

I also agree that these Victorian psychological novels are extremely fascinating and well worth reading.

Gently Mad said...

Really excellent review,Brian. I like how you intertwine your comments with portions of the book.

I read Dorian Grey many years ago after seeing an art exhibit that included an artists rendition of the "picture of Dorian Grey". I hadn't heard of the story until someone there explained the painting to me. I had to read the story then.

Do you think that the story is a kind of confession from Oscar Wilde? I remember reading an account of some of his final words before his death. He asked his lover if he ever loved any of the boys he had affairs with. The other man answered "no." Wilde said, "No, I guess I never did either."

Sort of a sad self-indictment.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon -. It may be that Wilde was engaging in some penance here. I need to learn more about Wilde to be sure.

Tracy Terry said...

I love how you get below the surface of these characters.

One of the few books we actually have in common. I'm certain, having read this post, to look at it with new eyes.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy. This book is feast for those who look for characters with philosophical beliefs.

Maria Behar said...

GREAT review as usual, Brian!! :)

This is yet another of those books I can't bring myself to read.... As you know, I'm a very sensitive person. So I just can't tolerate reading about totally EVIL people, especially if they're main characters in novels.

Dorian is corrupted by Henry, but he obviously goes right along with this process. His cruelties and debaucheries are reflected in the portrait painted of him. What a creepy and eerie thing that is!!

I know we've discussed this issue before. I understand that it's necessary to have these types of books in the world. They serve to point out the horrible evils that we humans are capable of. But I just can't stomach these novels!

It was sheer TORTURE for me to read about Heathcliff's evil deeds in "Wuthering Heights". And I have recently finished a book titled "Forged In Fire", in which the evil deeds of a DEMON were detailed. Now, WHY in the world did I read THAT one? Well, no more! I'm not going on to the sequels of this book.

Henry is an EXTREMELY cynical and callous character, and succeeds in making Dorian conform to his own image. The quotes you included in your review show just what a HORRIBLE person this Henry is.

In short, I have never felt the slightest inclination to pick up this book, and your review has made the wisdom of this choice for myself abundantly clear!

Thanks for your insightful thoughts!! <3 :)

Kate Scott said...

I read this book years and years ago and I'd forgotten the key role Henry Wotton plays in the story. I also think it's interesting that the mores of 19th century British society sentenced Wilde to jail for "indecency" and accused of lacking morals when, as you said, he clearly condemned the moral depravity of his protagonist.

Suko said...

Excellent review, Brian Joseph. I read this years ago. Thanks for reminding me of how compelling this work really is.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria - I certainly understand your aversion to books of this type. One thing about this one is that the malicious character does get punished in the end.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - Indeed, the indecency charge is odd as this book clearly condemned indecency. It seems that those folks did not want certain acts even portrayed in fiction.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko - It really was a great work.

HKatz said...

I read this book, and enjoyed your analysis. From what I remember, Wotton didn't even believe in his own way of thinking, not really. In the end, I think he expressed surprise that Dorian would take him so seriously (or wouldn't see the connection between his own philosophy and the possibility of Dorian committing murder). He's a hollow man but superficially charming and seductive.

The only adaptation of this book I watched was the 1945 one with Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vane. It wasn't bad, but it was also lacking something, even when judged separately from the book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Wotton is indeed charming and he attracts others. I have known a few people in real life like him.

I need to rewatch some of the film versions.

Harvee Lau said...

What a great story! Appearances can be deceiving.

JaneGS said...

I think this is a seminal work, however, I don't think it's actually a very good novel. Last time I read it, I really felt that it would have been more effective as a short story as I thought Wilde dragged it out a bit too much. That said, it is worth reading. Despite my reservations about the writing, I've read it at least three times.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - It is interesting that you thought it was a bit long. I thought that it needed space to develop ideas.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Indeed, Dorian was attractive on the outside, but monstrous on the inside.

R.T. said...

Very interesting! I remember the novel as a parable, an exploration of an individual's multiple personalities-- public and private -- and the problems that arise. Perhaps I was reading it too biographically, and I guess I should revisit it with different perspectives in mind. Thanks for your posting and the provocation for rereading.

CyberKitten said...

Lionsgate has launched development of a movie based on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Variety has learned exclusively.

The studio is putting a twist on the classic Victorian age story of a hedonistic man whose self-portrait ages while he stays eternally young. In this project, the title character will be a woman.

The film will be directed by Annie Clark, a.k.a St. Vincent, the experimental rock multi-instrumentalist. Her album, the self-titled “St. Vincent,” won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 2015. She has been the recipient of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award and the Q Maverick award, both given for outstanding innovation in the arts.

Because that makes *SO* much sense...... [rotflmao]

Brian Joseph said...

Hi RT There is so much to this book. I think it is a parable about different aspects of people's personalities. I just focused on different points in this post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - That is really interesting information! It could passably work. But I agree, there is a very good chance that it will a train wreck :)

baili said...

I read "the importance of being earnest" and loved it !

he seems more interested in human psychology and his unbalancing between good and bad .

your reviews are always so provoking for reading the book which finding here is a task for me yet i be glad that at least i knew through your great job the variety of topics and brilliance of writies.
this post is really appealing and i really want to read this and i think i would somehow ,sometime
thank you so much brain!

Carol said...

Excellent review, Brian! Love your delving & how you bring these layers in the books you review to the surface.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Carol - This one was not too hard as there was a lot of overt philosophy.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Baili - I have not yet read The Importance of Being Earnest. I would like to.

This book certainly delved into psychology, good and evil, and all sorts of philosophical stuff.

If you read this I would love to know what you thought of it.

So many books, so little time said...

EEEEK Brian, a book we have both read :D I don't seem to have done a review for it but I rated it 4/5. I read it whilst on holiday I think and really enjoyed it, think I saw the movie too. Eerie and dark xxx

Lainy http1;//www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I am glad that you liked this. I really loved it.

It has been a while since I have seen any of the film versions.I need to give one or more of them another watch.

The Bookworm said...

I need to read The Picture of Dorian Gray, the premise sounds really interesting. I like the passages you shared here.
Happy weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I think that you would like this story.