20 classics in 2011 #5: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.

Why did I want to read it?

I’d always heard Oscar Wilde was a wit, and the supernatural element of the story appealed to me.

When was it published?

It was first published in 1890, as an issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. A later revised edition was published by Ward, Lock and Company in April 1891. I read Gerard’s Digit Books edition, yellowing pages, blurry typeface and all (pictured). It has no ISBN and no date but is tied in with ‘current film success The Trials of Oscar Wilde’ which came out in 1960. See the front and back cover here. There have, of course, been multiple editions of the book (see Aus, US, UK).

What’s it about?

Basil Hallward, a painter, is infatuated with young beauty Dorian Gray. Basil’s friend Lord Henry Wotton (or ‘Harry’) is introduced to the subject by Basil, and becomes fascinated by the young man himself. The witty and cynical Harry goes on a rant to young Dorian which makes him think about the value of youth and beauty as he has never done so before:

‘You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats… Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed.’

We learn later that Harry will tell all and sundry (good-naturedly) his views on love, life, art and beauty – but this speech has a profound impact on young Dorian Gray when he lays eyes on Basil’s portrait of him. ‘A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognised himself for the first time.’ The full force of Harry’s speech hits him, and in his realisation that he will wither and wrinkle, will lose the golden tinge in his hair, that the ‘scarlet would pass away from his lips’, he feels a sharp and intense pain and he cries that he would give his soul for the chance to be the Dorian in the painting – the one who would be always young.

And after his first unforgivable act – cruelty toward a young woman with whom he had been in love – he sees that his wish might have come true.

Tell us more about the author.

Wilde was a flamboyant writer and intellectual; a poet, journalist, essayist and playwright. He was apparently a wonderful conversationalist, possessed of a biting wit. The Picture of Dorian Gray is his only novel. The Importance of Being Earnest, a play, is perhaps his masterpiece. He was born in Dublin, went to University in Dublin then at Oxford, and lived and wrote in London after that. He lectured on aestheticism in America in the 1880s.

He was an aesthete, homosexual (though he did marry, in 1884), and was involved in the decadent movement. Wilde was convicted, in the mid 1890s, of ‘gross indecency’ and sentenced to two years in prison and hard labour. He fled Britain after that, and wrote about his difficult time in prison in The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He died, after converting to Catholicism, in Paris at the age of forty-six.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

It’s by no means a perfect novel, but it is perfectly enjoyable. There were two aspects I liked best: the challenging engagement (particularly by Lord Wotton) with aspects of art, beauty, aestheticism and decadence; and the aesthetics of the novel itself – the way moments of drama are stylised.

The novel seems to warn against taking ideals of youth and beauty too far, so that they become depraved and soulless. Lord Wotton supposes (though it’s hinted by Hallward that he is being cynical) that beauty does indeed equal goodness. That you can judge a book by its cover, in other words. And Dorian’s story does actually confirm this, because his ‘soul’ in the painting becomes more and more hideous, depending on what nasty things he has been up to. But Dorian is already paying for taking the aforementioned ideals of youth and beauty too far. For believing there is nothing else.

In some way it feels as though Wilde was playing out some of his own internal conflicts though this. He did idealise beauty and decadence. I haven’t read any of his essays so I’m not an expert on his views, but the novel plays out a kind of duplicity: between a view of the value in beauty, and a humorous sending-up of this same view. Was he teasing himself? Was he both the wizened but misguided Lord Wotton, and the enthusiastic but secretly devilish youth Dorian Gray?

As mentioned I also enjoyed the way the dramatic moments of the novel are rendered. The dramatic moments are quite a contrast to the laid-back, observant wit in the dinner party conversations between Wotton, Gray and others. In one:

‘The bright dawn flooded the room, and swept the fantastic shadows into dusky corners, where they lay shuddering. But the strange expression that he had noticed in the face of the portrait seemed to linger there, to be more intensified even. The quivering, ardent sunlight showed him the lines of cruelty round the mouth as clearly as if he had been looking into a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing.’

These moments of terror and anguish make really fun reading, and reminded me of reading something like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though the other parts of this novel felt more modern.

Speaking of modern, I can’t help but wonder what Wilde would have thought of much of later modernism, or even post-modernism: a (20th Century) modernist novel might not have the same finality, the same dramatic ending, and the reader might also go where Gray secretly goes in the novel. (Most is only alluded to, until we visit an opium den with him). What would Wilde have thought of decadence, or aesthetics, had he lived to see the consumer age? It adds a layer to the reading of this book now, because concepts of ‘beauty’ have truly been warped (eg. consider the role of nature in art, back then). Concepts of youth, however… What would he think of expensive wrinkle creams and extreme cosmetic surgery? If you think about it this way, he was almost writing science fiction. Impossible and misguided goals of everlasting youthfulness, to maintain an appearance of success.

Dorian thinks heavily on the ‘monstrous’ forms of self-denial ‘whose origin was fear’, speaking mainly of religion, and wonders about a new spirituality and a new Hedonism ‘that was to recreate life, and to save it from that harsh, uncomely puritanism… It was to have its service of the intellect, certainly; yet it was never to accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience.’ He goes on, ‘Its aim, indeed, was to be experience itself and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they may be.’ So it was to live without consequence, but not necessarily in a materialistic fashion.

The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

I could just go on quoting this book, and as I write this I see that I got much more out of it than I realised. I haven’t even mentioned the epigrams yet, which preface the novel, chanelling early forms of existentialism in the way they say: there is no meaning (but there is). Here’s a couple that preface the book:

All art is at once surface and symbol.

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

Here are some of his epigrams online.

I can’t stop:

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.

Okay Oscar, I get it. Cheers.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

But seriously, despite everything above, read The Picture of Dorian Gray just for the sake of chattering with, nodding along to and arguing with Lord Henry Wotton.

What’s next?

I’ve finally read Brave New World. Maybe next I should tackle a biggie – Moby Dick? Or perhaps some Iris Murdoch, as I’m super curious about her.

Have you read The Picture of Dorian Gray? Are any of the film adaptations good? I’d be keen to read a bio on Oscar Wilde someday too…

5 thoughts on “20 classics in 2011 #5: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

  1. This is one I often pass to older students, just because. Love your summary…You would receive 100s of suggestions about what novels to read, but now you have read this, try Will Self, Dorian, an Imitation.

  2. Wilde’s novel was a favourite in my late teens. Imagine my excitement, browsing a newly made friend’s bookshelf not long after starting Uni, when I discovered the book widely believed to be the “poisonous French novel” that led to the downfall of Dorian Gray. Husmans, ‘Against Nature’ is a must read for Wilde fans, aesthetes and those who enjoy 19thC French literature: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%80_rebours

  3. I love how you discuss the whole life-imitating-art idea – I think it’s particularly interesting here as this book was used as evidence against Wilde in his 1895 trial. What I love about this book, and pretty much all of Oscar Wilde’s works, is that there is this brilliant wit that is so full of an almost preposterous and self-important confidence that plays with and on words with a mastery of the English language that moves with a such speed and edge that it often leaves you in awe and a few beats behind in comprehension – but behind this glossy thought is a sight (or insight) that seems to take Wilde’s work beyond the clever or ornamental and into an incredible depth of understanding of human nature – beyond the words is this depth of meaning that is monumental in scope and impact – it seems that the more you consider a epigrams, the more it seems loaded with both truth and thought – it’s truly remarkable:)

    As to further reading, if I may suggest, – anything on youtube by Stephen Fry (who completely idolises Wilde) is always interesting – I think he even played Wilde in a movie with Jude Law as Lord Alfred:P, but if you want something a bit different it would be worth reading the transcript of Wilde’s court case – particularly when Wilde takes his own defense:

    http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/wilde/Wildecriminaltranscript.html

    As always, looking forward to your next review:)

  4. troy – thank you, a few folks on Twitter suggested that too. It’d be an awesome read for older students.

    darcy – oh, how exciting! I was wondering, when I was reading, if it was based on something real.

    jane – thank you, I’ve read a bit of the transcripts but I’ll read more: amazing that he was continually so eloquent, even in a situation like that. And thank you, I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog 🙂

  5. Pingback: Aside: The Picture of Dorian Gray 1945 | LiteraryMinded

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