Saturday, April 23, 2011

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I suppose it was bound to happen–a Back to the Classics book that I expected to love, but didn’t. After having To Kill a Mockingbird and All Quiet on the Western Front meet all my expectations for awesomeness, I was fully prepared to be awed once again. Instead, I appreciated the book but I also found it a bit...irritating.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in book form in 1891, so it comes in just under the wire for my 19th century classic. I’ve wanted to read this for a long time because it’s supposed to be so representative not only of Wilde’s work but of Wilde. I wanted to be dazzled by his wit, shocked by his licentiousness, and frightened by the storyline’s Gothic suspense. But I was underwhelmed.

Dorian Gray is an absurdly good-looking young man at the book’s opening. Young and innocent, he is seemingly unaware of his own beauty and the effect it has on people. He’s been discovered by Basil Hallward, a painter, who has become enamored with him. Basil has been painting Dorian and feels that his appreciation of the young man has somehow elevated all his art. Most significantly, he has painted the portrait.

Reluctantly, Basil introduced Dorian to Lord Henry Wotton. Henry is an aristocrat, a man who doesn’t do anything but go about in society. He particularly likes to hear himself talk. And Henry is a bad influence. He very much enjoys being a bad influence. He is pleased with his own reputation for wittiness and for naughtiness. However, much of his reputation for naughtiness is due to what he says more than what he actually does. He doesn’t have the youth and beauty to get away with too much bad behavior.

Wotton meets Dorian and is thrilled by his youth and the fact that he is essentially a blank canvas. Wotton is determined not to let all that youth and beauty go to waste. He encourages Dorian to discover what life has to offer– namely, pleasure. Selfish pleasure.

The first step is to make Dorian aware of his looks by pointing out the portrait Basil has painted. In examining this image of himself, Dorian not only recognizes how beautiful he is but also understands (thanks to Wotton) that much of his beauty is because of the young, untouched innocence that is there. Youthful innocence is a fleeting sort of charm. He cries out a prayer that the painting should age and he should remain unchanged.

That is the well-known premise of the book. Dorian’s picture ages and warps, but he remains forever youthful in appearance.

He goes on to lead a life of increasing hedonism and corruption, encouraged by Lord Henry, who knows nothing about the painting.

I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the book.

My reaction was mixed. The writing is outstanding, naturally, and it’s well worth the read just from that standpoint. Plus, it is something of a cultural icon. Or was. People still make references to the seemingly ageless person and the portrait in the attic, don’t they?

However, I expected to be more sucked in by the plot. To feel more suspense. In fact, the picture plays a surprisingly small role. And even the role it does play...I never quite believed. It was too contrived. There was no attempt to spin any sort of convincing explanation. Yes, it is supernatural or Gothic or paranormal, or whatever label you put on a thing that is cool and spooky but remains a completely unrealistic plot device. Sometimes I can suspend disbelief and be creeped out, but this time it seemed academic, not creepy. I read the book looking for what the changing picture symbolized. It felt like a book to read to study, not to read to enjoy.

I had a similar reaction to the characters. I could not appreciate them as actual people. They were examples of people. Dorian was the beautiful boy who lost his soul. Basil was the passionate, tragic artist, the weak voice of restraint. Lord Henry was the indifferent, amoral hedonist, the witty tempter. Wilde wrote their scripts and they acted their parts, but I never felt like I was immersed in a real world that they inhabited.

The book does abound with witticisms. Lord Henry prides himself on being a wit, others compliment him on that. Wilde was careful to pack Henry’s speeches with bon mot after bon mot and to send the men to plentiful social engagements so that Henry could show off. Sometimes he would have Dorian quote Henry for a bit of variety. So that was good for mild amusement. But Henry was such an irritating, full-of-himself character that it had the effect of turning me off Wilde. (Apologies to Wilde enthusiasts. I do agree that he is talented. Yes, he is funny. His cynicism is exceedingly clever. But unrelenting as it is, it did get a bit tiresome.) I began to wonder if he kept a notebook of witticisms, chuckling to himself at his own cleverness, and decided he just had to write a novel constructed around a witty devil whose inane philosophical ramblings corrupt an empty-headed Adonis simply so that he (Wilde) could compile his own collected wit and wisdom in one marketable volume.

My final analysis is this: I’m glad I finally read this book. It has been on my shelf a long time, haunting me. There is much to admire in Wilde’s writing. I still think the premise and the theme are brilliant. But overall this is the type of book I’d rather have read for a class. I would have enjoyed finding some particular piece of minutiae within the story to write a paper about. It’s a great book to pick apart and analyze. For me, it wasn’t a great novel to sit down and enjoy.


  1. I find a lot of classics like this - amazing writing but I don't get sucked into the plot or characters. I think it's my modern viewpoints coming through - back then they probably didn't write to that criteria, as we expect writers to now.

  2. I agree with you about the unrelenting witticisms. It does get tiring. I thought wilde's Lady Windmere's Fan to be a far superior example of his work. It is also one of his most restrained works, wit-wise. Great review.

  3. I was exactly the same as you when I came to read this. I sat down and expected to be in awe. I had just finished "Turn of the Screw" which scared the daylights out of me and I was expecting more of the same. Instead I was bored by both Henry and Dorian.

  4. Hmmmm. That comment about Oscar Wilde and his probable notebook of witticisms rings true. It reminded me of something I read (albeit on wikipedia) that Dorothy Parker said about the Algonquin Round Table:

    "The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them....There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn't have to be any truth..."

    I remember liking Dorian Gray when I read it, but that was back in high school, I think. But nothing stuck with me except maybe Sybil.