He got up, and locked both doors. At least he would be alone when he looked upon the mask of his shame. Then he drew the screen aside, and saw himself face to face. It was perfectly true. The portrait had altered.
(from The Picture of Dorian Gray, page 100)
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the first pick for my new book club, and it certainly will make for an interesting discussion at tomorrow’s meeting. I’ve owned a copy of this book since I was very young (I bought the edition pictured through the Scholastic book club in middle school) but hadn’t read it. At least the book club gave me an excuse to clear this classic from my to-read shelves.
First published in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray is about a young, narcissistic man who basically sells his soul to look young forever. When the book opens, Dorian is an impressionable 20-year-old being painted by Basil Hallward, who worships Dorian for his good looks and thinks his art has reached a high point with this portrait. Basil reluctantly introduces Dorian to his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, who enjoys how easily he can persuade Dorian to his way of thinking about anything and everything.
A comment is made about how sad it is that the real Dorian will age but the Dorian in the painting will be forever young. Henry insists that beauty is more important than intelligence, though being intelligent is better than being ugly. This discussion prompts Dorian to pray that he could always remain young, and he would give his soul for the picture to grow old instead. Basil laments the changes in Dorian once he and Henry become close; whether Basil is actually in love with Dorian and whether Dorian and Henry are in love is anybody’s guess, though the dialogue between these characters is quite sensual at times.
An affair with an actress that ends tragically becomes the beginning of the end for Dorian Gray. Returning home after breaking her heart, Dorian notices that his portrait has changed, that the expression on his face has altered, and that the prayer he uttered has come true. Dorian will spend the next 18 years putting pleasure on a pedestal, living in excess, and leading other young men (and a number of women as well) down the slippery slope to ruin — all the while remaining beautiful while the portrait he has locked away displays his vile soul.
I have mixed feelings about The Picture of Dorian Gray. I’m always worried about writing style when it comes to classic novels, but Oscar Wilde’s prose is very readable. His characters are intriguing and complex, and the book gives readers much to think about — Is outward appearance more important than having a good soul? How easy is it to dupe oneself into believing that we should seek pleasure above all else? If no one can see our soul does it really matter how tainted it is? I was delighted that I could be shocked by how far Dorian was willing to go to preserve his senses-over-soul lifestyle, as I often find that classics are so old fashioned that their shock value is diminished; not so, in this case.
However, the prose went from mildly entertaining to boring to exciting to boring to exciting again. I wanted to throw the book across the train while reading one chapter in which Wilde goes on and on (and on) about Dorian’s excessive lifestyle. In describing Dorian’s excess, Wilde was a little excessive himself, providing way too many details about the instruments, jewels, and embroidered fabrics Dorian acquired over the years. In other chapters, the narration and dialogue were more statements about the characters’ lifestyles than vehicles to move Dorian’s story forward. In fact, my husband (who is in the book club, too) couldn’t get past chapter 5 because he thought the dialogue wasn’t realistic enough for his tastes. (“Who talks like that?” is what he actually said.)
Still, I ultimately liked The Picture of Dorian Gray as a captivating character study. The story was a bit over the top at times, but humorous, creepy, and quite sad in places as well. It certainly provides much food for thought about human nature and made me think about how society hasn’t changed all that much over the years. People still place a high value on beauty and pleasure without realizing that they aren’t paths to happiness. I can’t wait to discuss this with my book club!
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.