Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, has long been on my reread list. I read it first probably in my late teens and had forgotten most of the details over the years, except, of course, the basic premise--that a painting of a beautiful young man ages instead of the man himself. It's such a brilliant premise and Wilde is such a witty writer that I was surprised to find myself disappointed in the novel midway through it.

Here are a random collection of thoughts on the book.

It's a retelling of the myth of Narcissus, the boy who fell in love with his image when he caught sight of it reflected in a pool, and died because he could do nothing besides look at himself. Certainly, Dorian fell in love with himself and the idea of youth and beauty being the only thing worth having or being, and certainly this took him down a self-destructive path.

Dorian, beyond owning the picture, is a fairly dull character. At first, he is a blank canvas, so to speak, on which both Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton fashion the character of Dorian. I was so frustrated that Dorian, as soon as he realized that the picture would age instead of him, leaped to the notion that he would sin and the picture and not his face/body would reflect that sin. Only once, or maybe twice, did Dorian even consider the possibility that he would not live a life of depravity once he knew that the world would not see the wages of sin on his face.

The dialogue was the best part of the book by far. Reading the novel made it clear that Wilde's talent was as a playwright and not as a novelist. The novel is weak in the narrative, especially in the early part of the second half, when Wilde is describing Dorian's eighteen years from when he first receives the painting to his final days. He tediously describes the fantastic, esoteric, artistic, and intellectual pursuits of Dorian and I didn't believe him for a minute. This was clearly a MarySue fantasy, and Wilde never showed the reader that Dorian was particularly talented or even intelligent. He was portrayed as a beautiful, innocent, and idealistic young man who crashed into hedonism. I found that I could help skimming chapter 11, and I was thankful when the action resumed and Lord Henry and his witticisms returned to the story.

Lord Henry is an older version of Algernon from The Importance of Being Earnest. At one point in the novel, one of the characters says that his name should be Prince Paradox, and that might be the truest statement in the entire book. Henry's wit is exclusively based on turning a phrase inside out, a classic being "Dorian is too wise not to do foolish things now and then..."

Lord Henry is also clearly cast as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, with the book he gives Dorian which is credited with the latter's descent into depravity, being the Apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is Symbolism 101, and I expected more from Wilde.

I wanted this to be a Faust story in which the protagonist actively sells his soul for knowledge, or even beauty--believe it or not, the musical Damn Yankees kept running through my mind while I was reading about Dorian Gray. In that story, at least, Joe sold his soul to be a young, strong, best-there-ever-was baseball player. Dorian, on the other hand, uttered a casual wish that the picture would age and he wouldn't--he never strugged with the decision, and his wish wasn't even a fervent prayer. It was an adolescent response to flattery. And Wilde's account of Dorian's attempt to reform at the end was as unbelievable as his brilliance as an artiste--the problem is that Wilde didn't take the time to develop Dorian as a real character that I could understand on any level.

I can't imagine ever rereading this book. I enjoyed it too little this round to bother with it again. I found it preachy, self-consciously clever, and somewhat poorly executed, especially when Wilde's prose turned purple. It was tedious at times, with occasionally flashes of brilliant dialogue.

The version that have, like most I imagine, includes the Preface that Wilde wrote for the second edition of the novel. In it, he says that "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written." Implicit in this statement is that The Picture of Dorian Gray is well written. Certainly I don't think this is an immoral book. On the contrary, it is a hit-'em-over head moral tale. But I don't think it is a particularly well written book either. The premise is brilliant, but it is the premise for a short story or a play rather than a novel. I felt nothing but relief when Dorian finally stabbed his picture and died--now I could put the book back on the shelf and move on.

I'm not sorry I reread the book. I've carried this notion in my head that it is a much better book than it is and it adjusts a bit the place I give Wilde in the pantheon of great writers.


  1. I recently read this was was disappointed as well. For a guy who could write such brilliant plays, this was a real letdown.

  2. I read this about 3 years ago after years spent thinking it must be a wonderful book (I'd seen an old film of it on TV) and was disappointed too.

    I'm always wary of rereading a book I enjoyed years ago in case I feel let down, but it's interesting to see how my thoughts about it may have changed.

  3. I can't recall my last re-read of this but I always find the more sensational reads to be a letdown as I get older because I'm more jaded and things that seemed shocking and original now seem to just settle somewhere in the middle.

    I think that this is why this book works well as a movie. It has the dialogue stripped of the rambling and really, it's a very visual story.

  4. I started reading this post thinking goodness, I've never read that, I really must get hold of a copy and now I'm not so sure! I love Wilde's plays and also his poetry but the only prose works I've read are his short stories, which may or may not be for children, but which children always love. Hasn't there just been a film of this? maybe I should see that instead:)

  5. I read it for the first time a few years ago. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who was disappointed with it (I thought I must have missed something). I thought that Lord Henry was the only really interesting character in the book. Maybe you have to read it for the first time when you are much younger to really enjoy it - I'm far too old and cynical now.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. It is reassuring to hear that I'm not the only one who was surprised and disappointed in this book--Wilde definitely could do witty dialogue and his plays are truly funny.

    I think I will probably see the Colin Firth movie when it goes to DVD--I agree, Jezebel, Lord Henry is far more interesting than Dorian.