Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

(An Edited) Publisher's Blurb:
Celebrated novel traces the moral degeneration of a handsome young Londoner from an innocent fop into a cruel and reckless pursuer of pleasure... As Dorian Gray sinks into depravity, his body retains perfect youth and vigor while his recently painted portrait reflects the ravages of crime and sensuality.
 (I edited the blurb because part of it gave away a critical plot development.  Perhaps the publisher thinks that with such a famous story, there can be no spoilers, but I disagree.)

My Reaction:
I decided to read this on a whim.  It was a "classic" I'd never heard much about, apart from the obviously most well-known aspect of the portrait that ages in the main character's stead.  I believe I saw it listed as horror, which is what excited my curiosity, since I'd never seen it described as such.  Now that I've read it, I'd say that labeling it as horror may be going a bit too far, even by "classics" standards.  There are certainly horrible happenings, but that doesn't make this horror. 

While reading, it felt like it took me a while to slog through this short novel.  Even before the half-way point, I really just wanted the thing over and done with.  Once the story is going and things are actually happening, it's a speedy enough read.  The problem is that there are long stretches with very little non-repetitive dialogue or action of any significant kind.  One could easily condense the book into a short story and leave very little (worth reading) out, in my humble opinion.

So no, I was not enthralled.  The basic concept is intriguing... but it suffered from having too few really likeable characters to balance out the horrid ones.  It was interesting at points, but those points were too few and far between.  The wit sparkled, but soon it felt like a loop of the same old same.  If it wasn't a repeat of the same exact sentiments, they were close enough to seem like repeats.  The clever, wicked sayings grew tiresome.  An excellent command of the language can only carry you so far-- especially when you are overly conscious of your own cleverness.

I doubt I'll ever want to revisit The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I suppose it is one of those things that are worth reading once.

More Specifics (with one spoilery one at the end):
--  After reading a little about the book online, after finishing the novel itself, I learned that the preface was added after the novel's initial outraged reception.  I'm not surprised.  It certainly felt very defensive:

"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.  Books are well written, or badly written.  That is all."

I don't quite agree.  Can the book itself-- the printed words on paper-- be moral/immoral?  No, it is only an object.  But it is possible to write a book that leads people astray more than not-- a book whose reading sullies the mind and excites unworthy impulses in the hearts of those who read it.  To completely ignore that truth-- to wash your hands of it after the writing and say, "It's not my fault if they behave badly after I've shown them how it's done!"-- is a rather pathetic attempt at self-deception. If you believe in morality/right vs. wrong at all, you must recognize that a book is an expression of thought-- a communication between minds (those of author and reader) -- and of course they can contain moral or immoral messages and intentions.

--  "We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.  The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely."

No, I disagree.  Why not admire a useful thing?  Why cannot a thing be useful and admirable (beautiful) at the same time?

--  "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."  Many of the "sayings" in this book feel extremely familiar because they have become famous in their own right.  There's no denying that Wilde was clever with words. 

--  Lord Henry/Harry... Ah, what can I say about him?  Perhaps that he is possibly the most loathsome character I have ever come across?  Or at least, the most loathsome (and misogynistic) in recent memory.  His speech to Dorian-- the speech on the all-importance of youth, stirring the seeds of vanity and wickedness in the boy to life and growth-- is one of the most noxious, depressing things I have ever read.  He really is horrible.  Anyone over the age of thirty reading it must feel a draining away of spirit while reading it.

--  On the one hand, this books does seem somewhat dangerous to the young and impressionable.  Some of the sentiments expressed are nothing short of vile and poisonous.  On the other hand, we look at what happens to Dorian and see the story as a warning against hedonism...  Still, not a story for children-- not that many children would even be interested.

--  Henry is definitely a man who loves the sound of his own voice, and it's obvious that Wilde enjoyed using the character as a mouthpiece for some of his own most scandalous and witty observations.

--  Though nothing is stated explicitly (in the probably edited version that I read, at least), all the male characters act and speak as though they are gay-- including those who are married or who have dalliances with female characters.  (The one exception is the rough Jim, Sybil Vane's brother.)  For instance, look at Dorian's detailed description of what Sybil was wearing one night... I think very few straight men would remember a woman's dress down to such tiny details-- and certainly not describe it thus.  What was the point of that?  Are they supposed to be gay, or did Wilde simply find it difficult to write about sophisticated males in such a way that they didn't seem affectedly feminine?

--  What was with that long chapter covering Dorian's actions over the space of many years?  It went on forever!  Also, there is nothing inherently evil about a fascination with jewels, music, etc.  I suppose Wilde couldn't/didn't wish to go into details about the truly awful things Dorian has done, so we get pages about famous gems instead... ???

--  "Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man's face.  It cannot be concealed.  People talk sometimes of secret vices.  There are no such things.  If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even."

I disagree.
I don't think such things are always visible.  If a person acknowledges to himself that he has a vice, and if it troubles him night and day, then it will likely show-- but not always.   Also, that does not account for those who don't recognize their sins for what they are.  Or rather, those who know that what they do is deemed wrong by the world (so that they know to hide it), but who are lacking in conscience to the degree that the knowledge doesn't trouble them.

--  "She laughed again.  Her teeth showed like white seeds in a scarlet fruit."

Um, gross.


I thought the portrait might burn in a housefire (or similar) with the same essential result as what actually happened in the book (sudden reversal of appearances between Dorian and his portrait)-- but I didn't foresee Dorian himself destroying the portrait.