The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I had to read this novel for my English lit course and though I often find reading things that I haven’t chosen to a chore, I’d been quite looking forward to reading a novel by Wilde. Shamefully, the only other piece of his work I read before this novel was ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ which I openly loved so I had quite high expectations for this novel.

The novel begins with a small non-fiction prologue by Wilde talking in the typically Victorian grandiose style about art and all its intricacies – he describes it amiably in the manner of the time and then finishes the piece by commenting ‘All art is quite useless’ thus completely contradicting everything he has said and bringing in Wilde’s wonderful criticisms of the society in which he lives. He makes such comments as a mockery of the world around him but he does so with so much clever sophistication I cannot help but admire him. Any good writer – or person for that matter – must be able to criticise society because there is so much to criticise! Wilde lived in an era where all society was a complete farce in which everyone was more concerned about their social standing – and this is very apparent in this novel.

The novel begins in a small studio with some very visual and almost touchable descriptions of the environment by Wilde and introduces the characters Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward. Lord Henry is sprawled on a couch smoking whilst Basil is working on a portrait of a positively beautiful young man. Henry tells Basil that the portrait is his ‘best work yet’ and slowly drags out of Basil the identity of this young man whom Henry adores simply from this canvas. On meeting Gray, a shy and timid young man unaware of his beauty, Henry loves him on sight for his looks – just like Basil had done – and so the nets of love begin to form.

Upon seeing his portrait Dorian is taken aback at his own beauty and comments that he would give his soul to remain as he is and for the portrait to age instead. Later, Gray gets involved in a love affair with a young woman who he has fallen in love with on the basis of her beautiful and passionate acting skills. After confessing his love for her and sharing a kiss with her he takes Basil and Henry to see her perform as Juliet but she does so poorly. When he talks to her afterwards she says she is no longer able to recite her love for another when she is in love with him – in his disgust and disappointment he says that he no longer loves her and even when she begs him on her knees to reconsider, he leaves. His anger abates over night and he writes her a passionate love letter only to be told when Henry arrives that she is dead.

Gray is then shocked to see that there is a change in the painting Hallward did of him – there is a cruelness of the mouth that wasn’t there before and Gray realises that his ‘wish’ had come true. Upon realising this he is overjoyed that he shall always remain young and throughout his life he proceeds to love material goods – particularly jewels, rich fabrics and general material wealth as well as becoming obsessed with things like music and with the painting itself. He observes the changes in the painting with awe and approval at first but before long he becomes obsessed with it and is unable to go away from his home for long for fear of it being discovered.

Much of the novel is strongly centred around the love of art and beauty in particular – Dorian is loved for his looks but the portrait bears the true scars of his soul. Through this and his various criticisms of Victorian society with numerous conversations and quotes that had me rolling around laughing, Wilde shows his contempt for the society he is in and makes some very strong statements about the corruption and sheer foolishness of the upper classes as whole.

Wilde was a homosexual and that was actually illegal at the time. When he was eventually unfortunately discovered for what he really was it ruined him. This is ironic and saddening considering many of Wilde’s views were those of a modern man – he believed in science over religion and openly criticises it in the works I have read, he could criticise his own class and see it for what it really was – which most Victorians could not and just generally he had many views that were to become the norm not that long after his own time.

I enjoyed this novel even though at times it was difficult and even overbearing to read because of the depth of description Victorian writers would often slip into. That said, however, it has only increased my respect for Wilde on the whole for the points he makes and because the novel and storylines themselves are brilliant. Wilde manages to unravel vanity and peoples love of the wrong things extremely well in this novel and I couldn’t help but to get immersed in this text even when it took a lethargic tone. I would highly recommend this to anyone with a sense of humour – though I don’t doubt that many people will miss the jokes in there – and anyone who is open to something a bit different – I don’t think Wilde could ever be called ‘Typical’.

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