Sunday Salon: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)

TSSbadge4The Picture of Dorian Gray falls squarely in the category of ‘books I know about and so don’t need to read; except that, when I do read them, it turns out I didn’t know them at all’. What prompted me to read it now? It was the choice for a new reading group I’ve joined, which met for the first time this afternoon; and it seems a good subject for a Sunday Salon post. (NB. This is more likely to be a series of scattered impressions than a proper ‘review’.)

If you had asked me to summarise the book a couple of weeks ago (i.e. before I’d started reading it), I’d have told you that Dorian Gray was a man who didn’t age, whilst the figure in the portrait of himself that he had hidden away aged instead. And I’d have been wrong. It’s true that Dorian doesn’t age; but the picture bears the marks of psychological ravages as well as physical ones — and it’s the former that prove more damaging.

We first encounter Dorian Gray at the home of his artist friend Basil Hallward, who’s been painting the titular portrait. Here, Dorian meets the vile Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonistic aesthete who values ‘beauty’ above all else, and disapproves of such values as loyalty and unselfishness. Dorian is at first wary of Henry’s worldview; but, when Sybil Vane, the young actress to whom he is engaged, kills herself (because of the harsh way in which Dorian dismisses her and the acting which is so close to her heart), Dorian sees the first change in his portrait — and this causes hm to throw himself into a life of decadence. The rest of Wilde’s novel chronicles Dorian’s decline, as he becomes ever more selfish, ruining the lives of others, even to the point of murder. He does start to have doubts and regrets in the end; but by then it may be too late for him.

I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a fascinating psychological portrait; what’s particularly interesting is the way that Dorian’s life and ‘self’ become distorted, even as his body stays the same; he might have escaped the ageing process, but Dorian can hardly be said to have remained immaculate, as he wished.

Related to that last point is the issue of morality. Wilde’s preface (I’m unsure whether or not it is meant to be taken at face value) includes a comment that ‘there is no such thing as an moral or immoral book’; but I do see the book as quite moral, because the Dorian’s selfishness and hedonism seem to me to be presented in an ultimately negative light. However, I don’t think a reading of the novel as a bad-things-happen-to-bad-people moral fable quite works; because, strictly speaking, Dorian gets his comeuppance for seeking to abandon his decadence (as symbolised by the portrait); and Lord Henry, who espoused in the first place the philosophy that led to Dorian’s (and others’) ruin, gets no comeuppance at all. So there is some moral ambiguity there; I think the issue is probably going to remain unresolved in my mind.

As a novel… I hestitate to judge a hundred-year-old book by my own modern standards of how a novel should be; but, for what it’s worth, I thought it well written but a little awkwardly constructed, with Wilde whizzing over a period of eighteen years between the most important events in Dorian’s life, and leaving the details of who some of the characters are rather sketchy.

Anyway, the most imprtant thing is that I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a good, thought-provoking read — deservedly a ‘classic’.