Classics Challenge: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Image from Penguin
The second book in our Classics Challenge is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. We chose it because it's one we've both wanted to read; it just happens to be a coincidence that it's also one of the shorter novels on our list. What can we say? We're easing into this challenge gently.
Oscar Wilde’s only novel is a Gothic exploration of narcissism and morality: If, at a great cost, you could choose never to age another day, would you? Under the influence of his friend Harry, Dorian Gray does just that, swapping his soul for a life ruled by the pursuit of youth and beauty. His bad deeds instead show on his newly-painted portrait which ages and corrupts, a visible reminder of the acts he’d rather forget. As you’d expect, it doesn’t work out very well for him (although he does get a lot of fancy jewels and tapestries along the way).
“Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.”
I haven’t read anything by Oscar Wilde before but he’s so heavily quoted that I had a good idea of his writing style. If you’re looking for pithy comments, astute observations and witty turns-of-phrase, Oscar Wilde's your man. Harry in particular is infinitely quotable - Wilde has a knack for taking a complex theme or trait and explaining it in a simple (and sometimes worryingly plausible) manner.
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.”
I mean, come on. With lines like that it’s no wonder Dorian falls under Harry’s influence, the smooth-tongued devil. He lays things out in such a matter-of-fact way you can't really argue with him. (Side note: Harry is so Not A Good Person. I feel like he really doesn’t get enough bad karma for leading Dorian astray.)
I think what surprised me the most is that in between this tale of supernatural paintings, eloquent rich dudes and many, many trips to the opera are some pretty relatable situations. Take the passages describing Dorian’s hoarding of beautiful art and jewels — we’ve all been there haven’t we? Bad things happen or we do something we’re not proud of and we try to drown out the thoughts by throwing ourselves into new hobbies or treating ourselves to some fine new tapestries. Dorian believes in this theory of hedonism he’s been sold, that chasing feelings of euphoria and beauty will help lessen the horrors of the world. It’s good ol’ classic escapism and I think we all know how that usually works out.
As far as the plot goes, the ending is pretty inevitable. For me, this book's strength comes from the lessons you take from it: that giving in to the influence of others can mean losing part of yourself, that beautiful things can’t make up for ugly deeds, and that you shouldn't do drugs or murders. All good advice.(3.5 / 5)
Ah Wilde, you don’t want to write anything after reading his work as everything you write sounds like total, shallow rubbish. I feel overly familiar with him as an author, considering that I have only read The Importance of Being Earnest, but I guess he is one of the most quotable guys ever so you absorb a lot of his writing without realising it.
This book is a weird contradiction, beautiful, poetic prose about cold, callous people. I didn't focus on the supernatural aspects of the story, more the exploration of morality and the human condition. The face we present to the world, the things we buy and surround ourselves with, the value we put on how other people perceive us. Beauty was, and still is, valuable, and as Dorian shows people tend to attribute good qualities to you automatically if you are lucky enough to possess it. However, the book inevitably teaches us that without substance and morals to back you up, all the perfume, shiny jewels and tapestries (he has a lot, he tells us about them in great detail) won't save your soul. It really is a very moral tale once you get all of the murdery stuff and debauchery out of the way.
As with all the classics, they are classic for a reason, and this novel is still relevant today. I think that was the first thing Jo and I spoke about when we finished reading. We can ask ourselves, how much would we have in common with Dorian if we had an incredibly beautiful exterior? Would we spend as much time cultivating our interiors or, if it is so valued by the world, would we use beauty to our advantage, douse ourselves in perfume, drape ourselves in jewels and leave our insides to rot?(4 / 5)
We both read this on Kindle but any excuse to use a photo of a Penguin Clothbound edition is fine by us.