I recently finished reading The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and I surprisingly enjoyed it. Why did I decide to read this book? Well, it was on sale for five bucks, and I’ve been wanting to read more classics, so I thought I might as well. I’ve also always been interested in the aesthetic of the Victorian era, so when I picked it up, I thought I might as well give it a chance.
The book was written by Oscar Wilde, a popular Irish author, poet, and playwright from the late 1800s. He wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray during the 1890s when the aestheticism movement was all the rage in London. He came from a prolific family of authors and was an educated, witty man. Although he mostly wrote plays and occasionally poetry, his most famous work is The Picture of Dorian Gray, the only novel he ever published.
The book starts out with the artist Basil Hallward painting a portrait of Dorian Gray, a young, handsome gentleman who has become Basil’s muse. While he’s being painted, Dorian is observed by Lord Henry Wotton who’s enraptured by Dorian’s youthful beauty. While sitting for his painting, Dorian listens to Lord Henry hedonistic philosophy on how the only meaningful things in life are beauty and pleasure, which fills Dorian with the fear of growing old and ugly. He makes a wish that his portrait should age rather than himself. Then, fearless of consequences, he launches into a life of debauchery. Every sin that he commits is then reflected in the portrait which is banished to the attic where it becomes a source of loathing in Dorian’s life.
The rest of this contains major spoilers for this book so be warned.
I actually really, really liked this book, but it’s also incredibly trippy. All the characters are dramatic to the extreme and talk in metaphors all the time; it felt more like I was reading poetry than dialogue. The characters are always casually spouting some philosophy about the interpretation of art or the inadequacies of marriage or some dramatic topic like that.
Wilde seemed to have an opinion about every aspect of life in Victorian England. Wilde throws a lot of shade at everyone: He critics the rich as being lazy and concerned with trivial things, the poor as vulgar, women as inferior, and basically calls all of English society a bunch of stupid hypocrites. I often found myself trying to tell whether what someone was saying was the opinion of that character or the opinion of the author. What I liked most about the philosophical talk was his ideas about art and youth; however, I found his philosophy on society interesting but much too cynical for my liking.
Wilde wrote this book to challenge the popular belief at the time that art has to say something meaningful to be considered good. He was a major proponent of the aestheticism movement which sought to emphasize the aesthetic value of art over any social or political value. Aestheticists disliked the morality of the middle class, as embodied by Lord Henry who often challenged people’s ethical convictions.
I found it fascinating that despite how frequent Dorian’s sinful lifestyle is brought up, we never see the immoral things that he does besides the scene where we see him kill Basil. Wilde alludes to the idea that he’s promiscuous, and he introduces his friends to his vices, but other than that the specifics of what leads to the degradation of his soul isn’t really mentioned.
The book also never explains how or why the painting represents what it does. He notices the painting changing after he breaks his lover’s heart and just accepts it without really caring about how it’s even possible that the portrait is transformed by every decision he makes. Despite all that, I liked how those aspects were left unanswered because it added a layer of mystery that made the story more interesting and made Dorian’s character more fascinating.
Although I loved this book overall, there were a few sections where I found myself zoning out. He literally went on for six and a half pages on types of instruments Dorian collected and different fabrics and gems he’s studied. It’s all to make some point about his obsession with luxury and how time destroys all beautiful things or whatever, but it was an incredibly boring section to read.
It was also not a very easy book to read as some of it is contradictory at times. There was also a section entirely in French where I had no idea what he was saying and felt no desire to even try to look it up. Wilde uses several allusions to mythology and classic literature, some of which I understood and some of which went straight over my head. I found it difficult both to read and hard to understand contentwise.
Despite how challenging it felt at times, I liked the themes in this book, and the story was pretty interesting. It was ironic and almost funny at times, while being serious and thought-provoking at others. It is also worth noting that Wilde is an incredible writer; some sentences left me with chills from how beautiful they were. You could tell that Wilde was used to mostly writing poetry and plays because of how flowery and over the top the language felt. I felt that his unique flavor of writing elevated my enjoyment of the story.
If you aren’t used to reading old-timey books or have no interest in reading them, then I wouldn’t suggest that you read this book. It’s not that long and it has a really good story, but if you have trouble with reading old classics then this may not be the book for you. But, if you want a challenge and you have the patience to get through long, convoluted talks about the state of the bourgeois, then you might like it. I realize that some of what I’m saying makes it sound like I don’t like the book, but I truly did have a good time reading it and I’d like if other people read it too.