The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a hard book to review. After reading such eloquent, beautiful, and rich writing, I am at a loss for how to command my comparatively paltry ability to use words to express how I felt about this book.
Forgive me as I go back to AP English for a few moments. I asked myself what were the themes of this novel. Here is my list:
The triumph on senses over reason
I will attempt to build my review, in part, around the discussion of these themes.
Dorian Gray was a flawed man who was essentially empty inside. He was very young when this story began, seemingly full of potential. Sadly, he invested all his sense of worth in his external beauty, doing little to grow the inner man; unless you consider his descent into depravity, discovering more and more excesses for the meaningless value of those experiences (since his mentor Lord Henry taught him that experience has no value), yet he was strangely curious as to how they would affect the portrait of his soul. He was not quite a tragic figure, because I could not feel sorry for him. He had made this horrible decision (and I believe he had opportunities to repent of it, which he didn't take), but he chose never to take responsibility for himself. Which leads to the next theme.
As I said above, I could feel no sympathy for Dorian Gray. Why? Because he never took responsibility for his actions. Being accountable for one's own actions is a crucial aspect of self-development, at least in my humble opinion. If a person cannot do that, they are doomed to eternal immaturity. This was Dorian's fate. It was Basil's fault for painting the picture. It was Sybil's fault for being a bad actress, and making him fall out of love with her. All the people he ruined in his relentless pursuit of pleasure and debauchery ruined themselves. He took no part in their ruination. Ultimately, he even blamed the picture, and sought to destroy it as the only true evidence of his black soul. I feel like this: If you're going to be a bad, selfish person, own up to it. Don't try to act like your sins should be laid at other people's feet. That was the route the Mr. Dorian Gray took.
Lord Henry was the man who opens Dorian's eyes to the fact that the only thing he has to his advantage is the beauty of his youth, that he should enjoy life while he is young enough to experience it fully. He states that experience is not a teacher, and that men don't learn from the mistakes they make as they live. Your experiences don't count for anything. It seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for Dorian Gray. Instead of realizing how his selfish, shallow actions could hurt and destroy others, he never did do that. He merely went from one fixation to the other, marking the effects on the portrait that he guarded jealously. In the end, there was no value to what he experienced. He was just wasting time (in my opinion).
The triumph of sensation over reason
Dorian Gray became a voluptuary, lost in sensations. He didn't focus on becoming a learned person, only experiencing what he encountered in his pursuits, wallowing in those sensations; until he grew bored, and moved onto the next one. Lord Henry seemed like a good mentor. A man who appeared so intelligent, with a saying for everything. A witty, entertaining man, who had a reputation for saying utterly wicked things. But he wasn't a deep man. He didn't believe what he said. It was an image that he projected for lack of anything else to do as an aristocrat who had no need to work for a living. Dorian Gray took this as gospel, and took it to the next level. As a result, it made his life utterly meaningless. Sadly, his friend Basil, who was a fairly wise person, was dismissed, and made fun of by Lord Henry. I almost felt like Basil and Lord Henry were the warring aspects of Dorian's conscience, at times.
What is beauty? I tend to think it's a double-edged sword. We are all attracted to things that are beautiful, that have a physical appeal. But, should we be content with merely a comely appearance, while the inside is rotted? Dorian Gray was a man of such unearthly beauty that people could not believe he was capable of the debauchery he had committed. Those who didn't heed the warnings given to them, came to rue it. Basil, who painted the young Dorian's fateful picture, couldn't accept that Dorian had become such a horrible person. What a sad fate that was for Basil.
I felt several things as I read this book: interest, curiosity, disgust, sadness, and ultimately, a sense that justice had been done, in a very strange, but fitting way.
One thing that became very apparent to me as I read this novel, was Oscar Wilde's considerable wit. I imagine he was quite entertaining to be around.
In the preface, Oscar Wilde says that all art is meaningless. What was he trying to say with this story? Nothing?
I have trouble believing that. This was a novel I couldn't dismiss and treat as mere brain candy. There was some message there that hammered away at my brain. I do believe that Mr. Wilde hints at the subjective nature of art (which includes literature). I think that we could all read the same story and take away different things from it. Our brains are so very different, and the pathways are nurtured and developed by our various experiences, and our own values. So, that we will all come away from viewing a picture or reading a story with a hand-tailored message. Maybe that's what he means by saying that an artist strives not to be present in his work. Instead, it is a mirror reflecting the viewer. That makes sense to me, actually.
What message did I come away with?
At the end of the day, I believe that Dorian Gray led a worthless life. His eternal youth counted for nothing. He never grew as a person, and he used the bounteous gifts he'd been given selfishly. He did horrible things that made it even worse. He was lucky in that he didn't live long enough to count the full cost of those actions. He allowed the portrait to take the weight of those sins intead of letting them rest where they belonged. If anything really bothers me as a person, it's the thought of my time on this earth being wasted. Never having accomplished anything of value. For that reason, I found Dorian Gray to be a very sad man, but I could not feel sorry for him.
So, is this a horror novel, you might ask?
I think this is a thinking person's horror novel. It is a study of how the sins we commit cannot be hidden, even if we lie to ourselves about that. Interestingly enough, Mr. Wilde does not elaborate on what vile acts Dorian committed. We are left to our own expansive imaginations to surmise the bulk of what he'd done. Some people don't believe in such a thing as sin. If you don't believe in sin, how could it have a cost? It didn't matter that Dorian Gray didn't acknowledge his sins. They caught up with him in the end. The horror is how he confronted the consequences of his sins, yet turned away from them, locking that manifestation away in the attic to view with a detached sort of curiosity. The horror is the lives he destroyed, but never felt more than a moment's remorse. Fundamentally, Dorian Gray was an angelically beautiful monster. The horror is that we can look upon beauty, and we can be fooled into never asking what lies beneath it.
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