Whenever my friends ask which authors are favourite, the list of my favourite authors sometimes has been changed a bit but I always include Oscar Wilde especially for his sharp wit and say ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is my favourite among his writings. It’s one of few books I’ve read over three times.
Then, why ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray?’
Well, simply put, it’s well-written. From the word from Oscar Wilde,”Books are well written, or badly written.” and this one is well-written.
Or in more complicated manner, because it’s arguably literature’s greatest study of shallowness, vanity, casual cruelty and hedonistic selfishness with lots of Oscar Wilde witty and acute insights. Here is the plot:
The picture of Dorian Gray started with Dorian Gray’s desire of eternal youth looking. At the beginning, the portrait painter Basil Hallward fell in love with Dorian’s pure beauty and painted him. After finishing it, Dorian Gray immediately loved the painting as if Narcissus fell in love with his reflection on the pond. When Dorian visited to see his portrait, Dorian met Lord Henry who is a friend of Basil. Lord Henry is a hedonist that posits the only worthwhile life is one spent pursuing beauty and satisfaction for the senses. He said to Dorian Gray:
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, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.
and Dorian Gray became enthralled with cynic Lord Henry. At the moment Dorian Gray saw his portrait, he wished that he could keep his young beauty eternally and his wish happened to come true.
More Dorian is hanging out with Lord Henry, his pure mind became more tainted,more shallow and more hedonistic. Meanwhile, Dorian Gray was mesmerized by Sibyl. Sibyl is an actress and who performs Shakespeare plays in a dingy, working-class theatre. Dorian approaches and courts her, and soon proposes marriage. The enamoured Sibyl calls him “Prince Charming”, and swoons with the happiness of being loved. Dorian invites Basil and Lord Henry to see Sibyl perform in Romeo and Juliet. Sibyl, too distracted by thinking of Dorian, performs poorly, which makes both Basil and Lord Henry think Dorian has fallen in love with Sibyl because of her beauty instead of her acting talent. Embarrassed, Dorian rejects Sibyl, telling her that acting was her beauty; without that, she no longer interests him. On returning home, Dorian notices that the portrait has changed; his wish has come true, and the man in the portrait bears a subtle sneer of cruelty.
After getting to know Sibyl killed herself after the harsh rejection, Dorian Gray felt guilty first but soon he became addicted to opium to escape from guiltiness. Over the following eighteen years, he experiments with every vice, influenced by a morally poisonous French novel that Lord Henry Wotton gave him.
One night, before leaving for Paris, Basil goes to Dorian’s house to ask him about rumours of his self-indulgent sensualism. Dorian does not deny his debauchery, and takes Basil to see the portrait.
“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”-Dorian Gray
The portrait has become so hideous that Basil is only able to identify it as his work by the signature he affixes to all his portraits. Basil is horrified, and beseeches Dorian to pray for salvation. In anger, Dorian blames his fate on Basil, and stabs him to death.
One day,on returning to London, Dorian tells Lord Henry that he will live righteously from then on. His new probity begins with deliberately not breaking the heart of the naïve Hetty Merton, his current romantic interest. Dorian wonders if his new-found goodness has reverted the corruption in the picture, but when he looks he sees only an even uglier image of himself. From that, Dorian understands that his true motives for the self-sacrifice of moral reformation were the vanity and curiosity of his quest for new experiences.
Deciding that only full confession will absolve him of wrongdoing, Dorian decides to destroy the last vestige of his conscience, and the only piece of evidence remaining of his crimes – the picture. In a rage, he takes the knife with which he murdered Basil Hallward, and stabs the picture. The servants of the house awaken on hearing a cry from the locked room; on the street, passers-by who also heard the cry call the police. On entering the locked room, the servants find an unknown old man, stabbed in the heart, his face and figure withered and decrepit. The servants identify the disfigured corpse by the rings on its fingers which belonged to their master; beside him is the picture of Dorian Gray, restored to its original beauty.
<Dorian Gray by Ivan Albright at Art Institute of Chicago>
While this story is often mentioned among the classics of the Horror genre (which I do have a problem with) this is much more a study of the human monster than it is some boogeyman. My favorite parts of the story were the extensive dialogues between the characters, usually Dorian and Lord Henry. They were wonderfully perverse and display a level of casual cruelty and vileness towards humanity that make it hard to breathe while reading.
“It is silly of you, for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
“But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face.”
“If they know nothing of victory, they are at least spared the knowledge of defeat.”
“Genius lasts longer than Beauty. That accounts for the fact that we all take such pains to over-educate ourselves. In the wild struggle for existence, we want to have something that endures, and so we fill our minds with rubbish and facts, in the silly hope of keeping our place.”
“You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know.”
“Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired, women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.”
“I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects.”
Every time I re-read it, there are always some new highlights. Why had I highlighted these lines? Do they still mean the same thing to me, as they did when I first took note of them, enough to highlight them? Or maybe I’m seduced by cynic and decadent Lord Henry as Dorian did?
For Oscar Wilde with this novel, I think this quote describes him the best,
“Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”-Oscar Wilde