Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray

After a little hiatus brought on the craziness of my last couple weeks, I am eager to jump back into my blog and discuss another great novel.  Today, I’ve chosen The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. 

If you’re familiar with Oscar Wilde, you probably have come across his witty plays, like The Importance of Being Earnest, and his silly quotes, such as "Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative."  In this case, you might get the impression that he was a clever writer who wrote primarily for the sake of the audience’s entertainment during his time.  Yet among his many delightful poems and plays is this one novel that offers a startling contrast to most of his other work.  Oddly, this anomaly was my first exposure to Wilde, and it was years before I discovered his famous sense of humor.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an exposé of the ugliness of beauty.  This intriguing contradiction is marvelously personified in the character of Dorian, a beautiful young man with an evil heart.  At the beginning of the novel, Dorian is the epitome of naiveté and innocence, but this is quickly warped as he discovers his own aesthetic appeal.  The good-hearted painter, Basil, creates a magnificent portrait of Dorian in his youthful perfection, which awakens Dorian’s self-lust.  Gazing longingly at his own portrait, Dorian wishes that he would always maintain the perfection of the portrait and it would be the picture that would instead lose its attractiveness.  His wish is granted, thus setting him on the course to his ultimate demise.  Eventually, Dorian’s exterior self and interior self are irrevocably separated.  As he commits each horrendous crime, his portrait becomes more and more hideous, revealing his true nature.  In the end, he must make a choice regarding which image he values more – the exterior or the interior.

There are a number of worthwhile things to talk about in this book, but I’m going to cut to the end.  I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that it is one of the best endings I’ve ever read.  It just felt so fitting, so unexpected yet perfect, that it transformed my entire view of the novel.  I liked the novel as I read it, but I loved it once I finished.  And now that I’ve read it this way, I cannot image it having any other kind of conclusion.  I realize not everyone will have this response to the ending, and I don’t want to raise your expectations so high that you are disappointed.  But if you have already read it, I’d be interested to hear whether you had the same experience with the final scene.

Now I suppose I’ll retrace my steps a bit and comment on one more aspect of the novel I love.  There is an intangible yet vital level of philosophy running as the book’s undercurrent.  Particularly in comparison with Wilde’s other works, The Picture of Dorian Gray is both a thoughtful commentary and an indicting critique.  Wilde challenges the falsehood of appearances and the emphasis our society places on them.  He allows Dorian to spiral out of control through his own selfishness and the advice of Lord Henry.  Moreover, if you have some insight about Wilde’s personal life, I believe the concept of a hidden yet powerful identity takes on special significance.


Sarah said...

This book is high on my list for next year!

IngridLola said...

It seems like everyone who reads this book loves it. Oscar Wilde fascinates me. I love that picture of him in a huge fur coat and a staff ...

Darlyn said...

I agree, Oscar Wilde is definitely fabulous. I hope to read The Picture of Dorian Gray in 2011. :)

the Crow himself said...

Interesting thoughts here. 'Picture of Dorian Grey' is really one I ought to reread with a little more attention.

Philosophy and critique are certainly present on one level, but the more I read Wilde and, as you say, learn about his personal life, the more I respect his ability to layer his work. You're right that 'Picture' differs in tone (and in form) from 'Earnest' and some of his short stories, but that doesn't necessarily indicate that philosophy or critique are less present than they are in 'Picture'. Even when written to be humorous, his plays always have an edge, satirizing or lampooning elements of society or social thought. For a complex and pointed play, give 'Salomé' a go, and consider how intensely focused even 'Earnest' is on issues of identity and appearance.

In reading 'Picture' I always wondered how much Wilde was writing out of his own earlier experiences in keeping up appearance. He constructed his identity, and reputation for style, with such care that I'm sure he constantly reconsidered the purpose of trying to always appear beautiful. I love 'Picture' as part of the meditation on what part of our identity belongs to our outward self.

Great one, Amy!

Brian Bither said...

I appreciate your sensitivity to spoilers, but I'm kind of interested in your take on what the ending meant. Was it a moment of moral victory or just punishment? Did it represent the impossibility of separating one's "inner life" from one's "outer life", or the impossibility merging the two once separated? I found the ending to be intriguing (honestly, I didn't care too much for the rest of the book), but ambiguous. Is it a fair question to ask what the ending is saying about society or its vain members?