One of the more notable voices that I was familiar with, but hadn't specifically studied, was the notorious Oscar Wilde (and I'd even stayed at the hotel he lived at in Paris – The Hôtel du Quai Voltaire – also favored by Baudelaire, Wagner, and many other notables), although I have now caught up with a number of his famed works over the past few years. The current one is likely his most “pop culture”-known piece for the movies it's inspired, The Picture of Dorian Gray. While I'd been aware of the broad strokes of this, in its various interpretations, I'd never ventured into the text itself. I had, however, picked up a copy with an Amazon order some time back, and decided to slot it into my reading list last month to have a bit of a break from the other stuff I'd been going through.
Wilde's writing is magnificent … and I wonder how my own composition might have been affected had I read much of it in my teens and 20s. His books are also a window into a long-lost world of the English upper classes … one that I must confess to be something of a “golden age” to me (being largely a product of old-line noble families) … which is certainly not a popular concept in these dark days. This is the first caveat I'd offer for the book … if you have little patience with the doings of Lord this or Duke that (or are of the neo-Jacobin demeanor so de rigueur in certain circles these days), you might find Dorian Gray tiresome, as much of the book is the doings, discussions, and activities of the Victorian-era idle class.
Now (and I have to “go here” in those rare occasions when I'm reviewing a piece of “fiction”), if you are “spoiler-averse” (and somehow missed the basic story elements in pop culture), you might want to stop reading at this point. I am so used to reviewing non-fiction where the concept of “spoilers” doesn't come into play, that I have a very poorly tuned sense of what is and isn't TMI for the review reader.
The book is generally third-person narration from an unspecified standpoint (i.e., not being a specific character relating it), with large blocks of conversation between the main characters. Central of these, of course, is Dorian Gray – a beautiful youth who has become the “muse” of an up-and-coming painter, Basil Hallward, who is in the process of finishing up the title image. The picture is unusually striking, and the artist has been planning to have it be the centerpiece of an upcoming exhibit of his work. A friend of Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton is visiting, and is charmed by Dorian, and begins to infuse in him his own “libertine philosophy” of living life for its pleasures (it is generally suggested that “Lord Harry” is a stand-in for Wilde here – having the best lines). As Dorian thinks through this … focusing on his beauty … he is suddenly saddened by Wotton's warnings on the fleeting nature of youth, and faced with the completed portrait, says:
What is interesting, from a modern perspective, that there is nothing “supernatural” in this scene … just Dorian becoming aware, perhaps for the first time, that his beauty is a temporary thing, and being horrified at the prospect, and wants more than anything to avoid that fate. There is much agonizing and accusation between the three men, and Hallward, in desperation at the idea of losing his muse, grabs a palette knife and move to destroy the canvas, but Dorian stops him, as he is as enamored of the image as the other men. He arranges to have it brought to his house, where it is at first put in a prime viewing location.“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day in June … If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”
Before moving through more of the story arc, I'd like to drop in some material that grabbed my attention while reading this as particularly illustrative of Wilde's writing. The first one is a description of Lord Wotton's (seldom seen) wife, “Lady Henry” ...
A bit later she's quoted in regards to an opera that she and Dorian had both been at, albeit separately: “I like Wagner's music better than anybody's. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says.” … and one has to wonder if Wilde had a particular individual in mind as the model.She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest. She was usually in love with somebody, and, as her passion was never returned, she had kept all her illusions. She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy.
Another bit that I found of interest was this one dip into Lord Wotten's head …
The “mad adoration” he refers to is that Dorian had developed for a 17-year-old actress, who was evidently something of a Shakespearean prodigy, playing in a dingy working-class theater all the great female roles in the Bard's catalog, a different play every night. Sibyl Vane, discovered accidentally by Dorian Gray, had become his obsession, and he returned to the theater night after night to see her, eventually asking her to marry him. He then invites his friends to experience the remarkable acting of his love. However, his winning the heart of Sibyl, had “broken the spell” that had made her so exquisite on the stage … she had lived in a world where she was in love with the plays, in love with the stage, and totally immersed in that as in a dream … when her love shifted to Dorian, her ability to act crumbled, and on the night when he was to be showing her genius off to his friends, her performance was wooden, rote, and totally uninspired – which horrified Dorian, as he was in love with the genius of the girl, and not the person. He goes back stage and breaks off the engagement, and abuses Sibyl for her change. The next day he get word that she has killed herself … which does not affect him in the least, but he notices a subtle change in the portrait – a slight look of cruelty in the face.Certainly few people had ever interested him so much as Dorian Gray, and yet the lad's mad adoration of some one else caused him not the slightest pang of annoyance or jealousy. He was pleased by it. It made him a more interesting study. He had always been enthralled by the methods of natural science, but the ordinary subject-matter of that science had seemed to him trivial and of no import. And so he had begun by vivisecting himself, as he had ended by vivisection others. Human life – that appeared to him the one thing worth investigating. Compared to it there was nothing else of any value. It was true that as one watched life in its curious crucible of pain and pleasure, one could not wear over one's face a mask of glass, nor keep the sulpherous fumes from troubling the brain and making the imagination turbid with monstrous fancies and misshapen dreams. There were poisons so subtle that to know their properties on had to sicken of them. There were maladies so strange that one had to pass through them if one sought to understand their nature. And yet, what a great reward one received! How wonderful the whole world became to one! To note the curious hard logic of passion, and the emotional coloured life of the intellect – to observe where they met, and where they separated, at what point they were in unison, and at what point they were at discord – there was a delight in that! What matter what the cost was? One could never pay too high a price for any sensation.
He is given a book by Wotton, which inspires him to immerse himself in the pursuit of fine things, at first becoming a model dandy which fashion followed, and then for years traveling around the world, becoming an expert in scents, jewels, musical instruments, embroidery, etc., and racking up ever more changes in the picture, now ensconced in a locked room in the upper levels of his mansion. Some 20 years on from the opening scenes, Dorian is visited by Basil Hallward, the painter, who that evening is scheduled to depart for an extended stay in Paris. Hallward is there to present a whole litany of accusations against Dorian that he's heard over the years … wanting to have some response (denial?) before he leaves. Dorian is irritated at hearing these and tells Basil that he has “a diary” and brings him up to the hidden room. Obviously, the portrait is the record he's referring to, and the artist is aghast at the changes in it, making Dorian angry about being confronted in this way … and he ends up killing Basil. He blackmails a doctor to get rid of the body, and covers everything up.
One thing Dorian is in fear of is reprisals from Sybil's brother … a sailor … who first tracks him to an opium den, but is convinced that Dorian can't be the guy responsible for his sister's death, because of his apparent youth … Dorian escapes, but an old lady tells Vane that he hasn't aged in decades … setting Vane on a fresh search. In perhaps the weakest plot point, Vane is killed in a hunting accident (not by Dorian, but he's in the party), which is both a great relief to Dorian, and a cause for him to re-think the course of his life. He eventually convinces himself to destroy the portrait … but when he does, all the degradation that was infused in it, transfers to him, and he dies.
Again, the most appealing aspect of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the splendid writing of Wilde … there are certainly “plot holes” here which in lesser hands would be glaring, but this is a delightful read … and a splendid look into another time. Because this is a “thrift edition” book, it has a minimal cover price of $4, and is currently on sale at Amazon for half that … so it's one of those things to put on a list of low-priced add-ons for when you're just shy of free shipping!