Sunday, January 11, 2009

#6 - The Picture Of Dorian Gray

Like so many of the classics on the 1001 Books list, it's easy to know the premise and/or general story of the books, but be utterly ignorant of the details. I've never read an Oscar Wilde play, but seen quite a few, enjoyed the films (both Wilde and The Importance of Being Earnest), and had only heard of Dorian Gray because my RRHB dragged me to the truly horrible The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. What a surprise it was to read The Picture of Dorian Gray. It's different from what I expected, full of Wilde's infamous wit even if the writing is a little melodramatic, but it's also wonderfully spooky and even a little surprising in places.

A young, beautiful man becomes the subject of a painter, Basil Hallward. The blush and brilliance of his youth inspires the artist as nothing ever has before and the resulting piece contains a bit of magic he'll never achieve again. Dorian Gray, the subject, learns of his own beauty, through the painting and makes a vain wish to never suffer the indignities of losing his youth. The painting, once it hangs in Dorian's own house, starts to degrade each time he acts wickedly. It shoulders the burden of age. It withers, wrinkles and bleeds. Buoyed on by the psychology and philosophy of his best friend, Lord Henry Wotten, Dorian leads a life of purely hedonistic endeavors. He ruins women. He collects icons without any thought to their religious values. Society adores him, but he has enemies, women swoon, and men wish they were him. Sound familiar? Yet throughout it all, the painting haunts him, and makes it impossible for Dorian to completely forget his actions. The lives he ruined haunt Gray and by the end of the novel he questioning whether or not redemption is even possible.

The novel has gothic overtones, which I enjoyed immensely, as well as a character who's driven to act in ways he may not have had he not been celebrated for his external qualities. In a way, the novel reminded me of Woody Allen's film Match Point. There were so many quotable pages that I wished I had a physical copy of the book (instead of an ebook) so that I could earmark all the pages. And I was intensely curious about Wilde's decision to imbue the book with luscious and sometimes over the top descriptions of the natural world in which they live. Flowers, the smell of winter, the pine trees, lovely blossoms, everything compliments the glorious state of utter hedonism throughout. The malcontent Dorian feels towards the picture gets locked up in a dusty old schoolroom, closed off from his everyday life. The violence in the novel is contained and away from good society, as Lord Henry says, crime is beneath them. The moral of the story utterly apparent by the time the novel ends and, in a world where Hollywood images of ageless people rule the magazine stands, I'm surprised more references aren't made to the book in pop culture. A whole generation of Dorian Grays inhabit our modern world, raised up by millions wishing they too were young, beautiful and apparently indestructible.

READING CHALLENGES: The Picture of Dorian Gray is on the 1001 Books list, and is one of the 66 titles that I've highlighted for the year. Really I'm just trying to clean some space off my Sony Reader so that I can put some more classics on it. Truly, it's the best gadget I've ever owned. It's replaced my blackberry forever in my heart.

OSCAR WILDE SIGHTINGS: Left some lipstick behind and visited the statue in Dublin with Tina. Now I don't feel so much like a tourist.

4 comments:

Sandra said...

I read this book about 30 years ago and loved it. My son was about 10 when he read it too. He used the word "spooky" too. Glad you discovered an oldie but goodie. I wonder how it would seem to me if I read it now? It was certainly an original.

Arukiyomi said...

Just picked this up in a second-hand bookshop myself and after your review, I know I'm going to love it. Thanks for writing it up.

Alice said...

Oh, how funny! I just re-read this completely randomly last weekend.

I really enjoyed it again - I'd forgotten what a good writer Oscar Wilde is.

Chris said...

I love Wilde. I read this book a couple of years ago. I really enjoyed it.