Published: first published 1890
Genre: Classics | British Literature | Fantasy
My Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Showtime’s Penny Dreadful grabbed me from episode one and has inspired me to further explore classic literature. I began by re-reading The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. It had been at least twenty-five years since I last read it and in that time, I’d forgotten much.
Summary taken from Goodreads:
The Picture of Dorian Gray was a succès de scandale. Early readers were shocked by its hints at unspeakable sins and the book was later used as evidence against Wilde at the Old Bailey in 1895. Enthralled by his own exquisite portrait, Dorian Gray sells his soul in exchange for eternal youth and beauty. Under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life, where he is able to indulge his desires while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only Dorian’s picture bears the traces of his decadence. A knowing account of a secret life and an analysis of the darker side of late Victorian society. The Picture of Dorian Gray offers a disturbing portrait of an individual coming face to face with the reality of his soul.
As with many classics, The Picture of Dorian Gray is written from an omniscient point of view though it sticks fairly close to Gray’s thoughts and deeds. When I was younger, I had no idea what that meant and therefore read without noticing. As a more experienced reader, and a writer, it was glaringly evident this time around and sometimes pulled me out of the story.
The setting is late nineteenth century London, for the most part, and juxtaposes the elite galas and gentlemen’s clubs of the wealthy with the opium dens and seedy underbelly of the poor and working classes.
When we meet Dorian Gray, he is an innocent young man, a bit vain, but relatively untouched by the world’s ugliness. Basil, a painter who claims Dorian has become his muse, introduces the young man to Harry (Lord Henry). The meeting, mixed with the portrait of Gray (Basil’s best work to date), is the ultimate downfall for both Basil and Dorian.
Harry is a rich, pompous and bored man who sees in Dorian a project. He is driven to squash the innocence he glimpses in the young man’s features and implies that, “youth is the one thing worth having.” ¹ This stirs something in Dorian and he becomes, “jealous of everything whose beauty does not die.” ² An impetuous plea of, “Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now!” ³
He later regrets those words. As he commits one act of immorality, sin and pettiness after another, the painting withers becoming grotesque. Those around him age, the lines on their faces evidence of the passage of time, while Dorian’s youthful countenance remains unchanged.
There are many themes in The Picture of Dorian Gray:
• Self-worship leads to self-destruction
• Time will have its way
• Beauty is only skin deep
• Earthly pleasure can never completely satisfy a human being
• Evil appears in winsome disguises
• An abused child becomes an abusive adult ⁴
Readers could spend lifetimes studying these themes as they pertain to Dorian Gray and in fact many have.
As I read this book for a second time, I remembered the elements that made me love it and my mind has not changed. However, I now see its faults as well. There are sections that lean precariously close to boring and scenes with more than two characters often become a jigsaw puzzle of dialogue. In my opinion, it’s a book that must be read by those who wish to study literature, but isn’t for everyone and I realize that.