Sunday, January 28, 2007

Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray

Title: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Author: Oscar Wilde (bio at Wikipedia)

Copyright: Originally published 1891, (falls in public domain; full text at Project Gutenberg). I used the Modern Library/Everyman's Library edition, published November 2000.

Genre: Fiction/horror

Length: 254 pages

Summary: This short novel is about the influences that shape one's choices in life (and ultimately one's soul) for good or ill. Art, truth and beauty are personified in the characters of Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wottan, and Dorian Gray. While movie screenwriters have reduced the story to one of a portrait that reflects the corruption over time of a young man's nature, a close reading of the book offers a somewhat bitter commentary on the forces that influence social standing and behavior. Wilde points out how readily we permit socially-imposed constraints to color public perceptions of an individual's level of personal virtue. The Picture of Dorian Gray might serve as a prime example of an author's examination of what John Mullen refers to as 'character' as social phenomenon. As Gray increasingly disregards social constraints and the consequences of his personal behavior on those around him, the secret of the portrait that displays his wickedness becomes an increasing burden, both terrorizing him and isolating him from those whose true regard might have helped and supported him.

Extract: Two extracts are offered below, the first being from the opening page of the book and the other from Chapter 11, about mid-way through the book:

(a) From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion.

(b) At another time he devoted himself entirely to music, and in a long latticed room, with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer, he used to give curious concerts in which mad gipsies tore wild music from little zithers, or grave, yellow-shawled Tunisians plucked at the strained strings of monstrous lutes, while grinning Negroes beat monotonously upon copper drums and, crouching upon scarlet mats, slim turbaned Indians blew through long pipes of reed or brass and charmed-- or feigned to charm--great hooded snakes and horrible horned adders. The harsh intervals and shrill discords of barbaric music stirred him at times when Schubert's grace, and Chopin's beautiful sorrows, and the mighty harmonies of Beethoven himself, fell unheeded on his ear.

Essentially, this is not for the faint of heart. If you read either of the above extracts (neither of which is longer than two sentences and neither comprising a full paragraph), if such caused you to blanch at the purple prose, the style of this novel will not appeal. I suspect that modern readers will consider that Wilde's storytelling was far better suited to the dramatic form. His epigrams shine out in a play; they get buried in prose.

Also Relevant: I can't tell you why I picked this up -- maybe because it was short, maybe because I'd enjoyed the gothic novels I read last fall and thought I'd like this, maybe simply because I was enamoured of the Everyman's Library binding. Suffice it to say that I did not enjoy the book. I finished it as an intellectual exercise, but not as a particular fan of the work. I was tempted to agree with the Victorian critics who found it poisonous. It's clearly social commentary with some validity to its observations, but the worldview depresses and/or disheartens.

Wilde presents a horrifying and scathing view of the social environment, but offers no recommendations or solutions for finding one's way out of the maze. Based on what little I know of his life, that's possibly due to his own failure to find any acceptable path for living in his society but The Picture of Dorian Grey is still horrifying (and Gray's portrait is the least of it).

I can see why we consider this a classic work. Wilde articulated well the perils of promoting self-actualization without instilling some measure of moderation or constraint - the human ego runs amuck. It doesn't make for a pretty picture.

I suppose we *could* send copies to Paris Hilton and the rest of her crowd. But then like Dorian Gray, I would have to wonder whether I really performed such a service out of good intentions.