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The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray (original 1891; edition 2003)

by Oscar Wilde, Robert Mighall (Introduction)

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Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Penguin Classics, Paperback, 2003.

8vo. xliii+253 pp. Edited with an Introduction [ix-xxxiv] and Notes [pp. 231-253] by Robert Mighall. Selected Contemporary Reviews [pp. 214-223]. Original Penguin Classics Introduction by Peter Ackroyd, 1985 [pp 224-230].

First published, 1891.
Published in Penguin Classics, 2000.
Reprinted with minor revisions, 2003.


Further Reading
A Note on the Text

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Appendix I
Selected Contemporary Reviews of The Picture of Dorian Gray

Appendix II
Introduction to the First Penguin Classics Edition, by Peter Ackroyd



I think it was Bertrand Russell, of all people, who once said that the purpose of reason is to explain the conclusions of intuition, or other words to that effect. It is the same with book reviews and me. The purpose of things like reviewing and rating, as far as I am concerned, is merely to rationalize an essentially non-rational experience, especially when fiction is concerned. In this respect, reviewing Dorian Gray is a formidable challenge, but not because its status as a classic and the hymn of false modesty "What Can I Say That Hasn't Been Said Many Times?" The reason is in the contrast: the book is rife with exasperating faults and shortcomings, yet it has been an extraordinarily powerful experience I wouldn't like to miss. How does one reconcile reason with intuition in this case?

To begin with the beginning, the famous preface to the book, namely ''The Preface'', consists of one page of epigrams which characterise what follows pretty well indeed. Together with some perfect nonsense like this:

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There are some speculations not altogether devoid of sense:

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.

And there is not a negligible amount of wisdom:

All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

The novel is pretty much the same hotchpotch, but on a rather greater scale. Let's try to disentangle the pastiche from the profoundness, the weaknesses from the strengths - starting with the former.

Dorian Gray is often described as Oscar Wilde's only novel. I really don't know how such grossly inaccurate description has ever been put forward at all. One of a kind it may well be, but it's definitely not a novel. It's a play, or rather a cycle of many one-act plays on the same subject, with somewhat expanded stage directions and a couple of purple essays thrown in for good measure. There are plenty of long monologues which are more suitable for the stage than for the printed page, and there is a good deal of poetry in prose much more akin to Oscar's fairy tales (his second volume, The House of Pomegranates, in particular) than to anything that can safely be called ''a novel''. Not the least interesting thing about Dorian Gray is that it was first published in book form in 1891, thus filling the niche between Wilde's complete short fiction, including the aforementioned volume of fairy tales which appeared in the same year, and his legendary, if short-lived, success on the stage, which started in 1892 and led to the writing of three brilliant social comedies and one fairly mediocre farce.

''Timeless'' is an adjective usually associated with the classics. While true to their value, it is quite false to their form. Like more or less any other classic, Dorian Gray is very much a book of its own time, too. It is extremely class-conscious and stupendously sexist. Wise critics will tell you that Wilde did outrage the Victorian morality at several different levels (e.g. suggesting that aristocrats can lead double lives and frequent vile brothels, too), and this is quite true. But it doesn't change the fact that the high classes are consistently regarded as the better ones. Feminists with limited imagination who are offended by the harsh sexism that creeps in here and there will no doubt be gratified by the appearance of the Duchess of Monmouth. She is that rare creature, virtually unknown during the Victorian era: a woman with brains. But she appears only in the very end of the book, and her presence is entirely insignificant for the plot or the other characters. Do you think it a coincidence that all three main characters are males from the high strata of society?

(Yes, there is a great deal of subtle homoerotic nuances between them. No, these are far from being of any importance. Enough about that.)

Speaking of main characters, in terms of complexity and development, Dorian Gray delivers the goods nowhere near as good as one might expect from a novel. Basil Hallward is a fine painter, and perhaps a great one, but his single truly outstanding work, the picture of Dorian Gray, is rather an accident, in more than one sense of the word as it turned out. He is also a colossal prig and a most tiresome prude whose chief occupation is preaching to others how wicked they are. Lord Henry Wotton is one of those epigram chatterboxes that only Oscar Wilde could create. He is the proverbial cynic who never takes anything seriously; for him life is an amusing game of observation of people's emotions and influence over their minds, and vice versa. Then there is Dorian himself, whose by far most important asset is his heavenly beauty. He is the only one in whom there are hints of complexity and development, insubstantial and unconvincing as they are. Finally, there is Dorian's portrait which takes the burdens of both his age and his soul. Its own development seems to put Dorian Gray in the category of ''speculative fiction'' - whatever that means.

Nor is the plot any more realistically, plausibly or convincingly drawn than the characters. For one thing, it is rather weirdly paced. The ''novel'' can be split into two halves, each spanning no more than a few weeks yet separated by some twenty years. There is only one chapter (XI) that serves as a link. Rather unfortunately, this is by far the most horrible chapter in the whole book. Here Oscar really did reach the peak of deliberate perversity. Together with important information about Dorian's degradation, he goes into absolutely intolerable detail about his passions for exotic musical instruments, precious stones, embroidery and what not. If Oscar wanted to show off the range of his culture and the richness of his vocabulary, he certainly succeeded. I am duly impressed by both. But this doesn't make the chapter less misguided. Such stupendous digressions are the most crass mistake any novelist can make, and there is no excuse for them (not even the notorious serial publication so fashionable in Victorian times, and this is not the case here anyway). Chapter XI is one of the most important in the book. It is a sad observation that at least 80% of it can be skipped without any loss whatsoever.

Having delivered the retribution, I now have to deal with the apologia. This is rather more difficult to put into words.

Despite being a mess of a novel, full with one-dimensional stereotypes rather with characters, despite its rambling structure and monstrous digressions, despite its badly misplaced purple prose, despite all that, Dorian Gray is compulsively readable and completely compelling, if you excuse the alliteration. Whatever lame description one wishes to attach to it - ''speculative fiction'', ''Gothic'', ''novel'' - the bottom line is that it must be experienced personally and intimately. It has a rare combination passion and grandeur. All numerous faults it does have do detract from its value, but much less than it might seem at first glance. In fact, under closer scrutiny, most of these faults are either obliterated by significant merits or reduced to minor nuisances.

I may start with Wilde's prose, so ill-suited for a novel. I confess right away that I dislike purple patch, especially more or less all the time. But I guess one of the best, if intensely personal, definitions of a great writer is how much he can get away with. Well, Oscar's record is nearly perfect here. His melodious and visionary language often produces unforgettable effects that leave me all but breathless. To take but one among many examples, the love story between Dorian and Sybil is absurdly melodramatic, yet it is often strangely touching, even affecting. (For the record, there is also, in the characters of the mother and the brother, a good deal of delightful satire.) Here are two examples about ravishing descriptions, one of Sibyl herself and one of the surroundings, that might easily become parts of a poem:

Then she paused. A rose shook in her blood and shadowed her cheeks. Quick breath parted the petals of her lips. They trembled. Some southern wind of passion swept over her and stirred the dainty folds of her dress.

The tulip-beds across the road flamed like throbbing rings of fire. A white dust - tremulous cloud of orris-root it seemed - hung in the panting air. The brightly coloured parasols danced and dipped like monstrous butterflies.

As far as the surrealism of the book is concerned - and by this I mean, not its supernatural elements, but its artificiality - this is surely something that shouldn't be held against Wilde. For realism is not what he tried to do; indeed, he did his best to avoid it. In Oscar Wilde: a pictorial biography (Thames and Hudson, 1960, rev. ed. 1966, written by his second son Vyvyan, by the way) there are several revealing quotes from letters Oscar wrote to the press in defense of the numerous attacks on his book. They made it clear that the last thing he tried to do, in this book and his oeuvre as a whole, was to achieve anything even remotely resembling realism. Nobody who has read Wilde's absorbing essay-dialogue The Decay of Lying will remain unconvinced in that, either. It's always a dangerous business to judge about author's views by the words of his characters, but it's a fairly sure guess that with the following words of Lord Henry Oscar spoke his mind:

That is the reason I hate vulgar realism in literature. The man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for.

As soon as the "novel" thing is discarded, both the sketchy plot and the flat characters become easy to accept. Indeed, they should be expected. Speech being more or less the only means in drama, to expect verisimilitude and plausibility is surely to expect too much. That said, the plot of Dorian Gray, though badly paced, is not at all badly constructed. As Somerset Maugham might have said, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It also has several twists which I at least didn't expect at all, and which are executed with all of Oscar's consummate dramatic skill. The ending is thoroughly predictable, yet not without suspense. The long monologues, too, should be expected, not so much because of the theatrical nature of the work, but because it was written in time when conversation was a carefully cultivated form of art. As for the characters, what they lack in credibility, they more than compensate for in vividness. At least two of these marvellously evocative stereotypes deserve a more detailed discussion.

It's difficult to deny that Lord Henry is a man of incredible charm; not for nothing does pretty much everybody call him Harry*. Among the constant streak of epigrams that pours from his lips there is a good deal of junk whose only purpose is to be amusing. That it certainly is, but Harry's finest creations are much more than that. They give me pause for reflection on myriad of things, sometimes they bring to a well-known conundrum a positively devastating illumination. There is so much more below their glittering surface. Small wonder that some of these epigrams are among Wilde's most famous ones; and some he liked so much himself, that he used them again in his brilliant comedies. But several favourites will doubtless illustrate what I mean much better than any words of mine:

Conscience and cowardice are really the same things, Basil. Conscience is the trade-name of the firm. That is all.

It is only the intellectually lost who ever argue.

The thoroughly well-informed man - that is the modern ideal. And the mind of the thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.

Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love's tragedies.

The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.

Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world's original sin. If the caveman had known how to laugh, history would have been different.

Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes.

Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.

The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly--that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one's self.

The only artists I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad artists. Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are.

When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one's self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.

My dear boy, the people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect--simply a confession of failure. Faithfulness! I must analyse it some day. The passion for property is in it.

It is to be regretted that none of us will ever meet anybody like Lord Henry. For one thing, there is no second Oscar Wilde; for another, in our hectic times of mind-numbing technology, such leisurely existence and such refinement of speech are all but unattainable ideal. It is Lord Henry, too, who is there to espouse Oscar's aesthetic ideals. It is safe to say, perhaps, that the following passage mirrors the author's thoughts to perfection:

People say sometimes that beauty is only superficial. That may be so, but at least it is not so superficial as thought is. To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible

But Harry, despite all his verbal brilliance, is not the protagonist. This, of course, is Dorian Gray - and his portrait, or his soul to use the proper names. The most curious thing about Dorian is the ambiguity that surrounds him. On the one hand, though there is nothing really explicit in the book, Oscar is nothing if not suggestive. To contemplate Dorian's escapades in opium dens and sordid slums, his seduction and destruction of many aristocratic beauties, is a rather chilling business. On the other hand, however, Dorian's life comes as close as possible to the highest of all goals: self-realisation. For all superficial decadence, degradation and debauchery, a little deeper his life has a genuine Beauty. It's a work of art. Except for a short time towards the end, Dorian is never a fake, a poser or a humbug. Whatever he does, however immoral, despicable and vicious by the common (and commonplace!) standards of society, Dorian remains true to himself and his nature. For my part, a most fascinating and inspiring character, if not exactly likable and not a little frightening as well.

A curious parallel with Wagner's Tannhaeuser can be drawn here. Passing over one of Oscar's poorest attempts for a joke at the expense of Wagner's music - "It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says." - his casual mentioning that Dorian closely identified himself with the ill-fated knight from the eponymous opera is surely not accidental. On the surface Dorian Gray does look like an ordinary Victorian morality tale: if you lead a dissolute life, you will be severely punished. I don't think this is the case, though. For why does Dorian, figuratively speaking, end in the gutter? Simply because he tries, at least according to social standards, to be good and virtuous and noble and all that kind of stuff. He tries to go against his nature. Pretty much the same happens with the poor Tannhaeuser. The fool searches for solace and consolation in religion and God as well as in Elisabeth's saintly love, whereas his heart truly lies in the kingdom of Venus where an endless celebration of everything sensual in our nature takes place.

(To continue the opera thread a little bit, Mozart's Don Giovanni presents an interesting example of the opposite case. Or so, at least, seems at first glance. It is true that the rake, having led a fabulously dissolute life, is punished with a vengeance. But the important point to appreciate is that he defies all supernatural forces that demand penitence. Thus in the end Don Juan defies the conventional morality, too. And he is even more inspiring a figure than Dorian Gray.)

It is a tribute to Oscar Wilde's genius - unlike many others who boast about it, Oscar really did have genius - that Dorian Gray makes so absorbing and engrossing a read for somebody who doesn't in the least share his Beauty worship or ''Art for Art's Sake'' motto. For I certainly don't. For my part, Somerset Maugham's notions about beauty as a ''full stop'', a powerful and exquisite yet fleeting and useless sensation, are much more sensible. For Maugham ''Art for Art's Sake'' was no more than ''gin for gin's sake'', an opium for aesthetes and intellectual snobs, certainly not to be despised, but nowhere near an absolute value worthy of making life worth existing. There is nothing wrong with escapism as long as it is not the only way.

Yet, strangely, Maugham's and Wilde's notions have more in common than it seems at first glance, and they ultimately boil down to very similar things. For Maugham the value of art lies in the right action, and right action is the one that brings you closer to self-realisation. The only beauty he could praise highly later in his life was the beauty of a life lived to the full, which simply means one making the most of one's gifts, such as they are. In Dorian Gray, despite his completely different state of mind, Oscar appears to reach the very same conclusion, namely that no Beauty and no work of art are greater than the perfect life. Once and only once did Dorian betray his nature. He never had a chance for another mistake. This is an over-dramatization for the purposes of fiction, of course, but the parallel with the so-called ''real life'' is obvious, and just as relevant today.

Wilde's is a strange fiction: completely unrealistic yet, psychologically, remarkably true to life. Pretty much the same is true about Maugham as well; only he was far more realistic, although he never really was a realist, and his "major drawback" is socially dated plots, rather than deliberate artificiality. Indeed, Willie and Oscar would make an absorbing study in contrasts, and surprising similarities, but it is not here the place to elaborate on that.**

Finally, what about morality? Well, one of Oscar's most famous epigrams on the subject comes from ''The Preface'':

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

If I am allowed to paraphrase, I would say that the value of Dorian Gray can be distilled as follows: ''There is no such thing as moral and immoral life. Lives are well lived and badly lived. It all depends on the degree of self-realisation one achieves. That is all.'' Of course this is by no means all. There is much, much more in Dorian Gray to muse over. But this will have to wait until the next reading.


* Compare with the following line from Somerset Maugham's play Caesar's Wife:

Why do we all call him Henry? Why does Henry suit him so admirably? If he had charm we would naturally call him Harry.

** Still, consider the following note Maugham jotted down in 1901. He was 27 at the time and still very much under the influence of Wilde's aesthetic views. Unlike "Art's for Art's Sake", this view remained with Maugham much longer, though late in his life it was viewed with some suspicion, too:

The only morality, so far as the individual is concerned, is to give his instincts, mental and bodily, free play. In this lies the aesthetic beauty of a career, and in this respect the lives of Cesare Borgia and of Francis of Assisi are parallel. Each fulfilled his character and nothing more can be demanded from any man. The world, judging only of the effect of action upon itself, has called one infamous and the other saintly.

Note on the Penguin Classics edition.

It reprints the revised version of the text, first published in book form in 1891 by Ward, Lock & Co. As pointed out by the editor, the major difference with the first version that had appeared in the Lippincott's Magazine on the previous year is the degree of intimacy between the male characters. All relevant differences between both versions are noted in the notes and the reader can judge their importance for himself. For my part, none of the changes alters the character of the novel: even in the ''uncensored'' version of the work Oscar has quite another fish to fry than mere homoerotic play. It is also worth noting that in 1891 Wilde added a great deal of new material. The 13 chapters of the original were extended to 20 (chapters III, V, and XVII to XVIII are entirely new, and the last chapter is split into two) and there are many other minor additions/omissions.

In addition to the many revisions of the original text, the notes also explore many of Wilde's allusions, hints, metaphors and other subtle ways to say more than it seems. Some charmingly obscure words are revealed as well. How could one know that "hautbois" means simply an "oboe". On the whole, the notes are not too excessive to accompany the first reading of the book, although on occasion they do become irksome.

One silly mistake in the notes should be noted, as it is likely to slightly enrage classical music lovers. The nineteenth-century Russian pianist and composer who is referred to in the last note to Chapter XIV is "Anton" Rubinstein, not "Artur". No relationship with the great Polish pianist from the twentieth century whose name indeed was Arthur Rubinstein.

The contemporary reviews included in Appendix I make a rather fascinating reading. Most of them harshly condemn the book for being some kind of immoral and totally mediocre junk. More than a century later, it is just about impossible to see what so outraged the virtuous Victorians; even the bolder ''uncensored'' version can make blush only the most pathological prudes. There are, however, few reviews (one of them by Walter Pater himself) which are rather positive and praise the book for its power and atmosphere.

The two introductions are interesting and informative pieces, but both suffer from the favourite writing style of the critics: monstrously dry and appallingly high-handed. The best one can say about Messrs Mighall and Ackroyd is that they at least don't attach inordinate importance to the homoerotic hints.

The Chronology is well-done. The Bibliography less so. I am always dismayed when in such cases a writer's works are mentioned briefly with several collected editions and a much greater space is dedicated to biographies and, of course, criticism. Who is this book lover who would prefer reading literary criticism over literature? ( )
18 vote Waldstein | Oct 4, 2011 |
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This is my "OPINION" of the book, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

I read pieces of this book in literature classes through out school but never the whole novel until now. What a waste of time. The story itself was rather good and could have been SO MUCH more if it would have been written by someone other than Oscar Wilde.

The story, as I mentioned, was quite interesting but Wilde (for whatever reason) decided that the story line would take a backseat to the endless, boring views to a pompous group of men--Dorian, Lord Henry and Basil--calling each other beautiful and stating hundreds of times that they could not live without one of the others, worshiped one of the others, etc, etc, etc.

While reading the Picture of Dorian Gray, I skipped large chunks of text just to avoid Lord Henry's ignorant revelations and lord Henry's/Basil's continuous praise of Dorian's beauty and how everyone loved him and wanted to copy him, possess him, etc.

The repetition of these passages did nothing to add value to the story. It almost seemed like I was reading the same chapter over and over again with only slight changes. A few pages of text that progressed the story and then countless pages of these three main characters stroking each others egos.

I feel that Wilde's intent with this book was to voice his opinions on everything in life while trying to disguise it as a piece of "thriller" fiction. This was especially evident with the quick and lazy ending he decided to use...wrapping up the actual story portion of his rants in just a couple of pages. ( )
  Disco_grinch | Feb 27, 2015 |
A great work of literature. Truly remarkable an idea.I liked this book ( )
  durgaprsd04 | Feb 25, 2015 |
Dorian Gray has always been one of my favorite classics. The lesson is that karma is real and vanity is a pitfall. ( )
  Willow1972 | Feb 8, 2015 |
Dorian Gray has always been one of my favorite classics. The lesson is that karma is real and vanity is a pitfall. ( )
  Willow1972 | Feb 8, 2015 |
I have to say that I liked "The Importance of Being Earnest" much more than I did this book. There were areas that I enjoyed but for the most part I just got tired of the flowery language and the over abundance of description. At some point there was a whole chapter's worth of description that I just would have cut completely. It was basically a list of stuff that Dorian Gray likes. I had to skip through most of the chapter; and that's saying a lot since I tend to bask in pretty words.

The idea that people, when given the chance to live wickedly without showing the outward signs of their deeds was an interesting one. Also, the fact that those who had not been directly affected by Dorian's actions could not think ill of him because he looked so young and beautiful. It makes me think about how sometimes, even today, we assume that beauty is a manifestation of the beauty inside a person, when in reality, it's sometimes the most beautiful people that can be the most hideous.

Overall, I felt that this book had some interesting notions that is was exploring, but the writing put me off. I can see why he only wrote the one novel. He tends to go a little crazy on the descriptions, which is distracting and sometimes annoying. I did enjoy the dialogue however. The dialogue is where the majority of the ideas come through, so naturally I found that more interesting than the actual narrative. Because of this, I actually thought that this would work better as a play than a novel.

Notable Quotes:

"Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes."

"Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love's tragedies."

"I don't want to see him alone. He says things that annoy me. He gives me good advice."

"The reason we all like to think so well of others is that we are all afraid for ourselves. The basis of optimism is sheer terror." ( )
  kell1732 | Jan 25, 2015 |
never heard of it until a friend suggested it to read together. Awesome book. Went into the story without reading a synopsis. Chilling! page-turner till the end. Inside and outside beauty and its challenges. And Lord Henry's snarky comments about live are just too funny. ( )
  kakadoo202 | Jan 19, 2015 |
Well. Dorian Gray has to be the most immoral protagonist I have ever had the (mis?)fortune of reading about. And yet Wilde said this about [b:The Picture of Dorian Gray|5297|The Picture of Dorian Gray|Oscar Wilde|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320467562s/5297.jpg|1858012]: "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be". ( )
  IsaboeOfLumatere | Jan 14, 2015 |

A friend of mine told me about The Picture of Dorian Gray and she is quite a fan of it. I wanted to read it as well, to see if it really was as good as she said. I enjoyed reading it. For me, it wasn't the best book I've ever read and there wasn't much surprise for me in it (my friend told me the story) but it was still interesting to read in my opinion. It took me quite some time to finish the book, but that hadn't to do with the story. It was also the first book I read online (instead of on paper) so I had to get used to that as well. ( )
  Floratina | Jan 4, 2015 |
Six-word review: Seductive as ever, the old villain.

Extended review:

At age 19, when I first read the 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, I was far more impressionable than I am now. In fact, although I was about the same age as the character Dorian Gray, I was probably significantly more naive than he when first he met the serpent in his garden--the blase, worldly-wise Lord Henry Wotton. Yet even now, upon rereading, I can feel the seductive effect of Lord Henry's brilliant, worldly cynicism. His dazzling rhetoric, his decadent opinions, and his perennially quotable epigrams exert a magnetic pull that almost seem sufficient to explain the moral dissolution of his young protege in the name of sensual gratification.

Here is Dorian's reaction following his first conversation with Lord Henry, whom he has met at the home of his friend and portraitist Basil Hallward:

For nearly ten minutes he stood there, motionless, with parted lips, and eyes strangely bright. He was dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences were at work within him. Yet they seemed to him to have come really from himself. The few words that Basil's friend had said to him--words spoken by chance, no doubt, and with wilful paradox in them--had touched some secret chord that had never been touched before, but that he felt was now vibrating and throbbing to curious pulses.

The beguiling words of Lord Henry release a powerful response in the young protagonist, but they are its catalyst, not its source. The capacity for the evil that is to come is present already in the young man, a seeming innocent, unspotted from the world; nothing he does is beyond his innate predilections. Even his horror and revulsion at his own deeds are something for him to savor and not to renounce.

Even as a young reader, I think I understood, at some level, that although the story appears to deliver a moral, showing us in the end how vice and cruelty return justice upon the wicked, the author was actually more interested in the sin than in the retribution.

Unless I'm much mistaken, the last thing Oscar Wilde would have wanted was for his novel to be called a morality tale. To appease the public morals of his time, however, he did as many another author and filmmaker has done in the face of censorship and gave his story a Hollywood ending. Not that appealing to public morality did anything to save him in the end.

It's interesting to note that most of the character's alleged acts of decadence and debasement go unspecified. As a teenager in pre-Internet days, when horror movies were relatively wholesome and even slashing was a matter of quick cuts of film and not flesh, I couldn't begin to guess what those might have been. Now I suppose I can imagine some of them; but that is in some ways more chilling than seeing them spelled out, for it requires us to look inside and examine the dark reaches of our own natures rather than keeping such thoughts comfortably external.

The phrase "wilful paradox" in the passage quoted above caught my eye because it so aptly characterizes a quality of Wilde himself, speaking both through his alter ego and as himself in so many other contexts. Here, Lord Henry delivers many of Oscar Wilde's most famous epigrams. This is just a sampling:

"Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."
"A man can be happy with any woman as long as he does not love her."
"As for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible."
"Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes."
"Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul."
"There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."
"The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it."

The Goodreads collection of quotes from this work numbers 924. My copy of the novel is 254 pages long. That's an average of 3.6 quotable lines per page. Wilde is still a prince of one-liners.

A century and a quarter later, Wilde's controversial novel has not lost its capacity to shock, disturb, and in some sense edify. If we can acknowledge the allure of depravity and corruption, even as we abjure the practice, we admit a little light into the dark places.

Wilde speaks of an author with a "curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once." The same phrase might describe his own style. Here is a lengthy excerpt that illustrates its power to captivate the mind:

Because to influence a person is to give him one's own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else's music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly--that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one's self. Of course they are charitable. They feed the hungry, and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. Perhaps we never really had it. The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion—these are the two things that govern us. And yet, I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream--I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of medievalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal--to something finer, richer, than the Hellenic ideal, it may be. But the bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself. The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives. We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.

Young Dorian does not resist. ( )
  Meredy | Dec 31, 2014 |
Glad I've read this, an enjoyable novel with an interesting message. ( )
  cazfrancis | Dec 17, 2014 |
Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man in Victorian England. His beauty and youth have taken him places and afforded him many luxuries. During a sitting with a painter he rashly wishes he could remain young and beautiful all his life. This wish is granted but subsequently his personality sours and his morality rots away. With each passing cruel remark and act, the portrait grows older and uglier while Dorian's human exterior remains handsome and pure. Soon, Dorian cannot separate himself from the image that he sees on the canvas. The more hideous the portrait, the more violent his actions against humanity. It's a downward spiral with tragic results.
Wilde has a lot to say about Victorian society norms, but his tongue-in-cheek humor and wit thread through the evil demise of Dorian Gray with delightful frequency. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Nov 1, 2014 |
I'm not sure how to rate this. I read it long ago, and remembered a vague liking for it. Now, I loathe it, but recognize how well-written it is. The character who ruins Dorian with his casually-uttered philosophy, disgusted me, as did Dorian's compliance in his ruin. It's shallow, but I like the good guys to win, and here, the bad guy triumphed...and he did it without really caring all that much. Ick. ( )
  4hounds | Oct 19, 2014 |
First time I read a classic like this one. Didn't really know what to expect. Everyone knows Oscar Wilde by name and some quotes, but not many know him by books or by writing. His use of words is tempting and lures you in to read more and more and more. The theories about life and love are intriguing, yet so paradoxal. It truely reflects on how the mind of a human being works, changing your mind all the time and not really knowing what you want, who you are or how to act.
The life of Dorian Gray, where Beauty is portrayed as the ideal you have to follow, the ideal you have to reach, is of all times. The sins Dorian Gray is succumbed to, are sins everyone holds in them, as a tempting fantasy they will never act on. This is what makes this book universal and timeless.
Now, over 110 years after Wilde wrote the book, I can see myself in all of his characters: Dorian, Henry and Basil. It's one man with all of those paradoxals in him, portrayed by three men.
When coming to the epilogue, I found out that Oscar Wilde was born on the 16th of October. Suddenly it came to my realisation that today, the day I finished the book, the day I read about the end of Dorian Gray, is the 16th of October. Exactly 160 years later than the day Wilde was born. It makes me almost lyrical and a feeling of "this can't be coincidence" overwhelmes me. What theory would Henry make of it? What theory would Wilde make of it? ( )
1 vote Rosiers.Nicole | Oct 16, 2014 |
Enjoyed this book, quick read kept my interest. Didn't rate, couldn't get interested in it.
  Grandy | Oct 14, 2014 |
One of my favorite reads. Buy an expensive hardcover edition, it will be a treasure in your library for the rest of your life. ( )
1 vote DanielAlgara | Sep 26, 2014 |
Loved it and it was so different from the movie! It had such a strong message that was lost when made into film. ( )
  ChewDigest | Sep 12, 2014 |
Loved it and it was so different from the movie! It had such a strong message that was lost when made into film. ( )
  ChewDigest | Sep 12, 2014 |
I approached this book more as a classic I felt I "ought" to have read than as a book I was genuinely excited to read, but I found the story compelling, on the whole, and while I probably won't read it again, I'm happy to have read it once. ( )
  Katya0133 | Aug 28, 2014 |
What if you could look and be young forever? That is the premise behind The Picture of Dorian Gray. When Gray has his portrait painted by a enamored artist, he wishes to look like that forever and have the painting bear the years for him. Unfortunately, his wish is granted.

Although the book did start out slow and there are many pages of nothing but description, Wilde paints a vivid picture not unlike his young artist and leaves the reader with many philosophical parodies of parables from the lips of Gray's devil on his shoulder, Henry Wotton.

Definitely would recommend to someone who can survive the long descriptions and old English. ( )
  PhxDan | Aug 28, 2014 |
Shelf Notes Review

Dear Reader,

This is THAT book. The book that you know exists, you know you should read, you can even confidently say you know you'll enjoy it... but haven't read it yet. I'm in my mid 30's and I just read THIS book, the book that I know is the perfect classic for me. It has the creep factor, the large and thoughtful ideas, the punch in the stomach, and the shock value! ALL of this is included in your very own copy of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and yet, I had not read it yet. No longer! I can now say that I've read THIS classic that has all those traits I love. This wasn't my favorite "classic" book, but it surprisingly didn't disappoint. My expectations were completely met with this book. I wasn't overly impressed but on the same token, wasn't disappointed.

So if you're anything like me, you know the basics behind the story but I'll fill you in anyways. There's this guy named Dorian Gray, a wealthy young gentleman who associates with the aristocrats and artists of his time. He befriends a particular artist that develops a slight obsession with Dorian while painting his portrait. After the portrait is painted, Dorian wishes that the painting could hold all of his sins and his age. Why? Well, because of his corrupt and incorrigible "friend" Lord Henry. This man is despicable and corrupts Mr. Gray slowly and surely throughout the story. His first known "corruption" deals with convincing and lecturing Dorian on age and pointing out that this painting of him will forever be younger than Mr. Gray himself. So, from the beginning, we see Dorian as a nice enough guy, one who thinks well of others and has good intentions BUT he starts getting a little self involved (especially on his looks). So Dorian looks upon this newly painted portrait of himself and begins to hate what it represents... AGING! He wishes the painting could hold his sins and age and all of a sudden "poof", (we find out a little later on) this is EXACTLY what has happened. Boy, oh boy... could you imagine a gift more important than that? You get to live forever AND not suffer from your sins? That can't backfire can it? Hahahahaha.

Poor Dorian Gray, we see his slow descent into corruption, becoming an overall terrible human being. He becomes even worse than Lord Henry, which I would have never guessed that could happen. Without giving the ending away, I must say... this story has a lot going for it, SO many "morals". To delve a little deeper below the surface, we start to realize that Lord Henry gives us TONS of fuel to fire our inner rage. How can you not be upset when he acts as if women have no worth, the only person that matters is yourself and you shouldn't care about anything else. Ugh, so frustrating to read his lengthy horrible spouts of monologues. I think Arianna said it nicely, in her review of this book. She had a hard time liking it because the characters had such horrible qualities, and I completely agree with Arianna on this one. It was hard to finish the book because I hardly cared for Dorian by the end.

I still feel strongly about the depth of ideas the Author was trying to convey, so deep that I have a hard time describing what that IS. I keep coming back to the conscience and relating it to the "Pinocchio" story. Just like Pinocchio, Dorian has a friend that leads him astray (Honest John the Fox was the character who led Pinocchio astray). Pinocchio ends up being coaxed to Pleasure Island and we find out "IT'S A TRAP". This is similar to what Lord Henry does to Dorian with all his talk on egotistical philosophy, which ultimately leads Dorian to his own Pleasure Island (that magical place where you can be completely selfish and disregard the emotions of others). You want to scream at the book and at Dorian, telling him to STOP listening to Lord Henry and START listening to his conscience. At one point, the star-struck Artist comes to speak with Dorian and tries to warn him of this dark path he is going down (like Jiminy Cricket?), but at this point Dorian is too far gone and finds his help insulting. I won't go into what happens from that point on, this is something that you have to find out on your own. I can't say I really enjoyed reading the book per se, but I do think Oscar Wilde made a very large statement with it. I think this is an important read, it delves into subjects that very few books bring up (or none that speak too deeply on the subjects), I would most certainly recommend it as a classic and one not to miss.

Happy Reading,
AmberBug ( )
  yougotamber | Aug 22, 2014 |
From a footnote of my book, I looked up Faust legion. Thank you Wiki.

It pretty much sums up the entire book. What happens when the handsome and wealthy Dorian Gray worries about losing his youthful bloom and will immediately look minutes, then days, weeks, years older than the just completed picture of him? His random outburst of giving his soul to stay looking the same as the picture was granted. Be careful what you ask for!

With the (mostly bad) influences of Lord Henry, a natural and encouraged narcissism, and a trigger point of the death of a potential bride, Dorian finds it necessary to test the limits of self-indulgence, a hedonistic lifestyle of the highest of the high (music, art, jewels, etc.) and the lowest of the low (opium, etc.). All the while, he blames the picture and its artist for forcing him to live such a life. How delusional and self-absorbed can a person become when they already have more in life than virtually the entire population?

Like many Victorian literature, I expected long, wordy descriptions. For this book, I additionally struggled with the put-down of women. “… no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.” Perhaps this is why I’ve known intelligent men who choose to love a woman because she is “simple”, whatever the hell that means. And “We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated.” Argh, how crude. Despite efforts to place myself into the era and that this is supposed to be ‘witty’, I still find the verbatim words insulting.

The Longman cultural edition I have is highly informative with footnotes to explain references, including how this book was used against Oscar Wilde’s then-upcoming indecency trials. I recommend this edition.

Some Quotes:

On brains vs. looks – I laughed at this and then wondered if I should become dumber – kidding!!
“…But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face. The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid.”

On the power of words – perhaps this is why words can bring such joy and be so hurtful too:
“…Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?”

On old age:
“…But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty, becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our sense rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were much too afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to…”

On influences – this sent chills in me in the worst way, knowing others have influenced me and vice versa, so controlling and brain washing:
“…Talking to him was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow… There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence… To project one’s soul into some gracious form, and let it tarry there for a moment; to hear one’s own intellectual views echoed back to one with all the added music of passion and youth; to convey one’s temperament into another as though it were a subtle fluid or a strange perfume: there was a real joy in that.”

On faithfulness – this was, hmm, interesting…
“My dear boy, the people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect – simply a confession of failure.”

On love and marriage – Bundy style perhaps:
“When a woman marries again, it is because she detested her first husband. When a man marries again, it is because he adored his first wife. Women try their luck; men risk theirs.”
“Women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them they will forgive us everything, even our intellects.”
“’What nonsense people talk about happy marriages!’ exclaimed Lord Henry. ‘A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her.’”

On the mind and body connection – if only it’s this simple:
“That is one of the great secrets of life – to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the sense by means of the soul.”

On experiences – this is different than anything I’ve ever read on the word “experience”:
“As it was, we always misunderstood ourselves, and rarely understood others. Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”

On the small things in life – this is sweet:
“…a chance tone of colour in a room or a morning sky, a particular perfume that you had once loved and that brings subtle memories with it, a line from a forgotten poem that you had come across again, a cadence from a piece of music that you had ceased to play – I tell you, Dorian, that it is on things like these that our lives depend.” ( )
1 vote varwenea | Aug 4, 2014 |
When art itself kills its own creator there's no hope for redemption. Or is it?
For is it still art without a soul? Is art only beauty? Art for art's sake. And no one to tell the story. All vain, in vain. ( )
  henrique.maia | Aug 3, 2014 |
Very witty and a great plot. A fair few monologues which are very well written but I definitely wasn't smart enough to follow everything in this book! ( )
  Tilda.Tilds | Jul 23, 2014 |
A very simple narrative, but Wilde embraces the prose and embellishments of the time. Quite pretentious for the modern reader with constant references to classic literature and mythology.

Very much of its time, but it has inspirid much modern literature and consequently has become embodied in our culture as a reference novel.

I would not put this onto a general reading list and would only recommend to academics. ( )
  johnny_merc | Jun 30, 2014 |
Dorian Gray is a beautiful and likable young man until presented with opportunity to remain unchangingly young. The influence of an immoral friend and the temptation to do wrong without showing any signs of his corruption soon prove too much for Dorian.

The most intriguing part of this story is the premise and it’s possible I would have enjoyed it more if each revelation of what was happening had surprised me. As is, I felt like there wasn’t much of a plot. There was a certain fascination to the beginning of the story, although it was a fascination I felt bad for, like I was watching a car crash. Even that interest want away after Dorian realizes what’s happening. The story becomes a lot of excessively specific descriptions of all of things Dorian collects mixed with excessively vague descriptions of what he’s actually doing.

Like many classics, the book was an interesting reflection on human nature. In addition to the plot itself, the characters have many conversations about morality and beauty. However, with no characters expressing a view of human nature I could agree with, I found those sections un-enjoyable as well. Despite the interesting premise, the book itself was turned out to be fairly bland and disappointing.

This review first published on Doing Dewey. ( )
  DoingDewey | Jun 29, 2014 |
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