Being Wilde for The Picture of Dorian Gray
Having been a fan of the works of Oscar Wilde since I was about ten, I jumped at the opportunity (at long last) last summer to read the one and only novel written by him. And I am pleased to say, unlike typical British summer weather, it didn’t disappoint.
Written at the end of the 20th century, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a truly Gothic novel which revels in the dark, the twisted and the supernatural. In a style which was typical of the Victorian literature period, the novel teaches many moral lessons about society and its obsession with aesthetics, with a theme of ‘reality vs appearance’ being central throughout.
Something resembling a synopsis:
When Basil Hallward, a well-known painter, puts the image of the young and beautiful Dorian Gray to canvas, it is hailed by his friend Lord Henry as his greatest piece of art yet. Indeed, the image does show striking resemblance to the ‘real deal’ but Lord Henry is also quick to point out to both Basil and Dorian that youth and beauty like this never lasts forever.
This becomes something of an obsession for Dorian who wishes his good looks to remain with him throughout his life and for his beauty to not be marred by the signs of aging and disgrace.
The phrase: “Be careful what you wish for” comes to mind as this wish becomes a reality for the protagonist turning antagonist. The painting begins to age and show the signs of his life’s story instead of it being shown on his face, leading to Dorian hiding it away so that nobody may see his life’s vices.
Dorian realises that with his eternal youth, he can get the most pleasure out of life without having to worry about any physical repercussions. Darkness, despair and downright nastiness ensue as he sinks further and further into a life of crime, corruption and something else that begins with ‘c’ to finish this alliteration nicely.
Points to Consider:
- Oh the irony: The title, The Picture of Dorian Gray, would make any potential reader think that the novel was all about the painting completed by Basil at the very start! And they wouldn’t be totally wrong about this but I would argue it is important to consider who actually the picture is. Is the picture really the painting hidden away because of its hideous appearance, or is it the living, walking and talking Dorian himself? Wilde subtly makes this ironic point through blurring the distinctions between the two.
- Style: One of the things I love about Oscar Wilde is the style he writes in. It is always fascinatingly ornate, so much so that I find it enjoyable just reading the words, letting alone understanding the story. His use of grandiose vocabulary and extended metaphors illustrate the power he had over words and he passes this power on to the reader as they discover the interesting phrases or syntax used. |
His famous epigrams, many of which feature in the novel through the
character of Lord Henry, further illustrate Wilde’s marvellous ability to express his meaning in a short, memorable phrase.
I should add that, for some, the use of such ornate language is excessive and really puts off people reading Wilde’s work. But beyond his unique style, there are often very engaging stories that he tells and in my opinion, this novel is no exception.
- The Preface: One of the most intriguing things about the novel, in my opinion, is not even part of the novel.
Does this make me a liar?
Even so the preface signed by Wilde summarises the themes of ‘reality vs appearance’ beautifully as it explores the value of aesthetics. Wilde says that the point of art is simply to convey beauty and that trying to analyse it defeats the object: it is meant to be admired for what it is, as intended by the creator, not understood for its own sake.
Intrigued? Stay tuned potential readers! My next post will be a comparison of this text with a true Gothic classic.
“What is the other Gothic text?” I hear you shout.
Frankenly, I’d like to tell you, but I shall abstein.
The photo taken by me: Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Printed in Wordsworth Classics, 1992 ©