This is simply a book that must be read because of the way it is told. Any attempted unbiased description or review does not exist given the content of the book. I will analyze according to “me.”
The themes and philosophies explored demand the experiences and opinions of the one reading, and therefore cannot be done any true justice. The books plot can be explained to a degree of course, but this is a novel which not only will be something a little different to different readers, but eerily remains relevant today though it is over a hundred years old.
It is surprisingly easy to read. Nothing here is very demanding so long as you don’t mind some British diction here and there. It feels like a play, which makes sense given that the author had several plays between 1878 and 1898, but also makes it really accessible. I often cannot stand literature from this period, be it American or European. It is heavy on the dialogue, which is great if you like to hear real people talk—and beautifully I might add—and at the same time, the tangents which some critics complained of I found not repetitious and not superfluous. It is intentional given that what the book is trying to achieve; it is conscious of itself. It knows that it is a book trying to bask in its own beauty and frivolity and sin and carefree qualities. It is a book that is both selfish and magnificent. It wants to influence you while telling you shouldn’t let it. Great!
This book is hedonistic and explores themes of influence, personal responsibility, aestheticism, and duplicity. (Check out the themes on “The Picture of Dorian Gray” Wikipedia page.)
Oscar Wilde, a homosexual in his time, was a master of the pen and deserves every bit of acclaim that is attributed to him. Like Sylvia Plath, I am heart-broken that neither author ever had the opportunity to write more than one novel. “The Bell Jar” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” are both in the top 100 novels of all time, not just on my own list, but on several respected, officially-voted lists that are reviewed at certain increments of time by prestigious writing academies. Several countries have groups like these, including France, Russia, Great Britain, and America.
It is a shame that at the turn of the 20th Century Oscar Wilde was arrested for sodomy, did several years of hard manual labor, and eventually went into a sort of exile. It truly affected him. It’s unfortunate such bigotry existed and affected so many artists and creative minds back then. In fact this black listing of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered is a fight that continued on throughout the 20th Century and sadly into the 21st. The artist is not only robbed, but so are the people.
Oscar Wilde was certainly a man of allegories, a playwright, and moral contemplation; specifically happiness and temptation, though his preface states that no artist is trying to pose anything morally to its reader, which is arguable. Some have influential motives; some are doing it for art’s sake. The book haunts and poisons the mind, and the best thing to do is surrender to its world. It poses that to be free of all regret and live every experience possible without regard for the outcome is the best way to live. The most experienced and pleasurable way. The way of “new hedonism.” Falling in love, losing love, marriage and divorce, listening to orchestras and going to plays and attending parties and talking about nothing while doing it wittily—all of these things are equal to one of the characters as they are things to fill one’s mind with and put out the rest of the world they deem ugly.
Women and men are dispensable. All relationships come and go. Attach yourself to nothing but yourself and your own pleasure receptors. Intellect and books and science: all a waste of time and meaningless. Let us drink and have sex and live without regard for anything but our own selfish wants. “Behaving” does not cause growth, nor does forcing one to do what society describes as acceptable or civil. Why deny your desires and lose your mind over it? To truly live, one must be impulsive and rash and surround themselves with every loud, beautiful, affecting thing they can.
The character who thinks this way, Lord Henry, plants the evil into the most innocent character, Dorian Gray, right from chapter two. He is a fatalist, a nihilist, a bottomless pit for entertainment and experiences—damn the costs! And it does cost some of these characters by the end. An ending which does not sit well with some. (Again, for actual plot which I’m not going into here for length reasons, check out the book or Wikipedia.)
** ** ** ** There will be spoilers below! ** ** ** **
“[Lord Henry] makes Dorian Gray self-aware, self-conscious, and even self-involved. He gives Dorian Gray an inward focus and ridicules Dorian’s attempts to find an outward focus in philanthropy. He takes Dorian Gray around to all the fashionable salons and drawing rooms of the London aristocracy showing him off, encouraging him in his self-gratifying pursuits.”
Lord Henry was an immoral instigator in 1890 as much, if not more, then today. How hideous he must have seemed to some readers in the very late 1890s. Good lord!
So long as one has selfishness, it doesn’t matter if passions and sensations leave us because more are always there to find. Things in life are meant to be discarded and discovered. No one thing, including people, hold any real weight to this life philosophy. And the psychological breakdowns do come. This is, after all, is a gothic-horror-romance-morality tale.
“Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us… The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” (p. 21)
On a tangent note: The idea is brought up about how it is a shame that one must pay for a single sin or mistake over and over again. One does not pay for each sin or mistake once. In fact some they never have to atone for, while others they pay for again and again. I found this to be true. There is no fair balance. Some things are atoned for more than once. Others, never. (Just something I liked.)
“To get back one’s youth one has merely to repeat ones follies.”
Lord Henry p44
Lord Henry, p. 29, about the painting:
“it is the real Dorian Gray—nothing more.”
The above quote is true because as the portrait mutates and changes through the text, it truly does show the “real” Dorian on the inside while the “false” Dorian does not seem to age and gets to keep his beauty. The portrait is the truth, ironically, just has Lord Henry said.
It’s also interesting that once all of these characters are dead, the only thing that will likely remain is the work of Basil Hallward, which is interesting. Initially, some may be discomforted that it seems Lord Henry is the only survivor of the story, but what will he have to show for it? Nothing. Not even Dorian has left anything that he created. Dorian and Lord Henry consumed and consumed, while Basil, the artist, created. Now though this may sound fantastic and romantic, it is true that Basil will likely die without all of the experiences that the other two main characters had, so what is the better path? There isn’t one. It is about choice, at least to me, and people all lead different lives depending on what they find “worth living out.” Lord Henry cannot imagine refusing temptation or being completely self-centered, and thus pushes this ideal on Dorian who has not yet discovered what his interests are. Dorian does not yet know of life or what he wants from it, and he is prematurely influenced by Lord Henry, a very convincing, well-spoken devil of a man. But maybe he’s not the devil. Maybe he’s right in living how he lives. But it all depends on how you view your world.
“People are very fond of giving away what they need the most themselves.”
Lord Henry, (p.60) on advice.
Lastly I leave you with this though I have no answer for. Think about it once you’ve finished the book: Is Dorian the villain or was he coaxed to be an ass. And in the end, had he really changed who he was, or did he just really want the portrait to be gone, and had he survived, would he have continued his dismal ways?
Below are sites I recommend for further reading on the characters and the plot by people smarter than me.