My first contact with this novel was through a short story by Neil Gaiman called “The Wedding Present” for our first-year English Studies class. The short story basically dealt with the concept of happiness and whether it really exists or if it was just an illusion of sorts. These type of stories always intrigued me, because I like anything that pierces other’s bubble of life-is-perfect-and-happy crap. Although it doesn’t directly deal with happiness per se, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is an excellent look at beauty and the price of vanity.
Wilde’s novel, first published in 1890, revolves around Dorian Gray, a beautiful young man with a deep dark secret. As time progresses, he stays beautifully young, while a portrait of him gains the marks and scars of age and his sins. Almost everyone who has heard of the book knows the basic storyline and knows the ultimate end that Dorian meets, but it’s not just about the price of vanity one man paid, but rather is a study of society and the importance people place on social standings, wealth and other factors that played a huge role in society at the time.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I started reading this novel. However, when I started, I was completely mesmerised by it. The style that Wilde writes in is absolutely poetic and colourful. It is in this colourfulness of the writing where the story and the corruption of Dorian becomes so much more tragic. In the beginning of the novel, Dorian is wonderfully naive, until he comes into contact with Lord Henry Wotton, where Dorian’s mad lust for youth and beauty begins.
It’s a well-known fact that Oscar Wilde was homosexual, so it was not surprising to find a lot of homoerotic undertones in the writing. This made the novel very controversial when it was initially published. It didn’t really bother me. I feel like that it adds to the overall theme of vanity much more and gives it another dimension (which delves right into queer theory, but I won’t bore you with that).
It is very interesting to note how society, especially the high-society that Dorian belongs to, is portrayed. Class and ranking is very important to the society in the novel. Elitism, which goes hand-in-hand with vanity, is portrayed not only in discussions of the differences in classes, rank and even gender, but also the transatlantic differences (ie. the differences between American values and British values). This shows how self-contained this society with its vanity is, but it also shows their downfall with the fact that more British men are after American girls.
Although the language use is absolutely beautiful, it does get very philosophical at times. I’m fine with a bit of philosophy, but it gets a bit much when my brain is just completely lost. It adds a lot of nuance to the novel and depth, but some of it is just an overload; Dorian is constantly angsty. This tends to make the novel very slow, but the cruel bloody scene more than makes up for it.
The end, depending on how you look at it, is a bit anticlimactic. In terms of overall message and theme of the novel, it is a great ending. However, a part of still wanted a bit more. I was almost sad when it ended. The unceremonious way that Dorian met his end made his death much more tragic when it’s juxtaposed with the extravagant way he lived his life. You see, kids, your past will always come back to haunt you, and it doesn’t matter who you are or what you did, we all meet the same destination at the end of this road we call life.
Bottom Line: The Picture of Dorian Gray is a beautifully, beautifully written novel with a lot of delectably tragic characters and social commentary. Might get over-philosophical, but is worth it in the end.
4 and a half strokes of golden paint (with a hint of blood)