Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

As far as cautionary tales go, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is one of my favorites. It is a short novel (a novella, really), and Wilde doesn't really waste any space. Instead, he gets right into the action and keeps the drama and suspense building up throughout the entire work. It is a real page-turner, which is a bit of a surprise when you consider that the book was written way back in 1890. I've found that many of the authors I've read from that time period generally take their time developing the plot, and often get bogged down in extensive passages of narrative or description. Not so with The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The story opens in the studio of an artist named Basil Hallward. Basil is putting the finishing touches on a striking portrait of a very good-looking young man, while also talking to his friend Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry says that he thinks this particular painting is Basil's best work, and tries to get him to exhibit it to the public. But Basil declines, saying that the painting is far too personal for him to ever want to do that. Lord Henry then asks if Basil could at least introduce him to the subject of the painting, but Basil declines that as well. He does, however, reveal the name of the young man, which we find out is Dorian Gray. At that moment, Basil's butler comes in with the news that Dorian is now at the studio. So Lord Henry and Dorian get to meet after all.

Lord Henry and Dorian form an instant bond as they soon realize that they enjoy and appreciate many of the same things. Lord Henry is older than Dorian, and will become a mentor of sorts. These two will appear frequently together throughout the rest of the story.

In the meantime, Basil finished the painting and shows it to his subject. Although the painting is truly gorgeous, Dorian doesn't react in the way Basil expected. Instead of being charmed by it and feeling gratitude towards Basil, Dorian immediately becomes jealous of the figure in the painting. He realizes that the painted version of himself will forever remain young and beautiful while he himself must age and become ugly. He can't bear that thought and further wishes that the painting would age in his place. Basil, sensing that Dorian is not happy with the work, says that he'll destroy the painting on the spot by slashing it up with a knife. But Dorian prevents him, saying that such an act would be akin to murder.

Dorian starts going to the theater, and he soon falls in love with an actress named Sybil Vane. She is the starlet of the theater and always has the lead role in every production. Dorian watches her intently, and is fascinated by her performances, feeling that each one tops the previous one. He eventually asks Sybil to marry him, a proposal that she readily accepts. After becoming engaged, however, Sybil's performances start to go downhill. This does not sit well with Dorian, particularly considering the fact that he has finally brought his friends Lord Henry and Basil to watch her.

Sybil says she can't act anymore because Dorian has opened her eyes to a new "reality," by which she means the future life that they will have together. Dorian realizes that he doesn't really love Sybil after all, and was just infatuated with her acting. He calls off the engagement, which devastates Sybil. When Dorian returns home afterwards, he notices that his portrait has changed ever so slightly. Now, there are lines around the mouth, which seem to him to reflect the cruelty exhibited in his behavior towards Sybil.

From that point on, the reader realizes that Dorian's initial wish that the portrait would age in his place has actually come true. Once Dorian realizes this, he starts living a totally depraved and debauched life, knowing full well that his external appearance would never change. He subsequently has the painting covered, and then removed to the attic where he locks it away from all eyes except his own.

The rest of the novel deals with all of the terrible things that Dorian Gray does throughout the rest of his life. He commits virtually every sin there is, including murder. Over the course of the next 20 years, Dorian outwardly appears exactly the same as the first time the reader was introduced to him in Basil's studio. It is the painting that is horribly changed to reflect all of the wicked deeds that Dorian is guilty of.

The ending of the book was particularly memorable. While I won't reveal it here, I will say that I thought it was the only fitting way to bring the story to a close.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is extremely well-written and was enjoyable to read from the first page to the last. It is short enough, and certainly absorbing enough, to be read in a single sitting of several hours. That's not to say, however, that you should rush through the pages. Instead, I recommend taking it slowly enough to savor what the author was trying to say. You'll also want to try to pick up on the various nuances between the characters, as well as on all of the foreshadowing that Wilde treats us to. The foreshadowing really becomes apparent on the second or third reading of the novel, after you already know what happens at the end.

I also have to say that I liked the way Wilde developed the main characters. I liked Dorian at the beginning of the novel, and was sympathetic towards him. But by the end, I despised and reviled him, which is exactly what Wilde wanted.

There was a lot of controversy surrounding The Picture of Dorian Gray when it was first published. In fact, the version that the modern reader gets is a heavily revised edition of what Wilde first gave to the public. That's because the initial reception of the novel was heavily critical and negative, which disappointed Wilde immensely. So he went back and toned some things down, and added several new chapters to flesh out the story a bit more. The changes didn't do much to mollify the critics of a century ago, but the result is that today's reader probably won't realize what all the fuss could possibly have been about.

Overall, this is a fantastic book that I hope you'll take the time to read. If you're anything like me, you won't be able to put it down until you find you Dorian's fate!

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