The Classics: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde
Another one of my new initiatives is to read more classic novels written by the masters. They say you need to read as many as you can if you are serious about improving your own writing, and who better to learn from than the greats?
Thanks to Project Gutenberg, which offers out-of-copyright books for free, and nifty iPad apps putting them into downloadable collections, I was able to amass a whole range of classics ranging from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and even Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
The book I chose first, however, was Oscar Wilde’s 1890 classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was made into a shithouse movie starring Prince Caspian (aka Ben Barnes) in 2009. However, the premise — a portrait that aged while it’s subject remained eternally youthful — continued to intrigue me, and I wondered how the story would be told in its original form. And besides, it was a relatively short book, so I had little to lose.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, it tells the gothic tale of Dorian Gray, a beautiful, well-off young man who was so enamored by a portrait of himself that he wished he could always be that beautiful while the portrait would suffer the cruelty or age and decay instead. He finds out later that his wish came true, and goes about living a life of debauchery guided by hedonism. Years later he remains exactly the same as he did in the original portrait, while the portrait starts look like Ron Howard’s brother.
I ended up ploughing through Dorian Gray (the novel, not the beautiful protagonist) pretty quickly and found it, for the most part, surprisingly enjoyable. Given it was published more than a century ago, I was concerned that I would struggle with the prose, but instead I found it easy to follow and engaging. I guess that’s why they call it a classic.
While Wilde’s prose is articulate and his vocabulary efficient, the structure and style of the novel were somewhat unusual for me, with an abstract, overarching preface about morals, art and beauty, followed by long slabs of vivid descriptions and long sequences of pure dialogue. And much of the dialogue is extremely long and usually involves a character telling a story, describing a scene or recapping past events — almost like telling a story within a story.
But perhaps the central idea of the novel is so I intriguing that I found myself pulled into the story and had trouble putting the book (well, the iPad) down, even though I had some idea of how it was all going to end. The only part of the novel that really lost me for a bit was during the chapter summarizing Dorian’s nasty activities over the years (the narrative takes a big jump in time at this juncture), when Wilde went off on a tangent about Amazonian tribes, mythical stories and obscure (for me at least) European history. Apart from that, however, the book was a page-turner. That Lord Henry, in particular, the man who put the hedonistic philosophy into Dorian’s head in the first place, is one heck of a mesmerizing and convincing talker. I could certainly understand why Dorian was seduced.
Interestingly, the book outraged many critics when it was firstnreleased, prompting calls for Wilde to be prosecuted on moral grounds. Accordingly, I was expecting really sordid details about Dorian’s naughty behavior, but the stuff Wilde actually wrote was incredibly tame — all innuendo and allusions; the type of places he was hanging out at, the people he was hanging out with, and “rumors” of hanky panky. Maybe that was already too much for the readers of 1890, or maybe it was the homo-erotic relationships and suggestions of homosexuality that got their panties in a bunch.
Anyway, I consider Dorian Gray a successful initial foray into the classics, much better than the depression I developed after being bored by Flaubert’s Madam Bovary and struggling to see how it was technically the greatest novel ever written. I’m not sure which classic I should tackle next. Vanity Fair? The Island of Dr Moreau? Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? Moby Dick? Frankenstein? Great Expectations? Any ideas?