The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite a hasty bargain with his soul which left him perpetually youthful-looking, Dorian Gray was unable to avoid one heck of a midlife crisis.

I didn’t like this book as much as I expected I would, but I did enjoy it. The description is lush, and there’s some fabulous dialogue—to be expected from Wilde—some of which is almost entirely gratuitous (like the conversations between Lord Henry and the duchess near the end), but it’s so great, I didn’t even mind.

There is a lot about the separation of the soul from the body and if it’s even possible to have such a separation. At times, it sounds like a perversion of Buddhist philosophy, like when Dorian says to Basil, “To become the spectator of one’s own life, as Harry says, is to escape the suffering of life.” It got me thinking about what exactly the difference is between mindfully allowing emotions and physical sensations to go by and completely separating oneself from them, as Dorian does. Of course, the separation in Dorian’s case causes him to abandon his non-physical self to corruption and degradation, which isn’t really in line with Buddhist philosophy at all.

Dorian muses, “Beneath its purple pall, the face painted on the canvas could grow bestial, sodden, and unclean. What did it matter? No one could see it.” What does it matter that our souls become corrupt so long as they remain hidden? But of course, it does matter, both in the book and in real life. There’s such a focus in the book on beautiful-looking things necessarily being beautiful in nature (or that it doesn’t matter whether someone/something is good or evil so long as it looks good). I think that Oscar Wilde is criticizing the focus on physical beauty and material excess of his own age; with our culture’s worship of youth and rampant consumerism, this criticism easily applies to our own age as well.

There are a couple of encouraging bits, though, like when Lord Henry says, “The only artists I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad artists,” which was encouraging to me as someone who, though possessed of many good qualities, has never been described as “delightful.” It made me feel hopeful for my writing, if the converse is true. Of course, coming from Lord Henry, perhaps I shouldn’t accept that as encouragement. He says a lot of things that appear wise but really shouldn’t be taken seriously.

But I absolutely love what Wilde writes in the Preface about art and criticism:

“The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.”

Next book I read needs to be a lot more positive, though. I think Dorian’s incorrigible poverty of spirit may have been responsible for the very hopeless mood I was in all of Tuesday.

I read this book for the One LibraryThing, One Book read-along for February, although I didn’t participate in any of the group discussions, so I’m not sure how much I actually went along with the spirit of the read-along.

3 comments

  1. Pingback: Bookends: March 2014 | Imperfect Happiness
  2. FictionFan · March 9, 2014

    Must admit I always wish I liked Wilde more than I really do. Somehow he always seems to me to be so busy being clever that sometimes the heart gets neglected.

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    • Charity · March 9, 2014

      I can definitely see that criticism, although I didn’t find the cleverness too overbearing in this book. After I’d finished it, I started reading some online discussion about how it makes up a kind of debate between two different philosophies prevalent at the time, with one set of characters representing one philosophy and another representing the other. I mostly ignored that, though; it suggests he composed the book with just the kind of cleverness you mention, and I preferred to see the book as I’d read it originally. The writing was masterful at points, particularly at the sentence level and in dialogue, and that along with the intriguing characters was what really pulled me along.

      Like

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