I do not have much experience of reading Oscar Wilde apart from the Importance of being Earnest which virtually leaps off the page with humour and life.
However, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a completely different genre altogether. The premise of the story begins with Dorian ‘sitting’ for his painter friend Basil Hallward. Dorian is an extremely attractive young man and his friend Basil feels he is completing the best work of his life- so much so - that he feels his own soul is being exposed in the painting and he feels he will never be able to exhibit the piece as it is too personal. He also feels that Dorian is his ‘muse’ and as long as he has him in his presence his work is better than he has ever executed in his life before.
Enter Lord Henry Wotton, another friend of Basil’s, who happened to be present during one of Dorian’s sittings. He is excited and interested in Dorian himself. Wotton is a libertine and despite being begged by Basil to leave the young Dorian alone, it seems he is too enchanted by the boy’s beauty and youth to leave him uncorrupted.
Dorian and Wotton become great friends and, during one of the last sittings of his painting, they exchange such an unusual conversation that Dorian expresses a desire to sell his soul to stay as young as he looks in the picture. The completed work is gifted to Dorian and he hangs it in his home proudly whilst all the time receiving instruction and publications to guide his course towards ruination from the blaggard Wotton.
Essentially, the story is sound and entertaining but is thwarted by Wilde’s soliloquies to his audience (the reader), who I feel he is attempting to educate on works written by other literary greats throughout history and this does become boring to the reader.
The story continues with Dorian falling in love with an actress on the stage, whose beauty is breathtaking and whose acting ability is the same. However, on the evening Dorian decides to take his friends Basil and Wotton, she is no less beautiful but her acting has become wooden and unmoving. This leaves Dorian in a complete funk and when he meets his lover Sibyl after the show he petulantly tells her he is no longer in love. As she entreats him to understand that having experienced ‘true love’ it has left her void of being able to ‘act’ as though in love. Dorian withdraws his marriage proposal and the girl, Sibyl Vane, kills herself (Juliet style) the very next day, before Dorian can have a change of heart. Dorian realises that his heart is not as entirely broken as he would imagine. It is at this point that Dorian notices that the painting has taken on an ‘aged’ and ‘cruel’ expression leaving Dorian completely unmarked by the experience. He decides to hide the painting from this point on and, despite living an extremely libertine life henceforth, he bears no marks of this existence but when he visits his hidden painting he watches it age and deteriorate before his eyes- finding it both fascinating and horrifying at the same time.
Eventually, Basil hears of all Dorian’s debauched behaviours and takes him to task- ending in Dorian allowing him to see the painting in all its fantastical glory and also resulting in Dorian murdering the creator.
|Me and Oscar in London. (Charles Dickens seems to be behind us)|
The disappointing part of the story is that apart from referring to an opium den Dorian frequents, the reader is protected from all of the other extremes of Dorian’s nature and have to rely entirely on their own ‘imagination’.
Wilde is obviously a most gifted writer and many have quoted his works with passion. I can only speak for myself as a reader and say that I found the novel hard-going in parts. Whilst the essential story is remarkably clever and some of the descriptions of the painter’s garden were beautiful and made you long to be there, at other points it felt as though Wilde was indulging himself rather than concentrating on his own work.
The end of the book involves Dorian realising the error of his ways and he attempts to destroy the ‘ugly’ painting which carries his sins - at this point Dorian dies and takes on his true persona whilst the painting reverts back to the beauteous virtue it carried at the outset.
A richly woven story which I feel may be one of the few books better suited to stage or film (faster paced) than it does in print.
Oxford Road Rating: ★★★