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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Grayis probably Oscar Wilde's best known novel. Nearly everyone has heard of it, though if you've never read it the only thing you know about is the occasional vague allusion to the events in the novel. Since this is an old novel and lots of people have read it, I won't refrain from providing sppoilers in this review. You have been warned!

Unfortunately, the events in the novel are pretty uncomplicated: Dorian Gray is a beautiful, good-looking young man. One of his artist friends was so inspired by him that he paints a portrait of Dorian Gray one day that is exquisite. Dorian, upon seeing it, says that he wishes that all the travails of life that would otherwise be visited upon his body and face would thereafter be reflected in the picture rather than upon him.

Unbeknowst to him, his wishes are granted, but only when he treats a budding actress cruelly, causing her to commit suicide, does he notice that his portrait has turned cruel, while he shows no sign of physical change. Well, the plot then predictably steers Gray, under the influence of one of his friends into decades of debauchery, all the while remaining as young and beautiful as he was when the picture was painted, as the portrait slowly gets ravaged with time and the after-effects of his actions.

The plot is linear. There's a little bit of exploration of philosophy, where Wilde goes into exposition, explaining how one should approach life. Witty aphorisms are tossed about in a tangent to the narrative, but Wilde doesn't even try to explain his the underlying premise of the book, which is that personality and actions inevitably take their toll not upon a person's soul, but also visibly on their face and bodies as well. In fact, everyone in the novel believes it as well, all of whom remarking that with Gray's beauty and obvious youth, no one could believe the rumours of all the debauchery he's committed.

In any case, as morality plays go, the novel ends conventionally. Justice is served, and cruelty is punished. But even then, the novel seems buried in a hidden assumption of determinism, that we cannot change what we are, even if we realize that we must change.

The novel is a short read, but I can't say that I like either of the assumptions it makes, and more, the apparent lack of awarenesss of these assumptions. As such, I can't recommend the book.

1 comment:

Denton Gentry said...

I find that novels from the last century are often better in the abstract idea than in the actual reading. Audiences of the time were truly different. For example, Moby Dick has long sequences describing what a whale looks like and what the ocean looks like, as there was a reasonably good chance the reader would never have seen either. Due mainly to the universal reach of television, modern audiences don't need such description and furthermore tend not to have the attention span to stomach it.

I read the Picture of Dorian Gray some years ago, trying to understand the origin of the stories which permeate our media. I remember liking it better than either Frankenstein or Dracula, which I read at about the same time and for the same reason. Nonetheless I'd agree with your assessment, it wasn't a great read.