Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

Would you believe I still haven't finished reading The Sparrow? Lesa was right--the pace does pick up some once the main characters reach the new planet--but I suppose I have been distracted by visitors and pergolas and sunburns and last days of school, so I'm only about half way through that book.

Meanwhile, here is something new. Or, rather, something old made new. Several years ago, probably before I even knew what a blog was, I briefly kept track of the books I read by writing a little synopsis and making a note of my thoughts on each one. I got bored with this and quit after several months, which is one reason I'm surprised that I've been blogging for a year already and am still having fun. Anyway, I thought I would rescue those old files from languishing in obscurity, and incorporate them into my blog so they can languish slightly less obscurely. Now is a good time to start, since I probably won't be blogging much over the next two weeks. So, here is what I had to say about The Picture of Dorian Gray somewhere between five and ten years ago:

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was our First Saturday Book Club selection this month and we had one of our best discussions over it. It was certainly not a light, fast read, but it was fascinating. Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man in London during the 19th century. He is innocent, unspoiled and naive. He is friends with a painter named Basil Hallward, and Dorian has been sitting as a model for many of Basil’s paintings. Until now, Basil had always painted Dorian as a literary or mythical character, but his newest painting is slightly different, as it is an actual portrait of Dorian. This new painting has captured every detail of Dorian’s beauty, the existence of which Dorian seems not to have noticed before now; it is as if the painting makes him aware of his own beauty.

It is not only the painting, however. It is that in conjunction with the corrosive influence of Lord Henry “Harry” Wotton, a close friend of Basil’s whom Basil has reluctantly introduced to Dorian. Basil seems to know that Harry is a poor influence, and he actually asks Harry that he not "spoil" Dorian, at which Harry, of course, laughs. Harry respects nothing. I think his Aunt Agatha sums him up neatly when she says, “He never means anything he says.” I don’t think she realizes how she has hit the nail on the head, but with Harry, nothing is sacred or important. He has a lot to say, and loves to hear his own voice, but I believe his only aim in speaking is to see what will happen when he tosses his theories down on the table. He wants to see what kind of reaction he will get.

Another vice of Harry’s is that he is manipulative and is curious to determine what kind of influence he can exert on people. He sees the young and impressionable Dorian as a blank canvas. He convinces Dorian that to live fully you must strive to “always [search] for new sensations... a new Hedonism...” In a rash moment while admiring Basil’s just-finished portrait, Dorian wishes that he could always stay young, while the portrait grows old instead. In fact, he goes so far as to say, “I would give my soul for that...” (Catch the foreshadowing?) This is a turning point, the beginning, the first step in his corruption, as evidenced by his very next statement. He says to Basil, “ like your art better than your friends...” which, though possibly an astute observation, is a very rude and hurtful comment, and heretofore uncharacteristic of Dorian.

Dorian first realizes his wish has come true a month later in relation to Sibyl Vane. Sibyl is a beautiful and very talented actress, and Dorian desires her from afar. After they meet and Sibyl falls in love with Dorian, her craft is destroyed. Having experienced real love, she can no longer put her heart and soul in to acting, and she becomes wooden and talentless. This causes Dorian to lose his infatuation with her. He cruelly leaves her, planning never to see her again, until later that evening when he notices his portrait has changed. There is cruelty in its expression. He suddenly remembers his rash wish and is stunned to realize it has come true. This scares Dorian into promising himself that the next morning he will go to Sibyl and “forgive” her and marry her. However, the next morning he finds out that she has killed herself in despair. Rather than strengthening his resolve to be “good”, this causes him to give up. Over the next 20 years, Dorian keeps his youthful good looks, but all the while his portrait looks worse and worse. Not only is the portrait ageing, but all the signs of Dorian’s vices show up in the painted face. He keeps the portrait hidden so no one will know his awful secrets.

There are several times Dorian narrowly misses “salvation”, and he even realizes it, but always seems to think it is too late. His first chance to turn away from vice was with Sibyl. She could have saved him from his fate if he had stayed true to her rather than treating her cruelly. With Sibyl, Dorian realizes Harry’s theories are “wrong” and “poisonous.” Dorian even says that “she would have done that for me,” meaning she would have kept him on a straight path. He also realizes that his friend Basil could have saved him, but by this time Dorian felt that “the future was inevitable.” It seems that Dorian is able to blame most of his shortcomings on other people, situations, or even books (he claims he was “poisoned by [the] book” loaned to him by Harry, which by the way those at Book Club thought might be Proust), but he never places the blame where it really belongs--on himself. [Note from today: years later, I still know nothing about Proust, but now I wonder if they said Faust and I misheard?]

Dorian even reaches a point where he says of the horrid painting, “What did it matter? No one could see it.” I think this is the point of the whole book: that it does matter, whether anyone can see it or not. But it seems that to Dorian the ravages of age are equal to, or worse than, the changes that are evidence of his sins.

Throughout the book, Lord Henry makes so many statements that sound profound, deep, or even just shocking (or some combination of these three “qualities”). But I certainly don’t believe everything he says, and I am surprised that his hearers often seem to. Whether this is evidence of Harry’s charm or of his listeners’ stupidity, I don’t know. But I see past the thin veil of intelligence covering his statements, and I see that the core is false. He couches his falsehoods in truth to lend validity to his philosophies, but he does not fool me. Whenever he expostulates, “facts [flee] before [him] like frightened forest things.” He speaks some truth (“we never get back our youth”) and then at a later dinner party he contradicts himself, saying, “To get back one’s youth, one has merely to repeat one’s follies.” Some other of his statements that make no sense or even seem to be the opposite of truth:

“Beauty is a form of genius . . . [Beauty] is not so superficial as Thought is . . . It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances . . . There are no triumphs left for you [after you’ve lost your youthful beauty] . . . Fidelity in love is purely physiology and has nothing to do with our own will . . . Punctuality is the thief of time." This last one is a very selfish principle (although it seems Harry often has selfish principles), as being late is actually stealing time from those waiting for you.

And yet more: “When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy.” Goodness, to Harry, is equal to selfishness and doing exactly what you wish--which is, to me, an odd definition of goodness. “The only things that one can use in fiction are the things that one has ceased to use in fact . . . No civilized man ever regrets a pleasure," though I guess this depends on Harry’s definition of civilization. As does the following statement, written by Wilde but not spoken by any character: “Society, civilized society at least, is never very ready to believe anything to the detriment of those who are both rich and fascinating.” That does not seem to be true here in America. Though we may elevate the rich and fascinating to a level higher than they deserve, we are always more than willing to tear those “heroes” down from the pedestal we have put them on. I suppose this means we are not “civilized.” Which makes me wonder, did Oscar Wilde ascribe to Harry’s theories? If so, I think he was very misguided.

I wondered what Wilde referred to when he mentioned “that book of cowardice whose author apes the name of common sense.” I thought he must have been speaking of the Bible, but I wonder if I am narrow-minded in thinking this?

I found it odd that Dorian could be so weak-willed as to be easily influenced by Harry, and yet he seems to have exerted quite a strong influence over many young people he himself came into contact with.

And there you have it: my thoughts on a great book. I must add that if you have actually read this whole post, I am proud of you. You get a gold star.


Rachel said...

This is one of my favourite books! great post :)

Priya Parmar said...

such a hanting book. it is so sad when you understand it in the light of wilde's life.

ps: i think i may have sent it to the worng email but definitely have your friend contact me! i would love to help!

Kate said...

I've had this book recommended to me through Amazon but have not picked it up yet. I'm glad you reviewed it - now I'm excited to check it out!

There's an award for you at Kate's Library.

Priya Parmar said...

hello! i left you an award at the plumbean! and i totally forgot to email--will do that now!

Jayne said...

Hello! Came here by way of Priya's blog. :)

It has been a long time since I have read this book but I do remember enjoying it. I like your point about Dorian not taking direct responsibility for his actions - that he blames everything else such as the book - for the way he has turned out. Very true of human behaviour even today!

I also write book reviews once a month at my blog - if you pop over and scroll down you will see the ones from April and May. :)

Literary Feline said...

I started The Sparrow a couple of months ago, but it wasn't the right time to read it. Hopefully I will pick it up again soon.

I read The Picture of Dorian Gray a couple of years ago and was really disappointed. I felt like I should love it since so many others have (like you), but it fell flat for me. Oh well. I can't like everything, right?

Leah said...

Congrats...we gave you an award! Go to our website to check it out!

Kathy said...

Thank you so much for the awards! I keep intending to do something with these--or maybe instead do a Friday Five like Kate's Library (although I hesitate to make a weekly commitment which, more than likely, I won't be able to keep for long) but I guess the middle of a road trip isn't the best time to jump into something like that. :)

Jayne, I agree with your observation that this trend is true even today--I would venture to say that lack of personal responsibility is even more pronounced and widespread now than it was in Dorian's life. In fact I think so many of the world's problems could be solved if humans as a group would eradicate this scourge and take responsibility for their own actions.

Literary Feline, about your realization that we can't like everything--I've known that feeling before. If so many others have loved this or that, why don't I? Good thing there's something for everyone.

Now, if you'll excuse me, it appears I have a few new blogs to check out! :)

Jayne said...

Hi Kathy - completely agree with you - much more pronounced today, and if only people would realise that taking responsibility ultimately frees them rather than condemns... ah well. Thanks for coming by my blog. :)