Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Book Review - Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
Published by: The Franklin Library
Publication Date: 1891
Format: Hardcover, 243 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

The painter Basil Hallward has found his muse in Dorian Gray. Just having the dazzling and innocent youth in his life has made his work reach heights he never thought it would. Basil longs to keep Dorian his secret but his dear friend Lord Harry Wotton is so enthralled by the portrait that Basil is painting of Dorian that he demands to meet the youth whose likeness is sure to be the best painting of Basil's career. But the meeting of Harry and Dorian changes everything. Harry fills the empty vessel of Dorian's mind with vanity for his own beauty and that naivete that Basil so adores quickly starts to slip away from Dorian. Upon gazing at the finished portrait Dorian makes a heartfelt plea that he might remain forever youthful and pure in his looks while his likeness ages and withers before his eyes. Little does Dorian know that sometimes wishes come true. After an ill fated love affair Dorian realizes that sometimes the unexplainable happens and soon he's on the path of vice and immorality while his portraiture suffers, all guided by the steady hand of Harry.

The late nineties was the perfect time to develop an Oscar Wilde obsession. Almost a hundred years after his death the cinema was filled with marvelous new adaptations of his most celebrated plays as well as a biopic starring that celebrity I am most likely to kidnap to read all my books to me, Stephen Fry. Even that one movie I saw more then any movie ever in theaters, Velvet Goldmine, had a little Wilde in it. Birthdays and holidays I was gifted new Wilde books, from The Importance of Being a Wit: The Insults of Oscar Wilde to the Wilde: Screenplay. I even had a postcard from my friend Paul promoting Wilde with Stephen Fry in his dapper photoshop pink suit that I remember holding pride of place on the mirror in my bedroom for many years. In fact, I'm pretty sure given the impetus I could dig it out again. I waited for each adaptation with baited breath and saw them all on opening weekend, even if I had to see Wilde at our rather run down art house cinema where half your attention was on the screen and the other half on the ceiling hoping it wouldn't collapse. Wilde and his wit became a way of life for me. 

When I ended up becoming a theater major through the back door by way of classes cross-listed with my art major I felt like I was becoming more in tune with Wilde's world. I studied the history of the theater and read my fair share of plays from the Greeks right up to Wilde himself. In the fall of 2001 I was taking a class that was meant to expand our critical writing skills of plays, both productions and text being analyzed. I was frustrated with this class in that I had spent my life honing these skills and to be given simple exercises that I could have done in freshman year of high school, well, my mind tended to wander. What my mind wandered to was the one thing I was looking forward to in this class, and that was my semester long project on a play of my choice. It almost goes without mentioning that I chose The Importance of Being Earnest. I dove into the research material and lived there while blocking out the boring class. I learned the finer details of Bunburying and the great value of not misplacing your handbag.

While researching my paper I read a selection of Wilde's non-fiction essays and quickly came to the conclusion that he needed to remain a playwright. Reading his only book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, has not changed my opinion on this, in fact it has reinforced it. Plays and prose are such vastly different creatures. The way Wilde writes, every single sentence or line of dialogue is quotable. This works better in a play, because the way the actors bring the words to life and bounce them off each other the rapid fire wit entrances you. In a book it tends to get bogged down and lost. The back and forth of unassigned dialogue makes you confused and makes it loose it's punch. So many of the lines from The Picture of Dorian Grey are classics of Wilde's wit, but read in context they just loose something ineffable.

The best way I've thought of describing this ineffable issue, which, given it's ineffable is near impossible, is to compare Wilde to Nancy Mitford. Nancy Mitford wrote all her books so that each and every line amused her. Some were inside jokes, others mere wordplay, but each book was crafted to the nth degree sentence by sentence. Now Nancy wrote eight fiction books in her lifetime, only half of those are worth reading. Because of the way Nancy wrote the success of her brand of humor was hit or miss, either wonderful or awful. Given Wilde crafted his sole book in a near identical way he had about a fifty-fifty chance of success, and he did not succeed. Nancy had more time to get it right, and I must say it's a pity that Wilde didn't have that luxury, dying at the age of 46. As a reader I am not someone to necessarily be amused by an author who is amused by their own wit. I don't want to be highlighting every line as a favorite quote. You need the book to ebb and flow with valleys and peaks. Even if I take away the fact that Wilde wants us to stay at the top of this mountain range, when he does deign to descend, he gives us weird ramblings about gems and tapestries that would try the patience of any reader.

I am not the only one to have issues with this book. The Victorian society into which Wilde debuted his novel was scandalized by the hedonism and homosexuality of the book. This is another instance where I agree with someone having a problem with the book, but not for the same reasons. Wilde's themes and how he is laying them bare is what intrigued me while scandalizing those prudish Victorians. The way he wrote it is where my annoyance lay. Yet it wasn't my only issue. The self-impressed characters, especially Lord Harry, are people I would have to murder if I spent more then five minutes with them. Also, while the book's themes were worthy, the way they were handled was not with a deft hand. The hedonism was in some regards too obvious and in others too opaque, giving us a muddled view as to how evil Dorian has really become. If you're going to really show how a man's soul has been corrupted, I don't think you can go by halves here. Wilde's already scandalized the public, why not go all out?

The chilling fact that this all stems from Dorian wanting to remain the societal ideal of beauty is the most intriguing aspect of this book, but again it is badly handled. NO ONE EVER COMMENTS ON DORIAN NOT AGING! I just don't get this. By the end of the book he's what, thirty-eight and looking twenty-one? Someone would say something, wouldn't they? Or were Victorians really that missish to think it rude to ask? So while I applaud Wilde for handling a topic that is still relevant to today's society, IE, worshipping at the Temple of Youth where appearance is everything, he could have done a better job. But seeing as Wilde himself was felled by a twenty one year old, well... getting it wrong in literature is not nearly as bad as getting it wrong in your life.


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