Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I mentioned in my Frankenstein review that The Picture of Dorian Gray was doing a better job of depicting a person’s descent into evil. I still stand by that opinion. The slow, complex development of what the naively innocent Dorian Gray becomes is both saddening and horrifying.

Dorian Gray starts out as a young man who has been sitting for Basil Hallward, a famous artist who is clearly besotted with the young man. (Let’s face it-the entire first chapter is Basil and Lord Henry fighting over Dorian. Yes, this was used in Oscar Wilde’s trial.) But after introducing Dorian to Lord Henry, and exposing him to Lord Henry’s cynical, amoral ideas, Dorian makes a slow, steady descent into evil, starting with his selfish rejection of his actress girlfriend.

Wilde depicts Dorian as being initially innocent, but I think it goes beyond innocence. Dorian is a blank slate. He has no ideas of his own, and is simply drifting along through life, enjoying being an idle young man. His exposure to Lord Henry’s ideas do not make him his own man-he makes Lord Henry’s philosophy his own, and simply carries it to its natural conclusion.

The actual impetus of the plot is never truly explained, which I think places this novel firmly into “weird fiction” territory. Dorian makes an idle wish that he could retain his beauty and his portrait by Basil carry all his age and sin. Somehow, this wish becomes reality. The subtlety with which it begins is what makes this so horrifyingly realistic. It starts out merely with the portrait’s facial expression, but by the time Dorian has lived years in every kind of depravity, it shows.  And Dorian himself is horrified. But, rather than make the changes necessary, he chooses instead to hide away his portrait and turn a blind eye to the consequences of his actions. By the end, even his attempts to “make amends” are still more about himself (as Lord Henry points out) than about other people.

It is certainly a dark novel, but also a very fascinating one. It looks into the psychology of humanity without holding back, showing both our justifications for our actions (“I’ve already messed up, might as well go all the way!”) and the inherent selfishness in many of our actions.

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