A story of evil, debauchery, and scandal, Oscar Wilde’s only novel tells of Dorian Gray, a beautiful yet corrupt man. When he wishes that a perfect portrait of himself would bear the signs of ageing in his place, the picture becomes his hideous secret, as it follows Dorian’s own downward spiral into cruelty and depravity. (Synopsis from Pengujn English Library).
I chose The Picture of Dorian Gray to be my first classic of the year because I had seen people talking about it online a lot last year – perhaps because of the 2009 adaptation, I cannot be sure – and it made me curious, although I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying. I prefer to begin a book knowing as little about it as possible. Unfortunately, this lead to an amusing assumption that it was a murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie. I began the novel and instantly adored its elegant writing and curious plot, but quickly realised it was not what I originally thought it was going to be. Instead, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an eerie Gothic horror story, set in 1890s London!
I also did not know what to expect from the writing, having never read any of Oscar Wilde’s work previously, and so I was blown away. I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve recently begun to appreciate ‘good writing’, whatever than may mean, but I do not think I’ve enjoyed it so much before, and as much as the actual story. It’s wonderful. I appreciated every sentence, every passage and highlighted it to death on my Kindle. I felt that the witty yet philosophical approach offered more insight into our three well-educated, upper class protagonists’ thoughts – socialites Dorian Gray and Lord Henry Wotton, and artist Basil Hallward – than it probably normally would have. Lord Henry has a particular talent for airing his sexist, classist opinions in a way that’s strangely charming. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a fascinating concoction of treachery and superficiality mixed with elegance, so the reader ends up enjoying hearing from these characters even thought they are immensely unlikeable.
‘I never take any notice of what common people say, and I never interfere with what charming people do.’ – Lord Henry
As for the story itself, it’s quite simple in a way, as outlined at the beginning of this review, but it’s also multi-layered with meaning. I did, however, make the mistake of not reading the book all at once. As it relies heavily on narrative and (sometimes internal) conversation, reading a couple of pages a day on the way to and from work meant that I ended up getting quite lost in the middle of the book. I was reading the eBook and so therefore couldn’t flip back quickly to remind myself, although this just means I shall have to re-read it (and it gives me a good excuse to purchase the Penguin English Library edition) – no harm done! However, I loved it when I did manage to grasp what was going on and it all made sense in the end.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a haunting, Gothic novel that combines beautiful writing with a deceptively simple plot. It’s a thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable cautionary tale encouraging us not to give too much purpose to art and warns us about the aesthetic ills that society can possess.
‘The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.’