Sunday, October 2

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Dorian Gray is a young man with extraordinary good looks. They captivate the attentions of society and he is adored and admired wherever he goes. When he becomes the muse of a local painter, Basil Hallward, he thinks nothing of it and agrees to sit for him.

Another friend of Basil's, Lord Henry Wotton, thrives on controversial and witty conversation. He marvels at Dorian’s beauty…but tells him that youth doesn’t last forever.

Dorian realises that the painting Basil has done of him will remain forever young and he will become decrepit and lose his charms. He makes a wish that the painting would bare his burdens and that he could remain forever young and untarnished.

Dorian is determined to live fully while he still has his youth…but when he turns to cruelty, it tarnishes not his own soul but the face of the painting. Unchanged, Dorian has no limitation on what he can do.

Can he keep the painting hidden away and live a life of sin and satisfaction…or will someone discover his secret?

I read this book for the first time years ago and recently sought to experience it again, this time in audio book format, if I could manage to find one with a satisfactory narrator. There were plenty to sample but one stood high above the rest. Fortunate for me, others thought so too, since I was lucky enough to find the version narrated by Simon Vance at a cut price on the Audible website.

Dorian’s story fascinates me. It is one thing to influence an individual but the idea that one man's words can turn another's life upside-down and unravel it in an entirely new direction is quite a concept.

Despite the fact that it is Lord Henry "Harry" Wotton's words on the fleeting presence of youth and how there is nothing better than being young and beautiful that do so, I do not see him as the antagonist of the story. To me, he is the catalyst. His opinions make Dorian think and set the story in motion but while he may act out of selfish tendencies, he doesn't seek to do anything out of spite.

While many people misrepresent Harry as being "evil" and even Satanic (ridiculous) I do still hold him accountable for what happens to Dorian. He made Dorian into his own personal project because he wanted to play a part in sculpting Dorian as an individual. Even though he had no idea of the repercussions, it was very careless of him.

Dorian has an abusive past. The lightness of Harry's words frighten him and make him anxious, affecting him in a deeper way than the older man could have imagined.

My favourite part of the entire novel is Lord Henry's monologue to Dorian:
“No, you don’t feel it now. Some day, when you are old and wrinkled and ugly, when thought has seared your forehead with its lines, and passion branded your lips with its hideous fires, you will feel it, you will feel it terribly. Now, wherever you go, you charm the world. Will it always be so?

“You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray.
“Don’t frown. You have. And Beauty is a form of Genius – is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.
“You smile? Ah! when you have lost it you won’t smile.

“People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

“Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which really to live. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly.

“Realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar, which are the aims, the false ideals, of our age. Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing.

“A new Hedonism – that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality there is nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season.

“The moment I met you I saw that you were quite unconscious of what you really are, what you really might be. There was so much about you that charmed me that I felt I must tell you something about yourself. I thought how tragic it would be if you were wasted. For there is such a little time that your youth will last – such a little time.

“The common hill-flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be as golden next June as it is now. In a month there will be purple stars on the clematis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars. But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty, becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we did not dare to yield to.
“Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!”
This is the real reason Harry captivates me as a character. He has such a wonderful way with words. He spouts such contradictory opinions, much like Wilde's other quotable characters, such as Algernon Moncrieff and Lord Darlington. The difference is that Wilde gave Lord Henry Wotton’s words something very important: consequence.

While the witty words of Wilde have their own weight in his plays, the opinions given by his characters are often spoken lightly and to other societal characters who take the words at face value and banter back. In his novel, however, Wilde takes a susceptible young man, Dorian Gray, who hangs on Lord Henry’s every word and begins to live by them.

I could read Harry's monologue over and over. It's exquisite. It might seem quirky and frivolous but it has such an impact.

Here's the gist of what Dorian gets from Lord Henry's speech:

"Life is wonderful for you right now because you are young and beautiful. When you grow older and your physical attraction fades, life will be awful for you, people will tire of you and you will hate yourself. Relish the good times while they last."

While Lord Henry only means to be clever, opinionated and controversial, he is in utter ignorance of the damage he is causing to the young man, already jaded from his abusive childhood with his cruel grandfather. Telling him that his current happiness is doomed to end is tactless. Lord Henry places his own vanity and desire to be adored above any consideration of the possible repercussions of his words. Yes, Lord Henry Wotton may not be "evil" but that doesn't mean he isn't flawed.

There is a reason readers might find it hard to be swept up by The Picture of Dorian Gray and that reason is Chapter Eleven. In this chapter, Dorian is revealed to have a very obsessive personality. He will become enthralled by a particular subject and usurp all he can of it and then grow bored of it an toss it aside for something new. Pages are devoted to details of Dorian's obsessions and the paragraphs are huge. Even listening to the audio book, I had to double back on three different occasions.

The language of The Picture of Dorian Gray is exquisite. However, it can be a habit of readers (myself included) to skim over these passages in anticipation of further plot development. That is why I enjoyed listening to the audio book so much. I didn't have to worry about my eyes automatically glazing over and could instead just usurp the brilliance of Wilde's skill with words through Simon Vance's brilliant narration.

The Picture of Dorian Gray was originally a shorter novel that Wilde revised within a year of its original publication. This meant that he could flesh out Dorian's character and the story but it has also been noted that some of the homoerotic aspects of the book were toned down. The book as it is now, is very interesting to me because while is covers the scandalous themes of sin and corruption, Dorian Gray and Lord Henry Wotton appear to be very much heterosexual. Of course, there is always the study of subtext on this matter.

Despite the fact that Wilde was imprisoned for his homosexuality and The Picture of Dorian Gray was used as evidence of his immoral behaviour (A book with the theme of immorality deemed immoral? No wonder Wilde considered himself a genius amidst such a society...) it is in fact the kind, humble and sensible Basil Hallward who is enamoured and inspired by Dorian. Not in any vulgar manner, either. It is a pure romance that envelops him.

Basil becomes the unfortunate victim of Harry's influence. Dorian sees Basil as someone who only admires his beauty and will be bored with him when it is lost. When the picture Basil painted of him becomes the bane of Dorian's life and the reflection of his corruption, Basil bears the unfortunate brand of antagonist in Dorian's eyes.

To me, Dorian is a very empathetic character. I did not feel sorry for him throughout the story but when the stakes escalated, I felt the tension of Dorian's situation and I found myself with my breath caught in my chest when his paranoia became tangible, anticipating whether he would manage his narrow escapes.

Simon Vance is a captivating narrator. He brings the characters to life and the plot into focus. The way he handles the language of the novel is mesmerising. I have already purchased another audio book which he narrates.

I listened to The Picture of Dorian Gray on speaker, at night, in bed. Whenever I turned it on, my cat Severus would run in from the other room to join me. I think he has excellent taste.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is not a story to be missed. The physical edition includes footnotes, explaining certain words and references modern readers may not comprehend but I cannot recommend the audio book highly enough. I know I will listen to it many times again in future.

Once done with the novel, if you are looking for a film adaption of the book to enjoy, then I suggest the more recent, Dorian Gray.

In accordance with the FTC, Quill Café would like to disclose that the reviewer purchased this book. The opinions expressed are hers alone and no monetary compensation was offered to her by the author or publisher. Cover art is copyright of Dalmatian Press and is used solely as an aide to the review.

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