The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Sadly, this book was difficult for me to get through.  I imagine if I’d read it when it was first written, I might have a different take, as the idea was still fresh and new, but I’ve known this story my whole life and my expectations were quite high.  Once again I see how a classic becomes such due to its place in time.

Oscar Wilde was an aristocratic, wildly popular and the voice of his time.  He was flamboyant and prone to gossip, and all of these characteristics reveal themselves in the characters of Dorian Gray.  It makes the book more interesting to read when you realize the characters and situations aren’t made up entirely of his imagination.  Take the following paragraph, so wonderfully descriptive:

It was certainly a tedious party. Two of the people he had never seen before, and the others consisted of Ernest Harrowden, one of those middle-aged mediocrities so common in London clubs who have no enemies, but are thoroughly disliked by their friends; Lady Ruxton, an overdressed woman of forty-seven, with a hooked nose, who was always trying to get herself compromised, but was so peculiarly plain that to her great disappointment no one would ever believe anything against her; Mrs. Erlynne, a pushing nobody, with a delightful lisp and Venetian-red hair; Lady Alice Chapman, his hostess’s daughter, a dowdy dull girl, with one of those characteristic British faces that, once seen, are never remembered; and her husband, a red-cheeked, white-whiskered creature who, like so many of his class, was under the impression that inordinate joviality can atone for an entire lack of ideas.

This is a brilliant passage, made even more tantalizing by the fact that Wilde likely attended parties just like this, and knew people like this intimately.  It is a first hand account, a snapshot of an era one can’t help but be intrigued by.

Oscar Wilde is one of the most quoted authors, a skill highly demonstrated in Dorian Gray, his only novel.  That said, sometimes it is so quotable it reads like a philosophy book, but not of sound philosophy. Much of the book reads like this, which at times is unbearable:

Romance lives by repetition, and repetition converts an appetite into an art. Besides, each time that one loves is the only time one has ever loved. Difference of object does not alter singleness of passion. It merely intensifies it. We can have in life but one great experience at best, and the secret of life is to reproduce that experience as often as possible.

Negatives aside, the story of Dorian Gray is unforgettable.  More than just a story of a beautiful young man who essentially trades his soul for eternal youth, it is a story of man’s internal struggle with good and evil.  There is a turning point for Dorian’s character where he must decide the moral code he will live by, a turning point we’ve all been at in our lives.  For Dorian, however, this internal struggle seems to last all of five minutes, and isn’t considered further (until the end, briefly).  There is a lot missing from the story, and if I never hear another “witticism” by Lord Henry again, it won’t be soon enough.

Simply put, The Picture of Dorian Gray would have made an outstanding short story.

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