So, the past few days have consisted of working, sleeping, gym-ing, and applying for absolutely every job under the sun. And all I have to show for any of it is a laundry basket full of sweaty clothes and towels, an interview with a volunteer company (which is actually pretty cool), and a blister on my left foot. I haven’t been this bored since my first few weeks in Canberra last year when I struggled to get out of bed because I knew that all I would be doing that day was watching TV. I actually finished The Picture of Dorian Gray a few days ago, but I have been so tired and so depressed that typing anything, even for enjoyment, would just bring back cover letter flashbacks. But I’m recovering! So on with the review:
I think the best capital L Literature books are the ones that caused a kerfuffle during its time. Dorian Gray is definitely one of those books. For one thing we have a gay character who is actually key to the plot! And back in Wilde’s day. Could you even imagine the reaction? This book would have been hidden in corsets and undergarment drawers, and read under blankets in the dead of night. I like to imagine society ladies meeting in secret and discussing this book with their tiny tea cups and dainty pastries.
A reason that I tend to avoid Literature is because all of the characters are totally restrained, watching every word they say, and denying themselves their passions. Or forcing their passions into a shape that society commends. Frankenstein, anything by Jane Austen, and Dracula come to mind (though Dracula did have vampires, so it doesn’t actually count). But books like Dorian Gray, and Wuthering Heights explore the parts of Victorian society that no one really remembers or talks about. Dorian Gray follows the life of Dorian Gray (duh), a man who is sitting for a portrait at the beginning of the novel. The painter, Basil Hallward, enjoys painting Dorian so much, and is so enamoured by him, that he puts a kind of magic into the portrait. And then, as Dorian gazes at the painting, he exclaims that he wished that the portrait would grow old and that he, Dorian, would stay young forever. The magic that Basil imbued that painting with grants this wish and the story unravels from there.
I kind of feel like this isn’t a fantasy story. Wilde uses one fantastic element to highlight something about the human condition. In this case, Wilde chose to discuss “pleasure seeking” or hedonism through the character of Lord Henry Wotton. I was talking about Dorian Gray with a friend of a friend and she summed Wotton up perfectly:
“He says the most terrible, wonderful things.”
And it’s true. Wotton espouses some of the most horrible sentiments, but in a eloquent way. I never agreed with anything he said, mainly because most of the terrible things he said were about women and how shallow and manipulative women are, but he said those things so beautifully that you can’t help but give him props. Wotton was the epitome of hedonism and Dorian drinks it all in. He changes completely, based on nothing more than Wotton’s personal philosophy.
Now, about Dorian. How in God’s name does anyone get that influenced by someone in one afternoon? Answer: they don’t. I got so annoyed that Dorian was led so far astray by Wotton, but then it hit me: Wotton was only saying things that Dorian desperately wanted to be true. And so Dorian let himself be manipulated in order to free himself from the rules of the society in which he lived. The whole opening scene, in Basil Hallward’s studio, seemed to me to be a commentary on the state of adolescence. Which is pretty funny because adolescence wasn’t a concept back then.
But I’m getting sidetracked. Dorian was an interesting character because of everything that happened to him, not through any fault of his own. In all honesty, there aren’t any likeable characters in this book. But the philosophy is pretty interesting. And it’s the philosophy that keeps you reading.
The most Victorian thing about this book is how badly things go wrong for Dorian when he starts doing things for pleasure and only for pleasure. It felt as though Wilde were engaging in argumentum ad absurdum. By taking things way too far, Wilde shows why society needs rules and guidelines. Victorian England, by reputation, was fairly restrictive. Women were uptight and men were aloof. You know, according to the rumours. So Wilde decided (from what I can see) to say “well, yes, we are all bloody uptight, but what would happen if we chose to indulge our every whim?”. And then The Picture of Dorian Gray happened.
This book was actually intriguing and got hard to put down. Something shocking for Literature. I usually read Literature like I do a so-so TV show: I watch all of it without really getting invested. But I became invested in Dorian Gray. The plot sucks you in because things actually happen. As opposed to anything Jane Austen had ever written where nothing happens ever.
I don’t like rating classics, because I feel woefully inadequate for the job. Instead I’ll just say that this is one of the capital L Literature books that I actually enjoyed. And if that’s not recommendation enough, then I don’t know what is.