The Picture of Dorian Gray Book Review
By Oscar Wilde
Pg. 288, Published in 1890
Genre: Drama, Transgression, Fantasy
Roughly, this novel can be deemed as a “Transgressional Fiction.” A main character, Dorian Gray, leads a hedonistic life, believing that a life serving senses and beauty is the most ideal one. The storyline focuses much on the topics of sin and art, and this review will analyze how this novel treats these topics and what readers can learn from such perspectives.
Is sin inseparable part of one’s life? No matter how moral or innocent way of life one seemingly leads, does sin work its way in insidiously to contaminate and destroy our soul? Oscar Wilde would agree. The novel is an intense meditation on morality. Here, As Dorian Gray leads a debauchery life, he is representing the dark side of morality. Once influenced by Lord Henry, who insists that “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” Dorian Gray’s sole purpose in life is to please his senses despite the entailing costs. His sudden, whimsical wish that his portrait drawn by his admirer, Basil Hallward, would physically age instead of himself, comes true, and for the next 18 years, he keeps his youthful appearance while his semblance in the portrait grows old. During those 18 years, he indulges himself in many indecencies (although readers could only glimpse at the specificity of those acts since apparently the press banned a number of erotic references when it was first published), yet he remains pure and pristine outwardly. His callous attitude toward and apathetic reception of others slowly taint his soul. One’s philosophy on life has huge impact on his moral conscious, as can be seen from Dorian’s life. Every now and then, Dorian visits the attic where he has hidden his portrait and takes a look at it. The portrait looks more horrific and sinister with the signs of aging every time he looks at it. His sin is coming alive and reveals itself in the portrait.
In this book, Oscar Wilde seems to suggest that we human beings are all sinners since no one is immune to aging of one’s physical forms. We age because we sin. Sin is one of inextricable condition of human being’s life. As written in the introduction to the novel, “it portrays the author’s internal battles and arrives at the disturbing possibility that ‘Ugliness is the only reality.’”
Then, can we, readers, say that Dorian Gray’s sin’s are unnatural and abomination? Can we not conclude that his sin is just different kind of sin from all the sins that human beings commit? Is his sin greater in intensity than the sins committed by others? If ugliness is the only reality, then he is merely candid with himself and is living in a true reality whereas everyone else only swims in the pool of illusions.
Many religion advocates claim that God exists because everyone needs redemption. And we need to attain it through Him. If everyone needs redemption, then it logically follows that everyone sins. Although people may have rebuked Wilde’s only novel due to the immorality portrayed and done by Dorian Gray, they have done so because they were afraid to look at their own ugliness through the reflection cast by this very novel. Sin is a natural rebellion we all harbor, however unknowably, deep in our heart. Lucifer and Dorian Gray, they were just more honest with what their hearts were telling them.
The theme of art, although seems peripheral to the theme of sin, is indeed an important facet that makes up the novel. The artist who paints the portrait of Dorian Gray poured his soul in this very art. This metaphor becomes reality and the portrait embodies the soul of Dorian Gray. In addition, Dorian Gray is hugely influenced by the book given by Lord Henry Wotten, he who is the embodiment of extremely liberal-minded and paradox loving friend of Dorian’s. The latter fact is autobiographical in context as Wilde confesses in his other essays. Art affects lives profoundly. Art changes lives. Art plants irreversible mindset deep inside one’s heart. Art has soul of its own, or the soul of its subject.
Then, was Oscar Wilde honest when he claimed in the preface that ‘All art is quite useless”? Anything that has capacity to change one’s philosophy cannot be labeled ‘useless’. The very contrast that’s shown in the story of the book is that Dorian Gray could not have lived such decadent life if it weren’t for his portrait drawn by his friend. Art, here, gave him a new life. Art, when applied, becomes indispensable aspects of one’s life. Scholars argue that the saying, “All art is quite useless,” was written after many vituperative remarks with which Wilde was condemned from his critics. It was his defense; yet his novels immediately rejects such claim through the inordinate life story of Dorian Gray.
Like many great novels, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a representation of a certain movement at a specific time. The movement was called ‘Aesthetic Movement,” and the book remains as a symbol of its era, just as Albert Camus’s book The Strangers remains the representation of existentialism in the 50s. Interestingly, the book is inundated with paradoxes, most of which were conveyed by Lord Henry Wotten, and its purpose is worth-noting. Dialectic has been a method for a couple millennia to get at the truth, and it seems like Wilde is purportedly using paradoxes to give us a chance to see other side by our commonly dull perspective. He is suggesting that morality is not easily defined, that the difference between virtue and vice is paper-thin.
This book is riveting and memorable, full of paradoxes and
deep insights and commentaries on life. I recommend this book to anyone bored by mediocrity of general mass and also to those who would like to see liberal-mindedness in its extreme. Although the main character leads a decadent life, because of censorship at the times, the passages do not contain explicit sexual scenes or drug usage. Approximately four movie adaptations on this novel have been made so far, the last one of which stars Colin Firth.
Some quotes here are followed by my own interpretation:
“We shall all suffer for what the gods have given us, suffer terribly.” -God’s gifts are not a blessing but rather a curse-
“It is only the intellectually lost who ever argue.” -People who use their intelligence and rhetoric for the purpose of arguing don’t look smart; instead they look lost-
“Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love’s tragedies.” -It seems like the phrase is boasting the wonders and greatness of unfaithfulness, focusing on its dramatic elements-
“And Beauty is a form of Genius–is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation.” -We generally think that concept of beauty as greatness is fleeting, that beauty is inferior virtue from other types of virtues; yet Lord Henry claims that beauty resides in the zenith among all virtues.
“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
“‘Always’ is a dreadful word. It makes me shudder when I hear it. Women are so fond of using it. They spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever. It is a meaningless word too. The only difference between a caprice & a life-long passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.”
“Sin is the only real color-element left in modern life.”
“One should absorb the color of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar.”
“Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.
“To define is to limit.”
“Every effect that one produces gives on an enemy. To be popular, one must be a mediocrity.”
“Their strong passions must either bruise or bend. They either slay the man or themselves die. Shallow sorrows and shallow loves live on.”