The Picture of Dorian Gray

Thoughts on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

As the regular readers of this blog (all three of you) may remember, my mother and I started a book club of sorts, the first selection of which was Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club.  When my mother announced her choice for our next read, she told me she feared the choice would turn me off reading altogether.  I reminded her that the point of book clubs is to be exposed to works to which one might not normally choose to read. I assured her that I was completely open-minded and willing to read anything she suggested.  I think I successfully persuaded her because she shipped her selection to me:  Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I am proud to annouce that I finished the book, despite her doubts.  Point in my favor. However, point in her favor, it is the end of March and she shipped the book to me last October.  Well, maybe that is half a point.  Another half-point against me is that the book is just over two hundred pages long.  When we talked in January, after I told her in December that I saw no reason I couldn't finish before the end of the year, she told me she was afraid this would happen.  There was a bit of a told-you-so tone to the statement. I tried my best to convince her that my delay in finishing had nothing to do with the book itself.  There are several reasons (some might call them excuses) it took me six months to read a tiny two hundred page book, but as Paolo Coehlo once said, “Don’t explain. People only hear what they want to hear.”  I was determined to finish.

After some additional delays, I finally managed to shove all distractions aside and spent a weekend finishing the book.  As a matter of fact, I enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I tend to struggle with 19th century literature – I still haven’t finished Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, into which I stuck a bookmark over a year ago and haven’t returned – but I found Oscar Wilde generally easy to read provided I was not trying to read in bed after a particularly exhausting day at work, which is all of them.  I found Wilde’s prose beautiful, lyrical, smooth.  Some of his dialogue – especially that of my favorite character, Lord Henry Wotton – is snarky, cynical, critical of the Victorian society in which Oscar Wilde lived and I find it humorous that much of what he said in the book absolutely outraged that society.  So much of what caused the outrage seems innocuous now in this age of greater acceptance in which we live, though I suspect a few of his statements would still upset some segments of the modern population.  One such passage that coaxed from me a bark of laughter followed a description of Dorian Gray’s brief dalliance with religion:

“But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system.”

Oscar Wilde states elsewhere, in a critical tone, that “men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography”, but I strongly believe that statement regarding religion is the author’s personal opinion on the matter, though it is known that Wilde wanted to join the Catholic Church, only succeeding in doing so upon his deathbed.  I suppose one can appreciate the spirituality of religion while still exercising scientific thought.

The major problem I have with the novel is that I find the titular character so unlikable.  Dorian Gray, a victim of his own beauty and the easy life he enjoyed because of it, is completely spoiled.  Adored by all, desired by many, Dorian wants for nothing.  Wilde uses the dialogue descriptor “he cried” so often to identify Dorian as the speaker that I got the impression Dorian was in a constant state of hysterics.  I pictured him with the back of his hand to his forehead, eyes rolled back, swooning this way and that.  Later, he is a dreadful narcissist and later still, he is darn-near sociopathic.  None of these are positive character traits designed to help the reader relate.  Dorian does experience the most dramatic character arc in the story, though, and I was interested to see what would happen to him even if I didn't think very highly of him.

Had I read The Picture of Dorian Gray in a high school literature class, I suspect I would have disliked it.  As an adult, however, I have spent the hours since I finished reading the book organizing my thoughts about it and wanting to read more about it and discuss it with others who have read it.  Fortunately, I am currently taking a road trip to visit my parents - I am in the passenger seat - so I’ll finally get to talk with Mom about it… if she remembers any of it six months later. Driving from Los Angeles to El Paso to visit earns me a bonus point so I win, 2-1.