I’ve resolved to read more classic fiction. I’ve always been skeptical of the classics because these were the books that used to bore me in high school English classes (this has nothing to do with the books themselves, and is due entirely to the simple fact I was reading them for said English classes). I got lucky when I found these incredibly cheap ($3.00) Penguin classics; I love the simple binding too: thin paperweight, lime-green covers. I also seem to have this notion that anything written in the 19th century is bound to seem stuffy and outdated today, but Wilde proved me wrong.
Yes, there would be a day when his face would be wrinkled and wizen, his eyes dim and colourless, the grace of his figure broken and deformed. The scarlet would pass away from his lips, and the gold steal from his hair. The life that was to make his soul would mar his body. He would become dreadful, hideous and uncouth.
There were certainly parts of The Picture of Dorian Gray that would appeal more to someone reading it in the late 1800’s, particularly the dinner scenes in the beginning. Oscar Wilde spends a lot of time writing snappy dialogue for his aristocratic characters, the kind whose inheritances permits them to do nothing but sleep late, drink a lot, stay out late, and think of stupid philosophies to try out on one another. Sound familiar? This wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I’d led myself to believe that this book was much more grim and fantastical, but it didn’t keep the frivolous, social atmosphere for more than the first few chapters.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a young, English noble, Dorian Gray, and his degeneration as a result of his extreme indulgence. Dorian Gray sits for a portrait while Lord Henry Wotton talks to him about his ‘New Hedonism,’ in which one cures the soul with the senses. When Gray sees his finished portrait, he’s struck at the injustice of the way his beauty will one day fade, but the portrait will always be young; in a moment of passion he prays that he could sell his soul if only the painting would bear the weight of all his sins and the affects of aging. Not too long after, Dorian discovers that, for better or worse, his wish was somehow granted. He immerses himself in a vulgar life of self-indulgence (the descriptions of his varying obsessions are particularly interesting: jewels, fabrics, books), participating in acts that are more and more vile. He becomes possessed by his own transgressions, obsessing over the changes he sees wrought in his portrait, both by time and by whatever evil acts he commits. Guided by Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian goes through various stages of regret or bitterness, but slowly and surely destroys himself throughout the book. It’s an amazing thing to follow.
One thing that interested me was something that Chris also pointed out in his review of The Catcher in the Rye: people never change. It’s easy for me to imagine that members of the English high society of the late 19th century never did a thing—that they were disciplined and virtuous and highly religious—but it just isn’t so. They were rich brats, lazy partiers, and pretentious snobs. The Picture of Dorian Gray had a slow start, but was absolutely gripping by the end, and a peaceful, monotonous beginning only serves to punctuate his later decline. Maybe it’s just schadenfreude, but there’s something about watching an honest man become consumed by his own vices that makes for a very good story.