Thursday, 20 December 2012

Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (a review)

"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all."
- William Shakespeare

As I've said before, and I'm sure I'll say again, I get nervous when it comes time to review the classics.  Who am I to doubt or impugn the works of the late, the great, the canonized and the deified juggernauts of literature? I don't even have a master's degree in English... but I do have an MLIS, which at the very least qualifies me as an avid consumer and promoter of books, if not a suitable judge of their character and quality. But that aside, I still find it hard to offer criticism to works which have not only stood the test of time, but have found their way into our collective consciousness to the point that themes of these works have become the tropes and memes of everyday life and contemporary entertainment.

And today, the case in point for all of this is Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Even if you have not actively sat down and read this novel, you already know the story.  A young man, in the bloom and vigor of his youth, sits for a portrait.  The beautiful result moves him not to delight but despair, and he makes the now cliched "deal with the devil" that the portrait shall age in his place.  A lifetime of debauchery follows, with the painting baring the scars and wrinkles of the man's misdeeds.  And of course, all ends tragically.

This story has been adapted, appropriated and otherwise borrowed from so much for other books and films that it is a very well-known theme.  As a result, I went into Wilde's work already knowing what would happen and how it would end*.  I don't have this problem with most of the books I decide to review.  Consequently, I'm going to set aside any criticism about the premise of the story (which obviously has been good enough to be repeated so often), and focus instead on some of the other elements of the work such as the character development and pacing.

* As a side note: I find it strange and somewhat hilarious that my strongest exposure to this story prior the reading the novel was Brian De Palma's film The Phantom of the Paradise, which crosses the stories of Dorian Gray, The Phantom of the Opera and the legendary tale of Faust.  It's a very strange B-movie with a great soundtrack courtesy of Paul Williams, I recommend it.

Damn fine show-tunes.

First of all, this book is so very, very reflective of Oscar Wilde and his fate.  Dorian Gray is the consummate dandy (a term which I feel is almost impossible to describe Wilde without employing), enjoying a life of relaxing hobbies, socializing, and focusing incessantly on physical appearance.  Scandal and gossip abound for both Wilde and his fictional counterpart.  And while The Picture of Dorian Gray was written before Wilde's imprisonment and exile, it seems quite prophetic in all these regards.  The difference being that Dorian Gray falls from grace in a much less catastrophic fashion, maintaining his unholy outward appearance while his moral structure and social life slowly begin to crumble.  

Oscar, King of the Dandies.

Interesting parallels between author and character aside, the character of Dorian Gray is quite the tabula rasa at the beginning of the story.  He's a vacuous pretty-boy with not a care in the world, until he is introduced to Harry (Lord Henry). Harry is not only a corrupting factor in Gray's life, but is very nearly the devil himself.  It is Harry who whispers the seeds of malcontent in Gray's ear and plants the initial buds of doubt.  It is Harry who introduces Gray to a lifestyle heavy with temptation and sin.  Without Harry, Gray would not have struck his unholy bargain that the painting would age in his stead.  And while Harry seems to do none of these things out of malice, his impact on Dorian Gray is as undeniable as if it he had been purposefully leading him astray.  As a realistic story, the devil is never directly portrayed or communicated with when Gray makes his fateful trade, but Harry seems to suit the role just a bit too well for it to be coincidental.

Generally speaking, the pacing in The Picture of Dorian Grey is a bit unusual.  The first segments of time pass very slowly, until Dorian Gray takes interest in the actress Sibyl.  From there the pacing picks up a bit, until the reader is slammed against the truly bizarre chapter which details the contents of the book which Gray is given by Harry.  And while this strange chapter seems to demarcate the two halves of the story, I found it's long-winded, overly descriptive passages to be pretty much unreadable.  I ended up skipping long sections of the chapter (which was over 50 pages long in my version).  Following this chapter we move several years ahead, and pacing resumes a somewhat regular flow.  While I appreciated the impact and need to go into detail about Dorian Gray's first act of cruelty (that against Sibyl), I felt that this section of the novel could have been a bit shorter in order that the reader be moved into the action a bit more quickly.  The first chapters are a bit dry and I hope that not too many readers have given up on this novel too soon because of that.

Dorian Gray himself is both frustrating and relateable.  While part of me wanted to shake him for being a classically-trained asshole for good parts of the book, another part of me wanted to see him redeemed, repentant, and relieved of his curse.  These mixed feelings are the sign of true character development.  When Gray's vengeful stalker is killed, it is both a breath of relief and a moment of annoyance that Gray had escaped punishment for his crimes yet again.  Being able to elicit such strong reactions in the reader is a true sign of a great writer, which Wilde doubtlessly was.

Wilde, like his character Dorian Gray, was also subject to a tragic end, one very much unsuitable for someone with such a creative, provocative writing style and imagination.  And while his works are few, I've enjoyed this one immensely, and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fiction and wants to read one of the great common themes of literature couched in a rich cast of characters.

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