Book review — ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

Published under this cover by Penguin books

I feel when reviewing a book such as this, I must either come out with some new and unthought-of insights into the meaning of the novel, revolutionary perspective or — dare I say it — extreme criticism, and perhaps derision at the long-lasting hype over such mediocrity.

I’m not sure I can offer any of these things. However, I would hope that if someone wants my thoughts, they would come here — if you want the views of the many more eloquent academics that come before me, they’re readily available online, I’m sure. My insights are ones already much explored, my perspective far from revolutionary and as for derision … I just can’t. This novel was wonderful. So many facets of the work came together to dazzle, stupefy and chill the blood of the reader. What immediately catches the attention is the prose — delicate, evocative, florid, yet at no point descending into the overbearing lectures of other antiquated authors that have, just recently, been the bane of my existence.* The book is an absolute joy to read, in a purely linguistic sense, from start to finish. If you let yourself become absorbed in the language, the story flows.

Of course, as always my attention is captured most easily by the philosophical aspects, and in this area the book is a triumph indeed. Even aside from the heady language, the value of this book is within the controversial, subversive, psychologically challenging philosophy expressed. One is never sure if Wilde is enamoured with, or abhors such cynical nihilism — an argument could be made for both, simultaneously. The nihilistic aspect, explored rather seductively, is ultimately condemned — nonetheless it is written as an argument, a persuasion, into harsh, logical, witty and blunt mannerisms and a casual, perhaps nonexistent, stance on morality in any traditional sense. It appears to be Wilde’s exploration of the allure of such methods of thought, yet as attractive as it is written to be, the consequences are clear.

The plot, is one widely known, at least in part, through the famous nature of the classic, as well as the many adaptations of the work for stage and film. However, spoilers are a concern for many, so I will simply say that this book is not for the easily disturbed — though the sinister nature of the book lies not in open terror or violence, but a disturbing and slow rot of the soul, which I found unnerving to say the least. It’s horror lay in psychological unease, no shocks or starts. But this form of fear lingers long after closing the book.

As for the subtext, this book was known for being what began trouble for Oscar Wilde. Beyond the nihilistic cynicism, there is much to do with love in the book — whether of others or one’s self. However, it is easy to spot an extremely homoromantic tendency among the characters of the book, which led to public suspicion of Wilde himself. Of course, as a retrospective analysist  of such ideas, it’s simpler to connect Wilde’s known sexuality to the views of his characters, but in the 19th century this still lead to Wilde’s trial and imprisonment for ‘unnatural acts’. Leaving behind such outdated controversy, the descriptions of character and personal/inner beauty within the book are truly moving at some points, though the book was certainly never a romance of any kind.

I must confess that I disliked the vast majority of the characters, but in such a novel I hardly expected otherwise. What I adored was how they yet seemed so human, in the worst ways. Not monsters, just far too human. Then the beautiful prose, the beautiful and horrifying story of morality and the soul — and the corruption of both — makes ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ one of the most rewarding books I have ever had the pleasure to read, and I’m sure my (already battered second-hand copy) will inevitably suffer through many a re-read, and cause much reflection.

*  ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ by Victor Hugo. Really good book thus far, but with no sense of brevity or conciseness. If I have to hear the history and geography of Paris one more time …

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Apologies for the lack of posts lately, but I was busy. Exams and such. But that’s all over and I have my results and I did pretty well! (*cheers*). But I’m back now and hoping to post with much regularity this summer!

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