Author: Oscar Wilde
In a nutshell: Captivating mixture of Aestheticism and Gothic with exquisite purple prose
Gothicity score: 50%
Summary: Dorian Gray is the closest to physical perfection a young man can be. When hedonistic Lord Henry makes Dorian be aware of the fleeting treasures his beauty and youth are, Dorian wishes out loud that his newly-painted portrait aged instead of him.
The Picture of Dorian Gray and its central character have become icons of our culture. One of the reason to this importance is that Wilde conceived a really imagination-grabbing supernatural plot device: a perfect young man never gets old while his portrait bears all the signs of his aging and moral corruption. But this is just one of the ingredients of this endearing novel, following the consequences of that plot device, this luscious piece of writing, not only relies on horror—which is actually a minor part of the word count—but explores a range of moral and, especially, aesthetic topics.
This novel is associated with the decadent literary movement and the fin de siècle culture, and, of course, it is associated as well with the Gothic genre. It was considered immoral in its time (although, in my opinion, it has a rather moralizing ending) and created social outrage for daring to speak of male beauty and—although in subtle terms—male-to-male attraction.
Another thing that makes this novel even more legendary is that it is intimately linked in our collective imagination with the real person of its author, the larger-than-life Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde is an icon by himself—of dandyism, of quick-wit, of high-camp, of homosexuality—and people have always read and will always read this novel searching for Wilde’s persona in its lines: we see some of him in Dorian, some of him in Basil, some of him in Lord Henry. Besides, the book has a tragic parallelism with Wilde’s life: both he and Dorian had most sad life outcomes caused by the pursuit of their desires.
In addition to all this richness of subject matter, the form in which these are dealt with is probably as essential. Oscar Wilde was transcended as one of the best prose stylists, and this is the only opportunity to enjoy a full-length-novel serving of his talent. Reading The Picture one indulges in the double pleasure of knowing the beautiful and horrible story of Dorian Gray while you want to linger in the prose with one “mot juste” after another and with a masterful unapologetic use of purple and florid writing.
The central idea of the novel is utterly Gothic: the duality between the beautiful and young Dorian Gray that everyone sees, and the real monstrous Dorian that is only revealed by his locked-away portrait. Actually, this topic of the duality is shared with another famous Gothic tale, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that I also reviewed in this series of posts.
The execution of this central idea is not as Gothic though. The reason is that the author is extremely interested in aesthetic and philosophical topics as much as in the supernatural plot of Dorian and his portrait.
So although the book contains several undoubtedly Gothic sections (the eery scene in which Dorian discovers that his portrait is changing, the visits to the locked chamber, the sordid murder scene, the opium-den scene…), these are interspersed with many full-of-daylight scenes that revolve around either beauty or morals, or even with moments of full-on comedy of manners that prefigure the society plays that would make Wilde famous in the following years.
This is by no means a problem and doesn’t make the novel any less interesting, quite the opposite. But it waters down the Gothicness of the work and makes it something other than a purely Gothic tale.
The prose! The prose!
Oscar Wilde wrote some the best purple prose that ever was. And though in my opinion his best prose can still be found on his short stories (his delicate, mock-naive writing was perfectly suited for his sweet-and-sour fairy tales), The Picture of Dorian Gray also has lots and lots of sublimely crafted dainty writing.
The opening couple of pages of The Picture are for example in the annals of well done flowery prose (and flowery both in the figurative and the literal sense—boy, the guy knew his flowers). This is just the novel’s opening paragraph:
The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.
Can one get more purple than this? And yet it is great. Purple prose made great. Now, imagine this extends for a couple of pages, and instead of getting completely put off by all the excess, you like it and you want more of it—this is Oscar Wilde’s outstanding talent.
Wilde was the king of the adjective. In the world of writing advice, one encounters once and again the maxim: “cut down your adjectives, idiot!” But, as with much writing advice when it is given in the form of stone-carved universal truth, this advice is wrong. The key is not in using too many or too few adjectives. The key is in knowing how to use them. Oscar Wilde always knew how to place an adjective to create a more vivid description or to evoke a particular feeling.
Just one example, in the literary world of Oscar Wilde’s tales and novellas “blood” is oftentimes not just blood but “red blood.” This use of adjectives, for the advocates of minimalist prose, would be a double capital sin: not only is he using an adjective where it is not really needed but also an adjective that doesn’t add any new information: all blood is red after all. However, because Wilde mastered his craft so well he knew that by using that seemingly redundant adjective, instead of being boring and repetitious, he was transporting us, adding a special form of “naive drama” to words that is so typical of poetry and is also a trademark of Wilde’s prose.
“Red blood,” “wan mirror,” “purple cave…” Wilde’s beautiful adjective-name pairs alone made reading his novel extremely rewarding.
Oscar Wilde was an aesthete, unapologetically. One of the great pleasures of reading this novel is how Aestheticism permeates the whole text. It’s all about drooping eye-lids, languorous contemplation of gardens, blazé wealthy people, ingenious conversations, profuse description of jewelry; it’s all about dandies lying on divans smoking opium-tinted cigarettes that let out blue threads of smoke.
How to convey the delightful experience of reading The Picture of Dorian Gray? Allow me to go say that the experience of reading it is like savoring a crystal cup of rich vanilla ice cream dotted with pearls of marzipan and glossy black cherries while you lie on the oriental cushions of a porcelain pavilion that opens into a garden where flowers pink as baby lips sway in the breeze and gold-yellow butterflies flutter past leaving a trail of starry dust.
Yes, not for every public, I know. But neither is the dry and revered Hemingway for everyone’s taste. This novel is for mannered people; it is for the decadent, the superficial, the frivolous; for people who pay importance to beauty, youth, manners; for people who love affectation, artificiality, elitism, highbrow. If you are one of those, you’ll be delighted. If you aren’t, ignore this novel and go back to your Hemingway.
The vindication of youth and beauty
This book contains one of the most powerful defenses of the importance of youth and beauty above all things in life. Since it is so perfect I’m just going to copy and paste it below—it must speak for itself. The passage starts when Lord Henry tells Dorian to go and sit in the shade of the garden and not it the sun so that Dorian’s skin doesn’t get spoilt. During this exchange Lord Henry gives one speech, almost a homily, in which he perfectly conveys the blessing that youth is and the horror of aging:
“What can it matter?” cried Dorian Gray, laughing, as he sat down on the seat at the end of the garden.
“It should matter everything to you, Mr. Gray.”
“Because you have the most marvellous youth, and youth is the one thing worth having.”
“I don’t feel that, Lord Henry.”
“No, you don’t feel it now. Some day, when you are old and wrinkled and ugly, when thought has seared your forehead with its lines, and passion branded your lips with its hideous fires, you will feel it, you will feel it terribly. Now, wherever you go, you charm the world. Will it always be so? . . . You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray. Don’t frown. You have. And beauty is a form of genius— is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it. You smile? Ah! when you have lost it you won’t smile. . . . People say sometimes that beauty is only superficial. That may be so, but at least it is not so superficial as thought is. To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. . . . Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly. . . . Ah! realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals, of our age. Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing. . . . A new Hedonism— that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality there is nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season. . . . The moment I met you I saw that you were quite unconscious of what you really are, of what you really might be. There was so much in you that charmed me that I felt I must tell you something about yourself. I thought how tragic it would be if you were wasted. For there is such a little time that your youth will last— such a little time. The common hill-flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be as yellow next June as it is now. In a month there will be purple stars on the clematis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars. But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!”
Oscar Wilde wrote this book when he was 35 years old, that painful age in which one is about to abandon youth forever although one can still be considered young for one short-lived last time. Indeed, writing from this particular point in his life must have made Wilde even more appreciative of the treasure he was about to lose for good. This can be felt throughout the whole novel. Towards the end of it, there’s another passage; again Lord Henry speaks of youth to Dorian, but while the above passage was a eulogy to youth, this one is more of a confession. He says:
Play me something. Play me a nocturne, Dorian, and, as you play, tell me, in a low voice, how you have kept your youth. You must have some secret. I am only ten years older than you are, and I am wrinkled, and worn, and yellow. You are really wonderful, Dorian. You have never looked more charming than you do to-night. You remind me of the day I saw you first. You were rather cheeky, very shy, and absolutely extraordinary. You have changed, of course, but not in appearance. I wish you would tell me your secret. To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable. Youth! There is nothing like it.
And a few lines below the author, again through Lord Henry’s voice, goes on:
Don’t stop. I want music to-night. It seems to me that you are the young Apollo and that I am Marsyas listening to you. I have sorrows, Dorian, of my own, that even you know nothing of. The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young. I am amazed sometimes at my own sincerity.
Sincer. Yes, here Oscar Wilde was getting naked before his readers. Through Lord Henry’s lips Wilde confesses to the world his deep grief at losing his youth.
Oscar Wilde’s humor and brilliance permeate through the whole novel. This must be one of the novels more laden with quotable witticisms, epigrams and lines of superb ironic humor that ever was published. Probably the most famous of them all is this quote:
There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
But there are so many other:
There are decadent Aesthetic lines…
Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.
Observations on human nature…
Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.
“What of art?” she asked.
“It is a malady.”
“Religion?” “The fashionable substitute for belief.”
“You are a sceptic.” “Never! Scepticism is the beginning of faith.”
“What are you?”
“To define is to limit.”
Or even the line with which Wilde, predicting the uproar that his novel was bound to stir after publication, tries to preventatively defend it (although, as we know, it would be in vain; his book would end up even being used against him as evidence in a courtroom) by having a character in his novel that says:
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.
Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
It is a wonder how homoerotic this novel is considering its year of publication. 1890 was one of the worst times for romancing men in England if one was a man. In an excruciatingly long death rattle (that extended from the 1880s to the 1950s) persecution of homosexuality was not only directed—as it had been in the previous centuries—at its most direct and carnal manifestation (sodomy) but also at any other act involving two males, which now were prosecutable thanks to a new law passed only 5 years before the publication of this novel. Despite this adverse conjuncture, Wilde is one of the first to speak of male-to-male attraction in western literature and although for today’s standards the novel is not explicit, at least in a carnal sense, it is all about guys saying to another guy—Dorian—how beautiful he is and how they are dazzled by his beauty.
Due to their scandal potential, the novel homoerotic passages were toned down 0n two occasions: once by Wilde’s editor before publishing it for the first time in Lippincott’s magazine, and a year later by Wilde himself (he had received such harsh criticism after the initial publication that tried to make the text a bit more “discreet” on its novel-format version). Unfortunately for Wilde, not even after this toning down could his references to the forbidden love be tolerated by the morally panicked Victorians, and when, five years after its publication, Wilde was being judged for having love affair with another man, his own novel was used as evidence of moral corruption during the trial that put him in prison.
This book is in no way about realistically depicting the world. It has no pretension of verisimilitude for its an exercise in form and evocation. Therefore, its characters are not intended to be anything more than wonderful archetypes—Basil, the good-hearted tormented lover; Dorian, the deliciously selfish perfect beauty; and Lord Henry the elegant, unapologetic hedonist.
Ah, Lord Henry, who wouldn’t want to be him for a little time? To tell the world the uncomfortable truths to its face, and do it so charmingly that nobody can protest. To abandon oneself to the absolute and selfish pursuit of pleasure and beauty. To have the gift of words, the ultimate panache. Wilde once said that Lord Henry wasn’t him but how the world saw him. Probably he should have added: and how I would like the world to see me. It’s clear that Wilde is enamored with the persona of Lord Henry and that strived in his own public life to be some sort of a Lord Henry himself and was in fact quite successful at it.
Lord Henry is on the other hand associated with one of the main flaws in the novel: too much wit density. But this doesn’t make his character any less enthralling; it’s only that Wilde’s novel would have been even more effective if he had reduced the doses of Lord Henry wit through the novel. Even in a novel of “more is more”, a little of “less is more” here would have added to the sublimity.
Despite being immoral, Lord Henry is so appealing to us for the same reason Scarlett O’Hara became one of the most beloved characters in literature. Although we repress it all the time, most of us have a terribly selfish side. That’s why we are so fascinated with people who dare to pursue their selfishness without limits or apologies. Lord Henry dares to say what our repressed side thinks—where people will say that youth is overrated and aging is not a bad thing, Lord Henry says that youth is all there is and aging a nightmare made real; where people will affirm that they don’t mind what other people think or say of them, Lord Henry says that the worst thing ever is “to not being talked about;” and where people will try to defend by all means when confronted with the slightest instance of personal criticism, Lord Henry says:
“It is perfectly monstrous,” he said, at last, “the way people go about nowadays saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true.”
Excessive wit and, especially, excessive paradoxes
Although I included wit as one of the strong points of the novel, it is also one of its drawbacks. Oscar Wilde included excellent epigrams and paradoxes, yes, but so many that, at several points in the book, they feel overly present and even—sorry—slightly boring.
One doesn’t expect realism in a book of this kind. This book clearly intends to be an idealization of the real world and not the real world, and as such one should enjoy it. But even when you are going to have readers willingly entering this kind of suspension-of-disbelief mood, an author must be careful not to overdo certain things lest the result feel contrived. This is what happens in some sections of the novel that consist of tens of pages of dialogue with non-stop witty repartee. The same goes for paradoxes. Wilde loved paradoxes, and some of them are wonderful, but they are so even structurally, that tarnish several sections of the novel with a repetitious rhythm.
Besides, I like better Wilde the frivolous aesthete than Wilde the philosopher. As an aesthete Wilde is irreproachable, second to none. And his aestheticism is perfectly condensed in many exquisite lines like this one:
“You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?”
But Wilde the philosopher is not as brilliant, and whenever his digressions or paradoxes deal with earnest moral topics, the product doesn’t feel as sophisticated, sometimes it even feels bland or hackneyed, like on this line:
The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.
Not bad… but not great.
Oscar Wilde’s first published The Picture in a monthly magazine. It was immediately blasted for being too overtly homoerotic (although critics wouldn’t say a word of that kind and just would refer to it as utterly immoral). To try to make the text more acceptable to the public and to extend it to the size of a more regular novel, Wilde rewrote many parts of it and added many more. It is this modified second version that most of us read nowadays.
And this canonical version of The Picture of Dorian Gray suffers what most works that are extended at a later time generally suffer: the lost of the organic unity of its parts. The current version of The Picture of Dorian Gray doens’t feel as internally coherent as other novels that are structurally more perfect.
On this second version, Wilde included a number of new chapters (he went from 13 to 20). Out of them, there are one that is very criticized for completely breaking the rhythm of the narration: chapter 11. Almost a half of this long chapter, Wilde devoted to describing the jewels collected by Dorian Gray. Jewels. Half a chapter. Yes, he did it! This chapter is as beautiful as anything that Wilde wrote, and somehow it is kind of cool that he was as self-indulgent (while writing a novel about self-indulgence) as to put such an unjustified chapter in the middle of the book; but it is also true that this chapter makes the structure of the novel significantly more flawed. The Picture of Dorian Gray : a perfect flawed novel.