Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde brings his enormous gifts for astute social observation and sparkling prose to The Picture of Dorian Gray, his dreamlike story of a young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty. This dandy, who remains forever unchanged; petulant, hedonistic, vain, and amoral; while a painting of him ages and grows increasingly hideous with the years, has been horrifying, enchanting, obsessing, even corrupting readers for more than a hundred years.

Taking the reader in and out of London drawing rooms, to the heights of aestheticism, and to the depths of decadence, The Picture of Dorian Gray is not only a melodrama about moral corruption. Laced with bon mots and vivid depictions of upper-class refinement, it is also a fascinating look at the milieu of Wilde’s fin-de-siècle world and a manifesto of the creed “Art for Art’s Sake.”

The ever-quotable Wilde, who once delighted London with his scintillating plays, scandalized readers with this, his only novel. Upon publication, Dorian was condemned as dangerous, poisonous, stupid, vulgar, and immoral, and Wilde as a “driveling pedant.” The novel, in fact, was used against Wilde at his much-publicized trials for “gross indecency,” which led to his imprisonment and exile on the European continent. Even so, The Picture of Dorian Gray firmly established Wilde as one of the great voices of the Aesthetic movement, and endures as a classic that is as timeless as its hero.

 

Rating:

A+

If you haven’t read this book, you should. It’s hands down the most quotable novel I have ever read. In my paperback version of it you can barely discern the print through all the cramped notes I’ve stuffed into the margins and the blobs of yellow, pink and green highlighter that take up a majority of each page.

What? I have a highlighting system, don’t judge me.

For those of you who don’t know the scandal-ridden history of this work of art, allow me to enlighten you. When it was first printed in 1890 by a British monthly magazine, the editors there, without the knowledge of the author, sheared off a little over 500 words from it because they thought it was “indecent”.

It wasn’t enough.

Victorian England was still outraged over it. Reviewers called Wilde immoral and hedonistic, and The Picture of Dorian Gray homoerotic, unclean, effeminate and contaminating.

Needless to say, the criticism got to the author. In response to it, the book was further edited, more passages were “toned down”, deleted or re-written and six chapters were added to bring more depth to the characters and their actions in attempt to assuage the readers’ ‘delicate sensibilities’.

It wasn’t enough. Again.

I won’t go further into the life of the author as his story is even grimmer than that of his only published novel. Instead I’ll say this; I hope to God that mankind has moved forward enough that his tale will never be repeated. We should encourage artists and their genius, not destroy them. For how can we make any progress if we repress our innovators?

So you see my five stars and here’s where you’re probably thinking “But what about the misogyny? Aren’t you a feminist? How can you give this book five stars when it includes quotes like this:

“I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated.”

I’ve read a lot of other reviews for this book and some people seem pretty irritated by passages like the above. I understand the irritation but let it be with the character and not the book or the author. I have Oscar Wilde’s memoirs in my library. I also have two biographies about him and have done a lot of additional research (if you couldn’t already tell). Wilde did not appear to be a misogynist. In fact, at one point he was an editor of a women’s magazine and personally edited, published and lauded several articles on feminism and women’s suffrage. The character of Lord Henry, however, is a misogynist, and I’m not arguing that. But there is brilliance in making him so disgusted by women and even though I don’t particularly enjoy it, I applaud how it was done.

Here’s a great article describing Wilde’s motivations way better than I ever could.

Suffice to say, this book is one of my favorites. I can’t properly review it. I just…can’t. Everything has already been said, so why add my opinion to the masses when it would only be an outpouring of fangirling? And just in case you’re curious, a few houses have recently published the unedited version of this book. I suggest you read both.

In closing, I leave you with some of my favorite quotes:

“…there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

“There is a fatality about all physical and intellectual distinction, the sort of fatality that seems to dog through history the faltering steps of kings.”

“Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

“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.”

“What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

“All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.”

“I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about it’s use. It is hitting below the intellect.”

“Every effect that one produces gives one an enemy. To be popular one must be a mediocrity.”


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