Overall Impression: This is a clever little book full of philosophy and morals, but it just wasn’t for me.
When I said in my Dorian read-along post that it would be interesting if one of us hated the book so that we could get some debates going, it hadn’t even occurred to me that the person might be me! I was so sure I was going to love this book, I had been looking forward to reading it for ages. Gothic novels are my favourite type of literature but I just couldn’t get into this one for some reason. I know a lot of you love this novel, so maybe you can share your wisdom with me so I can appreciate it more and be less of a party pooper?
I can tell that in its time this little book would have turned a lot of heads, it’s daring, uncompromising and has a great premise. So why god dammit why do I feel so indifferent to it all?!
This book is also on the The Rory Gilmore Challenge.
Dorian is a good-natured young man until he discovers the power of his own exceptional beauty. As he gradually sinks deeper into a frivolous, glamorous world of selfish luxury, he apparently remains physically unchanged by the stresses of his corrupt lifestyle and untouched by age. But up in his attic, hidden behind a curtain, his portrait tells a different story.
Basil Hallward is an artist obsessed. Obsessed with the naïve and youthful vision that is Dorian Gray. When Dorian sits for another of Basil’s portraits they are interrupted by the obnoxious and obtuse Lord Henry. He is desperate to meet the muse for himself, seeing in the portrait something special of his own, the potential to guide, observe and influence. As Dorian sits, Lord Henry whispers to him about the pleasures of the universe, the beauty of youth and the tragedy of old age. When the portrait is finished Basil declares it his best work, but Dorian can only see it as a cruel reminder of how it will remain forever young while he will wither with age. In a reckless moment he declares that the painting should grow old and bear his sins, while he remains unchanged.
Dorian Gray’s life will never be the same.
Eugh, I have been avoiding this review. I finished the novel a while ago now but haven’t wanted to dwell on it and my disappointment. Something about this book literally sucked the joy out of me, putting me in a permanently bad mood until I finished it which is why I zoomed through the last half so quickly. But yeah…here goes nothing! :S
As much as I tried I couldn’t get on with Wilde’s writing style. It’s clear he is an intelligent author with an acute understanding for the shady thoughts lurking under the surface of everyday people. His writing on morals and vanity are still crucial today. When it comes to beauty and ideal lifestyle our society is hypocritical. Good looking people whether in the street or in the tabloids are put on pedestals and admired, at the same time society tries to rip them down from that pedestal because they are jealous of everything they possess, the advantages they will receive and their overall appearance of having a successful life. In turn, those people are often miserable, their beauty and success becoming a burden. Yet it’s what nearly every one of us strives for, right? So essentially, we’re striving to be miserable and to be hated by others. The fact that Wilde has realised this during his lifetime before the rest of us had time to catch up AND turned it into a novel is pretty amazing. He has obvious talent and insight, so why don’t I like this book? Agghhh!
Well for starters, the writing style pretty much contains every one of my pet peeves. It came across conceited and superior, the one thing I can never stand in books. I understand this is a reflection of the entire novel itself, it was written about people who thought they were gods gift but it is not that alone. The whole thing felt overdone, like it was trying too hard (more on this later). I didn’t find myself awed by any beautiful descriptions and the writing for the most part felt nondescript and flat without any kind of charm, especially after reading Great Expectations. It seemed repetitive (how many times did he use the word pathos?) and the writing was so so flowery. The fact that there was a lot of sexual and homoerotic undertones within his writing was quite interesting, as men were often described in the detail that would normally be focused on women, but its consistency throughout the novel unfortunately just made it seen even more flowery because of the intense focus on beauty.
The premise of this book is what originally drew me to it. The idea of a man who remained young and unaffected by life while his portrait grew old and withered bearing the burden of his passions and sins was a fascinating one. The problem was, that’s all there was to it. A cool idea which is spread over 200 pages. Dorian struts around enamoured with his own beauty, Lord Henry sprouts some contradictory and absurd remark which Dorian accepts as if he is a prophet. Everybody moans, rinse and repeat. In the end, the entire plot of the book is wrapped up in less than a page, which pretty much sums it up really. There are so many great themes tackled in this novel. Dorian’s pursuit of life’s pleasures, artistic aesthetics and immorality make a great opportunity to explore topics like vanity, love, aging, societal views and the question of what art really is, but to me Wilde’s attempts to do this got in the way of the narrative. The whole thing felt self indulgent and the story seemed secondary as though it was just there for an excuse to explore the themes. I like my classic’s social commentary to be subtle, integrated into the story at relevant points so that it impacts the reader at the right time, but with The Picture of Dorian Gray I had the constant feeling I was being lectured at which irritated me. I don’t like to be talked at by a writer, I like to be talked to, if that makes any kind of sense in a one way conversation.
Not only that, but the pacing was constantly bogged down by irrelevant details, for instance chapter 11 almost entirely consisted of Dorian’s love for pretty things like jewels and embroidery which could have been summed up in one paragraph.
If you’re looking for likable characters you won’t find them in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian the rich and self indulgent youth (who has to be one of the biggest narcissists in literature – could you imagine if he owned Facebook?) makes one stupid decision after the next which is always put down to his naivety and his susceptibility to manipulation, something which drove me mental. He never seemed to be able to look at the big picture or accept any responsibility and his treatment of those around him was horrific. He does make a fun character study to an extent and I could tell what Wilde wanted to portray, but he felt so unbelievable and once again because of the author’s ‘vision’ he seemed like an empty shell with the purpose of being a mouthpiece for various philosophies and ideologies.
Then there’s Lord Henry the vile hypocrite, wannabe philosopher and psychologist. His bizarre views and contradictory sentences were at first a lot of fun. He is the source of some great one liners and absurd remarks that do make you think, for example:
‘The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.’ – Pg190
I absolutely love this quote it is so true. There are a lot of little great ones like this spread throughout the book. However by the end I found his way of speaking by constantly contrasting two ideas repetitive and it became irritating. Especially as for every truly insightful remark there are twenty nonsense ones. Not to mention the insulting remarks about women:
‘My dear boy, no woman is a genius. women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.’ – Pg 44
These comments made my inner feminist burn. They were used to reflect his character but were hard to swallow! Still, at least I can take comfort from the fact that he was equally disparaging of everyone!
Finally we have Basil and Sibyl who should have been slightly more likable, unfortunately their obsession and love of Dorian just made me dislike them.
The odd thing is, books with unlikable characters usually become my favourites, I love that they make me question my own views and it’s fascinating to learn about someone so different from yourself, but Wilde failed to engage me enough to care because his writing felt so…unfeeling and transparent I guess.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a fantastically intelligent novel with a bold author who is not afraid to scrutinize all of society including himself, but the book was just not for me personally. I would recommend it to males or females 16+ who have an interest in the depiction of art, vanity, morals and 19th century English society over a complex plot.
Do not read this book if you are put off by the idea of snobbish characters having intellectual debates with the assumption that they have found the key to the universe.
And that chaps, be’s my muddled thoughts on Dorian Gray! Don’t forget to check out my read-along discussions on the book if you haven’t already. 🙂
Writing Style: 1/5
Character Development: 2/5
Would I recommend this book? Yes.
Book Cover: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/608051.The_Picture_of_Dorian_Gray