16 May 2012

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde - book review

Penguin's book cover, adapted from the 2009 movie. The movie was based upon the novel.

When I finished with the reading of this book, my hand mechanically wrote the word 'Masterpiece' on the last page. It is one of the finest fiction I have ever read.

Even those who haven't read Wilde would be acquainted with many of his sarcastic quotes. The following quote, for example, appears as an epigraph in one of my brother's Economics book:
What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
I was so much impressed with The Picture of Dorian Gray that after finishing it I bought the complete works of Oscar Wilde.

A word of caution. If you like fast paced thriller novels or something of that kind then this book is not for you. The speed of the story is very slow. In the name of 'story' the book contains merely those details that I have laid down in the summary below. The novel is mainly the psychological study of the protagonist - Dorian Gray.


Summary


Spoiler alert! Although The Picture of Dorian Gray is not a mystery novel, but the ending is somewhat unexpected which I have disclosed below.

The narration begins in the studio of the painter Basil Hallward who is working on the picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian is an exquisitely beautiful young boy. Basil introduces Dorian to his other friend, Lord Henry (or Harry), who exerts 'a bad influence over all his friends'.

Harry tells Dorian; '...the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away.' Dorian suddenly becomes conscious that he will grow old and hideous while the painting will remain young forever and hence when Basil completes the picture, he becomes extremely jealous of it. He prays that if somehow the things can get reversed, if his youth could achieve permanence and the painting would grow old, he would give away his soul for that. And his prayer is indeed answered. Yes, the same old Faustian bargain.

Thus, the flow of time stops for Dorian while the painting keeps growing wicked and ugly with the commitment of all his sins. And indeed, Dorian is immersed in sins. He breaks up with the girl who passionately loved him which compels her to commit suicide. He starts having illicit affairs with all the girls he could. And when Basil admonishes him for all the notoriety his acts bring him, he kills him and blackmails Alan, a Cambridge chemist who was once his friend, to destroy all signs related to the murder. Alan, too, later on commits suicide.

At last, he realizes that he had destroyed his life and the cause of his ruin and the only remaining proof of all his sins was the picture. He decides to destroy the picture and therefore stabs it with a knife.

The servants here a cry and when they enter the room they find:

...hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.
*****

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel (or perhaps it should be called a novella for its thinness) written by Oscar Wilde. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica Wilde's reputation rests on his three works, one being this one. 

Criticism

  
Lord Henry is constantly preaching Dorian that his youth is temporary and therefore he must loose no chance to fulfill his desires. 'The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it', is one of such preachings.

Upon its first publication in Lippincott's Magazine (1890), the story created a rift among England arousing scandalized protest. The book was accused to contain 'one element... which will taint every young mind that comes in contact with it.' In fact the book was used as evidence against Wilde in his 1895 trial of homosexuality.

In later editions, Wilde deleted some controversial phrases and remarked in his preface - 'The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.'

Wilde is usually accused of stealing ideas from others. Compare Shakespeare's opening phrase of the soliloquy in Hamlet:

Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all...
 with Wilde's following phrase from the first chapter:
Conscience and cowardice are really the same things... Conscience is the trade name of the firm. That is all.
*****

It is worth mentioning that some of the phrases of the novel were repeated, by Wilde in his later plays.  
Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ch 4
Cecil Graham - What is a cynic?
Lord Darlington - A  man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
- Lady Windermere's Fan, Act 3

There are only two kinds of  people who are really fascinating - people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ch. 7
I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing.
- The Importance of being Earnest, Act 1


Quotable quotes


There is a wonderful quote on almost every page that deserves to be written down and framed in your library. They show the extent to which Wilde had penetrated the human mind.

Some worth mentioning are:
Lord Fermor - 'Young people, nowadays, imagine that money is everything'.
Harry - 'Yes... and when they grow older they know it'.

Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic. Worlds had to be in travail, that the meanest flower might blow.

There is always something ridiculous about the emotions of people whom one has ceased to love.
Whether moral or immoral, The Picture of Dorian Gray is surely a classic work of English Literature. If you like classics - this one is strongly recommended.
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