This appears in the BBC’s Big Read at number 118 in the list. It has also been languishing on my bookshelf for as long as I can remember, and is also on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.
The story is a simple one, Dorian Gray is an inordinately beautiful young man who inspires the artist Basil Hallward to produce some of his best work. This includes a particular portrait that the artist considers his best work. While sitting for this portrait, Dorian Gray meets Lord Henry Wotton and a discussion on the pursuit of experience, pleasure and all things beautiful ensues. As part of the conversation Dorian wishes that he may remain as he is in his youth instead of his portrait.
Following this meeting Dorian is entranced with the ideas the Henry Wotton proposes to be the way to live a full life, and what starts out as the pursuit of pleasure starts to take a decidedly nasty turn under the guidance and provocation of the older man. Dorian falls in love with Sibyl Vane, a young girl and accomplished actress. He woos her under the guise of Prince Charming and eventually proposes to her. She is infatuated and in love. When Dorian brings his friends, Basil and Henry, to the theatre to see her perform he is expecting that her wondrous acting will dazzle them as much as it has him. Unfortunately the lovestruck girl has found a new passion, Dorian, and her sublime acting recedes to the mediocre at best. Dorian is horrified, ashamed and breaks it off with her specifically because she has lost that beautiful talent.
The following morning he finds out that Sibyl has died, presumably by her own hand. It is at this moment that he notices the change in the portrait that Basil had painted of him.
From this point onwards the story moves in ever decreasing circles in terms of morality, internal conflict and shallow, self-absorbed behaviour.
Hedonism, selfishness and casual cruelty are the things that make up Dorian’s behaviour. He sins, but feels guilt until Lord Henry re-exerts his corrupting influence. Even as the end of the book nears Dorian is unable to make otherwise “good” choices count as they are driven by the self-serving desire to try and help redeem his soul somewhat.
I found this novel to be fairly hard reading. I didn’t enjoy a lot of the prose and much of the story felt a bit too much like waffle to me. I know that many people love Oscar Wilde, but from my first reading, I don’t particularly.
He does certainly has some lovely stingers to share with us though, such as this nice one.
Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.
And also another interesting observation.
There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.
I am sorry to say that I can only give this a three star rating and unless you love Wilde or are determined to make your way through the classics, then I would spend time elsewhere.
For another view of the book click over to the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die blog and see Hayley’s review of The Picture of Dorian Gray.