Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde
Completed 12/1/2018, Reviewed 12/1/2018
3 stars

I haven’t read many literary classics.  I chose to read this book because I included it on the LGBTQ SF resource list on the Worlds Without End site based on my research on the history of LGBTQ themes in SF, Fantasy, and Horror.  In reading it, I wanted to verify that this was a good book to keep included on the list.  Now that I’ve read it, I think it should stay on the list.  There is gay subtext throughout the novel.  However, I didn’t really enjoy the novel.  I thought it was quite dense and too philosophical for me. 

The novel begins with Dorian Gray’s portrait being painted by the artist Basil Hallward.  The portrait is Basil’s finest work, inspired by his homoerotic obsession with Gray.  And Gray is such a notably beautiful youth that everyone wants him for their parties and all the women just plain want him.  At one of his sittings for the portrait, Basil introduces Gray to his friend Lord Henry, a cynical narcissist.  The two becomes fast friends, and Lord Henry introduces Gray to his narcissistic philosophy.  In a strange moment, Gray wishes he always maintains the youthful beauty that has been captured by the portait.

Gray falls for a young actress.  At one performance, she realizes that being an actress is nothing compared to being in love with Gray.  Her performance is terrible.  Gray feels betrayed and disavows his love for the actress.  Distraught, she commits suicide.  This is the beginning of Gray’s conversion to a terrible, “sinful” person and the first time the portrait changes to reflect this sin.  As time goes on, he turns to a life of narcissistic debauchery and his portrait continues to degrade.

There are several things I didn’t care for in the novel.  The first was that beauty implies goodness and sinful people are ugly.  It’s not just the aging that happens in the portrait, but that Gray’s sins are revealed by the ugliness, and that if Gray’s wish hadn’t come true, he himself would have turned ugly by his life of debauchery.  I’m thinking this might have been a commentary on English morality, but maybe it’s not.  It’s hard to guess what Wilde was thinking when he wrote this over a hundred years ago. 

I also didn’t like that Gray ruined the reputation of a long string of young men.  To me, it implied that Gray was having affairs with all these upright young English high society men, bringing them down with sexuality.  Granted, it shows the depths of Gray’s debauchery, but the implication is that homosexuality is a choice and a weapon.  Again, maybe Wilde was creating a satire on English mores in light of their horrific sodomy laws, which were only repealed in 1967, and maybe I’m just looking at this book with a too modern pair of eyes. 

On the other hand, the book is quite a good early horror novel and it definitely satirizes the hypocrisy of English morality.  Lord Henry is sort of the bad angel on Gray’s shoulder.  Almost everything he says is morally deplorable; most notably he’s misogynistic.  On the other hand, Basil is the good angel.  His love for Gray is I think a purer form of love.  There’s a line of thought that the book is autobiographical and Basil represents Wilde and Gray is his lover.  I can kind of see this, but I don’t know enough about Wilde’s life, other than his imprisonment and tragic death a few years after his release. 

Gray is a deplorable character, but I didn’t feel any empathy for him.  When he commits his final atrocity, I really didn’t care.  I was more disturbed by Lord Henry who seems to get through life unscathed as a narcissistic amoral.  I did feel empathy for Basil because he seemed an innocent and was looking out for Gray’s best interests. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  There’s just too many long passages of philosophy and archaic references, particularly in the middle of the book.  And my lack of empathy for the main character added to my knocking down of stars.  I would have preferred reading this novel in a class environment.  Like many of the older classics, I think the discussion would have enhanced my understanding of the book.

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