So many book, so little time. Compared with some I consider myself well-read, compared with the number of books on the market I feel I’m hardly literate. Rarely do I read a book a second time although I’ve got lots which would be worth it.
Why have I decided to honour this novel with a second perusal? I read the German translation in my teens and since then Oscar Wilde has always been with me, so to speak. I’ve read his children’s stories, seen on the stage and read with my students The Importance Of Being Earnest, been to a brilliant West End performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan and have seen the film on Oscar Wilde starring Stephen Fry.
What has always pleased me is Wilde’s use of the English language, his witty apercus and aphorisms. I like using those myself with the difference that I don’t invent many not being a genius, luckily I’m able to pick them up, store them and use them when appropriate.
The Picture Of Dorian Grey then. Wilde’s only novel created a scandal when it appeared in 1890, difficult to understand for readers living in the age in which ‘anything goes’ and creating a scandal is not an easy thing any more.
The main protagonist is a young man, about 19 years old, ‘wonderfully handsome, with…finely curved scarlet lips…frank blue eyes…crisp golden hair‘. The painter Basil Hallward has discovered him and the admiration, adoration, worship even he feels for his model’s beauty inspire him to paint in a way he’s never done before, Dorian’s portrait is his masterpiece.
One day his old Oxford buddy, Lord Henry, a.k.a. Harry visits him in his studio and is at once fascinated by Dorian’s youth and beauty, too. Basil would like to keep Dorian away from Lord Henry knowing his immoral character, but Dorian is drawn to Lord Henry and soon finds Basil boring.
Lord Henry is a true gentleman of his time, rich, good-looking, charming, sociable, a collector of people and a watcher of life, intelligent and cynic who ‘would sacrifice anybody…for the sake of an epigram’. He knows of the power he has over people and relishes this feeling. ‘There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence. No other activity was like it…to hear one’s own intellectual views echoed back to one with all the added music of passion and youth; there was real joy in that‘.
Dorian doesn’t feel exceptional, he takes his youth and beauty for granted. Lord Henry opens his eyes. ‘…Beauty is a form of Genius…It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.. You smile? Ah! when you have lost it you won’t smile‘ and so on and so forth.
His insistence results in Dorian’s words ‘How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will always remain young. It will never be older than this particular day of June . . . if it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!’
Fatal words as he’s soon to discover. Following Lord Henry’s advice to live life to the full, to let nothing be lost, to be always searching for new sensations and to be afraid of nothing he wanders through the squalid parts of London and finds the 17-year-old actress Sybil Vane in a shabby theatre in East End, he falls for her hook, line and sinker at first sight. Night after night for weeks he sees her playing the dramatic heroines until he finally tells her that he loves her to which she replies that she is not worthy to be his wife. (Lord Henry, “ Women are wonderfully practical.”)
Dorian invites his two friends to watch her play, yet, what they see is the most horrible performance ever. Sibyl is not ashamed, though, but proud to have played so badly. She tells Dorian that now that she knows true love she’s at last discovered how shallow the playwrights’ words are she has to utter on stage.
Dorian is shocked and furious, he’s loved the actress, not the girl and breaks off the engagement in the most brutal manner.
This is the turning-point, when he gets home he sees that his portrait has changed, the mouth is twisted in a cruel sneer. He fetches a mirror and notices that his face is unchanged. So his dream has come true? If he does something despicable, his beauty will remain unblemished and the picture will bear the marks of his sin?
Up to here we’ve been informed about Dorian’s life in great detail, but from the crucial moment onwards the author keeps the tale rather vague. Dorian’s excesses are only hinted at, we read that he ruins several people, men and women alike, but how we aren’t told. What is described at length, however, is how Dorian cultivates his hedonistic life-style. In this part the author clearly shows off his knowledge, we learn about mysticism, perfumes, music, jewels, embroideries, ecclesiastical vestments with allusions to Greek and Latin philosophical scriptures, nothing really happens, things are just listed and the lists could go on and on.
How can this novel end? Does Dorian never feel remorse? Something dreadful happens and he wants to repent and reform indeed, but can he do so or is it too late? He accuses Lord Henry of leading him astray, but the latter points out that nobody can really change another person, he only assisted Dorian in developing the characteristics which were already in him. Is sin inherent in every human being? The Church thinks so and makes good business with this concept.
Apart from the vocabulary used to describe the young Dorian which is near to unbearable nowadays in its honey-sugar-sweetness the novel is still a good read nowadays for Lord Henry’s witticism and Oscar Wilde’s generally superb use of the English language, some interesting thoughts about crime and punishment and the cult surrounding youth, in this respect the novel is even more topical than it was over a century ago. Notwithstanding the fact that there have never been as many old people as there are today popular culture and ads tell us that to be young is the thing and to be old is bah.