16 April 2010

Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Title:  The Picture of Dorian Gray
Author: Oscar Wilde

Buy  |  Borrow  |  Accept  |  Avoid

Plot Synopsis
Dorian Gray is young, innocent, and beautiful, but his friendship with two different men forever alter young Dorian.  Basil Hallward loves Dorian as his muse, beauty and inspiration.  Lord Henry Wotton sees in Dorian a chance to influence, to mold.  The feelings, the image of himself, that these two men create for Dorian cause him to spontaneously wish that he remain young forever while the painting of him created by Hallward feel the effects of aging.  His wish is granted.

My Thoughts
I can't believe I have had this book sitting on my shelf for so long, ten years or so.  Recommended to me on numerous occassions, Dorian Gray finally jumped to the head of the TBR list when I started looking for a new novel for my Intro to Lit course.  Many bloggers had reviewed and recommended it, and I thought it was time to read.  Thank the gods that be I did because I think the book will be perfect for my class.

Every single beautiful page of this fascinating story has an idea, a claim, that is discussion worthy.  The plot itself offers wonderful themes: the construction of identity, hedonism, naturalism, the art and artifice manipulation, love, the role of literature, and on and on.  Dorian's fall into self-aggrandizing and immorality, and his sporadic and half-hearted attempts to escape present readers with a warped mirror with which to judge their own beliefs.

But outside of the plot, we have the intriguing character of Lord Henry Wotton who seems disposed to wax eloquent on all manner of subjects and spouts truisms and philosophies non-stop.  To make matters even better, Wotton's philosophies defy conventions and portray a world view that is at once detestable, intellectual, and uniquely believable.  Wotton argues that "the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful."

Wotton overtly and consciously manipulates Dorian, seeing in him the possibility of a life lived vicariously.  For while Wotton is a self-proclaimed hedonist and loudly defies societal conventions, his own life is rather staid.  Instead of living his ideals, he coaxes Dorian into a life lived in the pursuit of pleasure and continually validates Dorian's less than moral activities and invalidates Dorian's sporadic attempts at morality.  In the beginning of the novel, this master-puppet metaphor is born out by a quote from Wotton:
"...to influence a person is to give him one's own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions.  His virtues are not real to him.  His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed.  He becomes an echo of someone else's music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him."
Later Wotton thinks to himself...
Talking to [Dorian] was like playing upon an exquisite violin.  He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow...There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence.  No other activity was like it.  To project one's sould into some gracious form, and let it tarry there for a moment; to hear one's own intellectual views echoed back to one with all the added music of passion and youth; to convey one's termperament into another, as though it were a subtle fluid or a strange perfume: there was a real joy in that...he would try to be to Dorian Gray what, without knowing it, the lad was to the painter who had fashioned the wonderful portrait.  He would seek to dominate him - had already, indeed, half done so.  He would make that wonderful spirit his own.  There was something fascinating in this son of Love and Death."
I have spent a good deal of time wondering about the relationship between Dorian and Wotton.  How much of Dorian's sins are his own and how much are Wotton's?  Was Wotton's influence really the locus of evil or was it in Dorian's own heart?  It will require a good deal more thinking, I believe to make any sort of decision.

I suppose I should say a word about reading this outside of academic study.  Again, I heartily recommend it.  While there are a few moments in the story where I was a bit frustrated by the lack of action, for the most part, the plot maintained my interest.  It is not the most exciting of texts as far as action goes for the actual events are interspersed with a great deal of detail and abstract thought that is more like a philosophical speech than an action-adventure film.

Overall though the issues hit upon in this text are so timeless, so thought provoking, and so prominent that one could read just for the intellectual pursuit.  I can not wait to see what my students have to say about the myriad issues presented in this text.

Other Reviews
If I've missed yours, let me know!

Rebecca Reads; A Striped Armchair; books i done read;

Question:  Has anyone seen the film, and if so is it worth it?

FTC Disclosure:  It has been on my TBR shelf so long that I don't even know how, when, or where I got it.
Challenges: 100+ Reading Challenge, Reading ResolutionsGLBT Challenge, TBR Challenge, Hogwarts Reading Challenge,


  1. I love this book! So glad you liked it too. While I agree that Lord Henry is manipulative, I think the important thing about him is that he talks philosophically and no one is meant to take him seriously. Once he's talked up whatever particular idea is in his head - similar to what most people do internally - he no longer remembers exactly what it is people claim he thinks. He's just talking. He's not actually asserting any specific beliefs. It's just his way of thinking aloud. Dorian takes that way too seriously, and Lord Henry has fun with that. Since he doesn't seem any consequences, he keeps having fun. I think it's less malicious and more self-indulgent.

    The section that always gets to me is the whole list of Dorian's collections. I know it's there for a reason, but oh man it gets DULL.

  2. OH MY DEAR LORD I am so excited!~

    I have Dorian Gray on my bookshelf, ready and waiting for me. I'm getting round to it soon as I get my challenge over. Whee~ I can't wait now!

  3. Amanda - I definitely see your point. Perhaps I am viewing Henry as too...in control?...when in actuality he is more 'lot of hot air' type. I'll have to think on it!

    I completely agree about the strange list chapter. I'll admit it - I read that section quickly. I'm pretty sure I saw every word, but I'm not sure I internalized every word....

    Bethany - Read it now! I am saddened it took me so long to pick this up.

  4. I haven't heard a lot about this book but always wondered how it was. It sounds really interesting, and the topic is definitely timeless like you said. I think I'm just a little worried about reading the long philosophical parts of the book... I hope it doesn't bore me!

  5. Honestly I don't think you NEED to internalize the list. It's meant to represent the selfishness, vanity, and obsessiveness of Dorian, to make you really FEEL what he must be feeling in the obsessive need to collect. That sort of life makes one feel dreary and spent, just like reading that chapter does, lol! :D

  6. My comment on 90% of literary works is that I've not read it. It almost makes me want to shut myself up in a convent for a year and just read classics. I have nothing to add except that you seem to have done the book justice here!

  7. I've never read this one, but really want to! I've heard so many good things about it, and I think I would enjoy the psychological aspects.

  8. I've never read the book nor the film, but I might look into the book after reading this! :)

    Thanks for hopping by my blog - I'm following you and added you to my trusty Google Reader ^_^

    Thanks xx

  9. My seventeen-year-old self LOVED this, and I think my current self would too. But I should re-read it and find out for sure :P

  10. YAY! I'm so glad you liked it. It's one of my favorites. I love Wilde's writing style and the story of Gray's descent is timeless.

  11. Sometimes giving into the hype pays off, I know that has happened to me a couple of times too! ;) I'm glad you enjoyed the book, and that is a great selection of quotes, makes me want to read it now! I'll be checking this out on Amazon soon. Thanks for the review!

  12. Jenny - The philosophical bits are actually really interesting. Excluding the long list portion of the book, I found it to be a pretty quick read.

    Amanda - Dreary is definitely the feeling I got from reading that part of the book.

    Sandy - I will so go to that convent with you. Let's lock ourselves in for a year.

    Aarti - Reading this from a psychological perspective would be perfect.

    Jean - It's nice to meet you!

    Nymeth - I think this one is definitely worth a re-read. I bet I would have loved it at 17 too.

    Chris - That sense of timelessness is one of the things that makes a book great for me.

    Elle - It definitely does have a great selection of quotes. I would hazard a guess that 70% of the text is quotable!

  13. Never read this one, but saw the old black and white movie. Superb and spooky!

  14. I'm so glad you decided to read this one. It is among my favorite classic novels ever written. The writing is so lush. You are correct that there is a tremendous sense of timelessness that appeals to people of all ages.

  15. Jenny - Oooohhh now you have me excited about the movie. Superb and spooky are adjectives I like with movies!

    Michelle - The themes of and ideas expressed in this book are just so appropriate for everywhere, everywhen. I love it.

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  17. I have a few books by Oscar Wilde..am looking forward to read this book. Thanks for sharing your unique point of view on this subject.

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