Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear and vivid and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?~p. 21, The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde has been lingering on my shelves for quite a while. You can see from the image of my copy that it's not a book I bought new. More than likely, I paid a quarter for it at the library sale during the time that I was collecting any and every classic title I could find. At any rate, I'm now knocking my head against the wall, wondering why I waited so long to read Dorian Gray.
I'm sure you all know the premise: Dorian Gray is a man who is physically beautiful and sits, or poses, for a painter friend, Basil, on a regular basis. Basil is a rather mild fellow who is friends with Lord Henry, a man who seems to take great joy in his own dissipation. Basil doesn't take him seriously and that is probably why they're able to remain friends. When Lord Henry becomes acquainted with Dorian Gray, his influence is unfortunately very, very bad. Henry likes to rattle on about how one must try everything and live life as art. "Art for the sake of art" was apparently a mode of thought that Wilde was into at the time of its writing.
As he's being introduced to the concept of living life any way he chooses rather than a life of restraint, Dorian Gray also realizes that he will lose his beauty with age and makes a wish that Basil's most perfect portrait of him might age while Dorian retains his youthful beauty. The wish comes true, Dorian doesn't age but as he slowly becomes more and more base, the painting shows the physical changes and even personifies the evil of his character. Dorian keeps the painting hidden away, his dangerous secret, but as he sinks lower -- corrupting women, throwing himself into gambling, drugs and drink -- and the painting grows uglier, eventually Dorian Gray will murder to save his secret.
One of my Goodreads friends described the writing of Dorian Gray as "too frufruey" and I can see where she's coming from. There's definitely a heaviness to his prose that is very much of the times. Some passages bored me just a tad. But, there's a great deal of Wilde's natural wit, the story is such a brilliant idea (I'll bet many, many people wish they'd thought of that, first) and the ending absolutely knocked my socks off. I gave it 5 stars, in the end. In fact, I'd already realized I'll want to reread The Picture of Dorian Gray by the time I'd hit about page 20.
This passage made me laugh:
"We practical men like to see things, not to read about them. The Americans are an extremely interesting people. They are absolutely reasonable. I think that is their distinguishing characteristic. Yes, Mr. Erskine, an absolutely reasonable people. I assure you there is no nonsense about the Americans."
"How dreadful!" cried Lord Henry. "I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect."~p. 41
I can pretty much assure you the British aren't sitting around talking about how reasonable Americans are, these days.
And, another favorite excerpt, this time an exchange between a Duchess and Lord Henry:
"Decay fascinates me more."
"What of Art?" she asked.
"It is a malady."
"The fashionable substitute for Belief."
"You are a skeptic."
"Never! Skepticism is the beginning of Faith."
"What are you?"
"To define is to limit."
"Give me a clue."
"Threads snap. You would lose your way in the labyrinth."
"You bewilder me. Let us talk of something else."
"Our host is a delightful topic. Years ago he was christened Prince Charming."
"Ah! Don't remind me of that," cried Dorian Gray.
"Our host is rather horrid this evening," answered the Duchess, coloring. "I believe he thinks that Monmouth married me on purely scientific principles as the best specimen he could find of a modern butterfly."
"Well, I hope he won't stick pins into you, Duchess," laughed Dorian Gray.
"Oh! My maid does that already, Mr. Gray, when she is annoyed with me."
I love the Duchess. When she and Lord Henry get wound up, they are a riot.
The bottom line:
Highly recommended. Wonderful writing, a classic full of wit, humor and decadence with a brilliant plot and a knock-out ending. It's no wonder this classic has survived and thrived on many must-read lists. Also . . . it's truly creepy, so definitely another good one for the R.I.P. Challenge, if you haven't read it, already.
Originally published in 1890, my copy was printed in 1983.
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