Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Picture Of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

I think this book is very good, but I'm not sure I like it much.

There's a lot of cleverness, here. There's a lot of what Wilde calls paradox, but what we would now call post-modernism, or relativism, or -- if we were feeling kind -- punchlines.

I think that last one is, in fact, most apt. The only place you can find as many condensed contraryisms as in Dorian Gray is in a joke book.

The problem with the novel is that Wilde comes down on our side, in the end. The ending for the aesthetic philosophy is not a happy one. Sins are punished, souls are real, Dorian would have been better off without the introduction of vanity and sophistry (the artist and the wit).

But that's not the case for the rest of the novel. (Except it is. Except it isn't.)

Because I'm honestly unsure which way Wilde plays it. And that's not a clever parallel or affirmation for Sir Henry's one-liners, it's a bloody nuisance. Yes, there is impending doom creeping up on Dorian throughout. And yes, the author lets us judge him, but is that enough?
I don't think so. These are mere side-effects, inconsequential fancies we spot on the way: they are not the novel itself. The novel itself is a love letter to the mode of thought it eventually judges.

It's an interesting juxtaposition, the moral ending to the amoral tale. If it was a moral ending to an immoral tale, that would be fine. But it isn't as immoral as Widle thinks. It is distant, cold and uncaring either way. Amoral.

It's a negative ending, I think. That's not the same as a sad ending, or a bad ending, or the world ending. It's a negative ending because it damns, without offering praise by comparison.
It offers us only one thing, and then takes that away. There is only aestheticism; and aestheticism is condemned. It doesn't leave anything but negative space.

We know it's not good, as we read; we know it's the only thing, as we read; and then it is taken away. Woop-de-doo. Where's the victory in that?

If Dorian Gray is Wilde's attempt at a novel-length epigram, it fails. The basic physics of the joke are not quite right: he hasn't left a space between the expectation and the reveal. His punchline (the moral) doesn't match his set-up (the amoral). It makes too much sense to be a non sequitur, not quite enough sense to be witty.


  1. I always wonder if Wilde's personal life came out (no pun intended) a little too much in this book. The ending feels to me like it's more his own guilt than what the rest of the novel deserved.

  2. I have a couple of awards for you here http://pbbookends.blogspot.com/2010/05/challenges-and-awards.html

  3. Interesting review there. The thing with Wilde (as much as I love him) you will always be shaped by the fact you know how many of his lines are quoted. I remember reading this and thinking of how many of them I recognised.

    Maybe that's part of the reason you found it so odd a book. Basically reading a book of quotations, just each of them is Wilde.

  4. Interesting take on Dorian Gray. You put way more thought into it than I did. I didn't really enjoy it though.

    I will say I can appreciate this picture much more (it's a literal portrait of what Dorian's would have looked like) I saw it in person before and after I read the book and it was way creepier the second time.

  5. Really interesting review. All I can say is that I really loved Dorian Gray, I think the way Wilde wrote is beautiful and clever. Maybe I just like being a little but creeped out?