I struggled with this book, which frankly surprised me a bit. I tend to enjoy The Classics; I expect to enjoy them. I’ve had relatively few failures (ahem, Faulkner and Henry Miller, I’m looking at you). But I fear that Oscar Wilde may not be for me. I listened to this book on audio. Is that the wrong way to do it? It may be my first attempt at a classic in this format. You’d think it would be more accessible this way.
We open with a scene in which Lord Henry is visiting his friend Basil, a painter. They admire Basil’s masterpiece to date, a portrait of a beautiful young man. Basil expresses a deep infatuation with the young man, whom he does not want to share with Lord Henry in any way, not even to tell him his name; but shortly, Dorian Gray appears. His new friend Lord Henry makes him a speech about the glorious and fleeting nature of his (Dorian’s) youth and beauty, which leads Dorian to make a speech (there’s a lot of speech-making, more so than dialog, if you ask me) in which he wishes that he could always be young and beautiful, and his portrait grow old and ugly in his place.
Well. In case you haven’t heard of this famous story, he gets his wish.
Dorian follows other advice of Lord Henry’s, which is not advised. A large part of his new life philosophy involves taking every pleasure one can without considering consequences, seeking beauty. Dorian courts a young woman from the lower classes and then dumps her, resulting in her suicide; this is when he first notices that the portrait has begun to change. It shows marks of sin; there was a “touch of cruelty round the warped lips.” After some agonizing, he decides to go on living an evil and dissolute life, and letting the portrait shoulder the results.
I found my interest fading in and out. Wilde has these moments of brilliant, shining beauty: his descriptions of people can be remarkably fancifully, finely painted. For example, the people Lord Henry finds when he comes in to dinner at his aunt’s:
Dorian bowed to him shyly from the end of the table, a flush of pleasure stealing into his cheek. Opposite was the Duchess of Harley, a lady of admirable good-nature and good temper, much liked by everyone who knew her, and of those ample architectural proportions that in women who are not duchesses are described by contemporary historians as stoutness. Next to her sat, on her right, Sir Thomas Burdon, a Radical member of Parliament, who followed his leader in public life and in private life followed the best cooks, dining with the Tories and thinking with the Liberals, in accordance with a wise and well-known rule. The post on her left was occupied by Mr. Erskine of Treadley, an old gentleman of considerable charm and culture, who had fallen, however, into bad habits of silence, having, as he explained once to Lady Agatha, said everything that he had to say before he was thirty. His own neighbor was Mrs. Vandeleur, one of his aunt’s oldest friends, a perfect saint amongst women, but so dreadfully dowdy that she reminded one of a badly bound hymn-book.
But I found Lord Henry to be entirely intolerable, and Dorian and Basil only slightly less so. When any combination of these three self-centered gentlemen of leisure shares dialog, I want to throw things.
“Harry, you are dreadful! I don’t know why I like you so much.”
“You will always like me, Dorian,” he replied.
I can’t stomach the tone of self-satisfaction. (I wonder if if the voice of the narrator is part of my aversion.) Lord Henry, especially, philosophizes endlessly and meaninglessly. I can’t pay attention to him, no matter how hard I try. He is forever telling his young, impressionable friend Dorian that things will “always” be one way or the other. It irritates me. Perhaps this is Wilde’s point? Maybe I am responding just as he intended me to. I don’t care; I don’t enjoy it.
So to carry on. Dorian hides his portrait and lives a life of sin and pleasure. The storytelling speeds up; we see many years go by while the (anti)hero pursues one indulgence, then another. There are more gems of beautiful, poetic writing in the description of the items Dorian collects, like jewels, tapestries, and music. Here, discussing the lore of the gemstones he collects:
In Alphonso’s Clericalis Disciplina a serpent was mentioned with eyes of real jacinth, and in the romantic history of Alexander, the Conqueror of Emathia was said to have found in the vale of Jordan snakes “with collars of real emeralds growing on their backs.” There was a gem in the brain of the dragon, Philostratus told us, and “by the exhibition of golden letters and a scarlet robe” the monster could be thrown into a magical sleep and slain. According to the great alchemist, Pierre de Boniface, the diamond rendered a man invisible, and the agate of India made him eloquent. The cornelian appeased anger, and the hyacinth provoked sleep, and the amethyst drove away the fumes of wine. The garnet cast out demons, and the hydropicus deprived the moon of her colour. The selenite waxed and waned with the moon, and the meloceus, that discovers thieves, could be affected only by the blood of kids. Leonardus Camillus had seen a white stone taken from the brain of a newly killed toad, that was a certain antidote against poison. The bezoar, that was found in the heart of the Arabian deer, was a charm that could cure the plague. In the nests of Arabian birds was the aspilates, that, according to Democritus, kept the wearer from any danger by fire.
There’s a lilt, a rhythm to that passage, that makes it almost musical, itself.
And through it all, the portrait bears the ugliness of his actions. I guess this is where I say, I had some trouble with all the discussion of the physical manifestation of sin and of goodness; Dorian’s society takes for granted that beautiful people are good and evil people become ugly, so no argument against Dorian’s virtue can be entertained, since he’s so youthful and beautiful even 18 years after the story begins in Basil’s painting studio. This may be one of those fancies one should just accept in fiction, and maybe I was just too grumpy at my other complaints to accept it, but it didn’t work for me. Or, more to the point: perhaps Wilde is actually attacking this very concept, and I’m missing his point. The whole thing grated on me, though, instead of making me think, if that was indeed his intention.
My gripes are numerous, aren’t they? Am I being unfair? There were definitely a few moments of glistening gorgeous writing; but the philosophizing was intolerable, and the dialog was more like a series of monologues, and I just couldn’t buy into the gravity of the ideological arguments. It was all fluffy talk, and I fear Wilde meant for it to be taken seriously.
I spent the bulk of this book waiting for it to be over so I could go on to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which by the way is so far really wonderful. (Timely bonus link: 10 Writers Who Moonlighted as Dandies lists both Wilde and Capote, naturally.) I feel sorry I couldn’t appreciate more of this classic work, but I couldn’t. On the other hand, because of those beautiful bits, and Wilde’s reputation, I sort of wish I could take on this book as a subject of study with an expert – maybe in a college course – and have its quality explained to me. I’m really baffled.
Do you love this book? Can you please explain its redeeming qualities?