Book Review: Picture of Dorian Gray

Penguin Classics book cover of picture of dorian Gray featuring a young attractive-ish man with a high neck victorian collarPicture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Luscious and Badly Paced

Beautiful descriptions, beautiful quips, next to no editing going on here. Two whole pages dedicated to lists of the pretty things Dorian buys himself is definitely self-indulgent – but then what else could we expect of the great Oscar Wilde?

I loved this novel for its concept and for its myriad witticisms, though I didn’t find it had much going for it in suspense or horror. I haven’t read enough else from around this era to know if it’s just of its time, or if it’s just not Wilde’s strong point. Either way, it is a shame. Also, I think Wilde missed a trick in neither making Gray that scary a character (amoral, of course, but never really that menacing to the audience), nor showing more of the world from Gray’s point of view – which could have been fun.

The character of the theatre owner is where Wilde really lets himself down as a narrator. All Wilde can do to convey how unpleasant this man is, is talk about how revolting and Jewish he is. Reading this as a Jewish person (with what I hope will evolve to be a Wildean wit) – I found this more than a bit crap. Sure, anti-Semitism was of its time – suppose I can’t hold that one against His Oscar of Wildeness, but dude, seriously, find another adjective: The theatre owner was horrible because of his horrible Jew-like eyes, and his horrible Jew-like fingers, and his horrible Jewish smirk and…. I started thinking of Randy Newman’s Short People “They got little hands, little eyes/They walk around tellin’ great big lies.” Not your finest hour, Oscar. As a writer or otherwise.

Generally, this novel is a badly-paced combination of luscious, adjective-laden prose like you won’t get anywhere outside of romance fiction these days (believe it or not I mean that in a good way) and some brilliant one-liners. A fair few of them you’ve probably seen printed in collections of terribly clever quotes, and therefore they will have lost their sheen a bit, but there’s also plenty that you probably haven’t heard, and they’re damn good too.

I’m not quite sure what Wilde was aiming for in his overarching theme which appears to be beauty = evil, but at the same time, he hardly makes a case for unattractive = good (I refer you to our Jewish theatre owner). The more I’ve learnt of Wilde’s life the more all the characters fall into place as real people, which is an interesting twist. Wooton is definitely Wilde himself – firecracker-quick with the quips, and all about the decadence and enjoying ‘corrupting’ others (in ways which will have to be inferred), while the ambiguous, unknowable Dorian was (I’d venture to guess) Lord Alfred Douglas (or “Bosie”) – the beautiful aristocratic kiddo who’s father started all the trials which landed Wilde in ignominy and prison. Bosie never once wrote to Wilde when he was in prison – despite receiving many letters from him, the young shit. Not to mention Wilde’s keeping company with so many rent-boys which he described as like “dining with panthers” – dangerous, but thrilling. I’d say it’s safe to venture that this novel is Wilde himself wrestling with the contradictions of what one who appears so angelic is yet capable of – but it doesn’t make for the tightest plot. The portrait in the attic is a strong and enduring image, but don’t dig too deep on the whys and hows. The plot’s not got much more depth than the canvas.

Good canvas, though.

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