June 3, 2011

The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Review

Oscar Wilde was quite an interesting character in the literary scheme of things. He was incredibly irreverent and witty and he has to be one of the most quotable people in history. If you don't believe me just read a page of his quotes, they're incredible. He was both decadent and defiant. He scandalized society when he had an openly gay relationship back when you could still get sentenced to prison camps for that sort of thing (which he was). He led a most extraordinary life and if anyone out there has ever read a good biography on him please let me know. He seems like my type of fellow.

Even if you haven't read The Picture of Dorian Gray you've probably heard the story. Dorian Gray is an extremely attractive young man whose portrait ages but he doesn't. For some reason or another I had always thought that if he looked at his own portrait he would automatically age but I think I must have gotten that idea from an episode of Scooby-Doo or something. At the urging of the always interesting Lord Henry, Dorian sets upon a path of decadence and debauchery that would wear down and rob the youth of any normal man but the effects can only be seen upon Dorian's painting.

Thanks to this innovative premise, Wilde is able to take jabs at the superficiality of society throughout the book. We talk often as a society about the importance of moral virtue and other such high-minded ideals yet studies show that good-looking people on average have higher incomes than the rest of society. Dorian  isn't shunned by Victorian society for his infamous immoral deeds, but is instead continually embraced because of his beauty. I sort of liken it to the way a man will put up with all sorts of craziness from a woman because she's really, really hot. There is a seductive quality to great beauty that few, if any of us, are immune to.

At first I had trouble linking the plot with the aestheticism of which Oscar Wilde was a leading proponent. The work of art portrayed in this novel indeed served a very clear function and alluded to the moral consequences of Dorian's actions. Then I began to think that perhaps Dorian was the work of art himself. Because Dorian Gray was a piece of art, his intrinsic value came from the way he looked alone and all of the immorality in his personality doesn't matter in an artistic sense because he is nice to look at. Aestheticism says that art has value simply because it is beautiful, there is no need to look at moral or political underpinnings to enjoy a piece of art. Sort of how we still appreciate Alice in Wonderland despite the fact that Lewis Carroll was probably a pedophile. We can separate the art from the artist and the message the artist may have been trying to portray.

I'm not sure I buy into my own theory but I needed something for this review, damnit. Half of the fun of this book, after all, is all of the questions it raises on numerous philosophical subjects (some of which I haven't even mentioned here in the interest of brevity). The rest of the joy comes from simply enjoying Oscar Wilde's wit. Because of his charm he is able to craft a heavily philosophical novel with an intriguing story without all of the excess of say an Atlas Shrugged. If you're interested in art and the philosophy behind art then I highly recommend you give this one a read.

Up next, Prometheus Bound .
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8 comments:

  1. this is on my summer book list!

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  2. This was the book that drew me to Literary Fiction in the first place. That, and metamorphosis.

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  3. Wilde is one of the funniest and wittiest writers I've ever read-- he perfected the veiled insult. I should read this one again, though. We read it as a class in the fifth grade. I don't know why my teacher thought it would be an appropriate read for a bunch of immature A.D.D. kids.

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  4. I have this book, sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for me to read it! You have just convinced me to put all other things aside and take it up. :)

    Yeah, Oscar Wilde was pretty kick ass in his day. Have you seen the movie about him? That's the only way I knew his bio before reading this post. haha.

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  5. After reading what you have to say about it, I might have to read it.

    ps, Im back. sorry about the lack of a proper goodbye.

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  6. I hate to say that i've seen the movie and not read the book. But its true. However, I'm planning on reading the book as soon as I can get my hands on a copy. And then maybe we can have a deeper discussion about it on your blog. =)

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  7. I read Dorian Gray back in high school, maybe it's time to read it again.

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  8. I agree with the Tsaritsa - Wilde had a magnificent turn of phrase. I loved Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest.

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