Corruption, particularly of the soul, is an interesting concept. It has fascinated humanity for the longest time, and it has been explored in art and literature for almost as long. However, when these all came together, it resulted in a thought-provoking classic simply known as The Picture of Dorian Gray.
For those of you who don’t know, this was an 1890 gothic novel by the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. The story centers around a young man named Dorian Gray, who is blessed with extraordinary beauty. Such beauty that he becomes the main inspiration for the paintings by his friend, Basil Hallward. One day, while posing for his own portrait with Basil, another friend of Basil’s named Lord Henry Wotton comes in and has a talk with Dorian. Being, or at least acting like, a profound cynic, Wotton attempts to uproot Dorian’s morals and reality, telling him ideas such as beauty being the most important thing, and the only way to get rid of evil urges being to surrender to them. Dorian, however, buys into it, and thus when his portrait is complete, he prays and wishes to anyone, or anything that would listen, that his portrait would become ugly with age instead of him. Soon, he finds that he got his wish, and that he remains youthful and beautiful no matter how many sins he commits or years he ages. Motivated by Wotton’s continual advice, he decides to pursue a life of debauched decadence.
The book itself is extraordinarily well-written, with poetic language, well-developed characters, and a steady progression. Every character, especially Dorian, is three-dimensional, realistic, and interesting. Dorian’s progression and corruption feels organic and earned, with a realistic inner conflict and struggle that anybody with moral struggles can relate to. Even the other characters are dynamic, and change over the years the book covers as surely as Dorian. There’s even personality in the other rich men and women Dorian interacts with, even if it is meant to satirize upper class frivolity and shallowness. All in all, there is a lot of content in this book, and all of it well-written.
Another interesting thing about this book is that it was written during an art movement known as aestheticism, the philosophy of which valued beauty above all else. Even more interesting is that Wilde was an avid supporter of this movement, while the impression I initially gleaned was that the book was a bash on it. Wilde did say that Lord Henry Wotton was what the world thought he was, and Basil Hallward (who constantly disagreed with Henry) was who he believed himself to be, so there are many questions one could ask around it. How much did he really support the movement? Was this book a warning against aestheticism, or in support of it? Perhaps the book reflected an inner conflict over these values and morals. I don’t know, but it’s certainly interesting to ponder, and adds a whole new dimension to what’s already a fascinating read.
Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely, and I recommend it highly. I will admit that it is rather slow at times, and there are many periods in the book my family referred to as the “begats” (something any Bible reader will understand), that go in deep detail into things that aren’t plot related (we’re talking stories behind gemstones). There also isn’t much action in the book, so people who prefer that sort of thing should probably pass this up. However, if you are a lover of character development, deep themes, and biting satires, The Picture of Dorian Gray is for you.