“The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.” – pg 161
Aaaaah, my dramatic boy Oscar Wilde did cause a stir, didn’t he? And it’s kind of ironic that this line was included in a book that then faced so much controversy and was considered immoral, huh? But there are indeed some psychological truths to be found in this novel, even after all this time. I first read this novel a few years ago and enjoyed it then, but upon rereading it now after even just a little bit of time and growth, I came to notice more things than I did upon my first read, and different aspects resonated with me this time. I love it when that happens! And I really do like this book, even if I maybe don’t entirely follow all the rants and theories the characters go off on. It’s a lot. They’re really dramatic. And I live for the drama. In fact, it’s kind of funny to me that all the iterations and adaptations of the character of Dorian Gray that I’ve seen in various things, he’s always so dark and brooding to reflect his evil nature, but that’s not it at all! Sure, he does suspect things, but the whole point is that he looks like a sweet cherub, and is basically just charming everyone and giving them the ol’ razzle dazzle the whole time! I find that all the characters are actually quite theatrical in their manner of being and speaking, but none so much as Dorian and his friend Henry from whom he learns to question and look at the world in a different way. But let’s talk about the actual character and plot, which I’m sure most people are at the very least, vaguely aware of:
The Picture of Dorian Gray centers on the life of a young man named Dorian Gray (quell surprise!) who is a beautiful and somewhat naive young man that draws the charm of everyone he meets. A close friend who is enraptured by Dorian, named Basil, creates a stunning masterpiece of young Dorian, which Dorian grows envious of as it will always stay in it’s youthful state, while he must grow old over time. This envious wish is somehow granted, and as Dorian moves through life, he finds himself never growing old, while the painting begins to bear all the tarnished aspects of his soul, as he comes to be friends with a man named Henry, who teaches Dorian to examine the world with different eyes: Dorian’s life soon becomes a feast of searching for new and exciting pleasures to the senses, and in fact becoming quite a scandalous young man through the sake of his own selfish experiences. Yet, everyone remains charmed by him, despite the lack of grace he may show in life, or despite all the scandal that surrounds him, which allows Dorian to get away with more and more unsavoury behaviour in his life, all while the only evidence of this marring of his character lays within the portrait that Dorian keeps hidden from any eyes but his own.
At times I find the lengthy descriptions and ramblings of these high-society men to be a little taxing and overdone, but this really plays into the overall sense of the dramatic, aesthetic-loving, sense-aware world that is created in the novel: enjoying beauty for beauty’s sake. And this concept of what is beautiful and what is the soul really comes into play when seeing people’s reactions to Dorian. It’s so important that he be super charming and beautiful and innocent looking, despite the way he lives his life, because it is for this reason that no one believes he could ever do the tasteless and horrible things he does. It really is a reflection of our own society (showing the world one of its shames?) in how you can find some studies that show that people who are considered “beautiful” are often thought to be more intelligent or trustworthy by people who don’t really know the person and are just judging this idea based on looks. How often do we see a pretty smile and think that this must mean the person is fun or nice? I’ve definitely caught myself thinking like that and getting strong first impressions of people that turn out to be totally wrong.
What I love about this book the most though, is just the excessive styling of everything to give it a really grand, melodramatic, but rich feel. Everything from the descriptions (which can be a little much at times, as I said earlier) to everyone’s manner of acting and speaking: these guys like to cause a scene, and I find it so amusing and hilarious, but also really sad in a way when looking at the characters, their lives, and how they search for meaning for themselves. While this intense styling could easily become a soapy parody of itself, there is an examination of values, the human psyche, and the concept of the soul intrinsically mixed in with the plot. What really ties it together is the ending wherein Dorian begins to wonder if he can reverse some of the effects he has made in his life by becoming good again: can we really heal our souls and repair damage caused, or is this all just a selfish pursuit to feel better about the self in the end? Hard to say, hard to say…
Overall, I found myself enjoying this book during its second read, and definitely picked up on more than I did the first time. But what really stuck out to me for some reason is a line right near the end which reads, “The curves of your lips rewrite history.” I mean, it’s kind of out of the blue but man… that line got me feeling some kind of way. And I feel like I’ll remember it for a long time. Just as people have latched onto this novel over time and you will often find references to it, or to the painting that ages instead of the man. It’s a reasonably simple plot that has lasted over the years, and I think this is largely to do with all the examinations and intricacies of human nature that swirl around the seemingly straightforward action.