Review | The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

(NOTE: Yes, this is the cover of the edition I read. I tried to find a pretty cover, but they’re all ugly, so I gave up. I apologize.)

Reviewer: Christina
Release Date: 1890 (original publication)
Publisher: Public Domain Books (Kindle edition)
Age Group: Technically adult, but suitable for YA readers
Genres: Magical realism (and I can’t think of any others; this book is kind of genre-less)
Pages: 216 (Kindle edition)
Format/Source: Kindle, Downloaded free from Kindle store (yay public domain!)
Find the Book: Goodreads (read the Goodreads version free) | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | or look for it at your local indie!

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

Enthralled by his own exquisite portrait, Dorian Gray sells his soul in exchange for eternal youth and beauty. Under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life, where he is able to indulge his desires while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only Dorian’s picture bears the traces of his decadence.

(It is so darn hard to find good blurbs for classics. Gah.)

Those of you who’ve been keeping up with this blog for a while know that I really, really enjoyed one of Oscar Wilde’s other works, The Importance of Being Earnest. Now I’m pleased to say that Wilde is probably a new favorite author of mine; I was floored by The Picture of Dorian Gray. This book is definitely a lot darker than Earnest, but Wilde still manages to inject his signature quotability and wit into every line of this. Plus, it turns out that Wilde handles serious subject matter just as well as he handles comedy.

Other than the fact that the author is Oscar Wilde, the first thing that drew me to this book was the premise. I mean, a portrait that ages and decays while the portrait’s subject doesn’t? Yes please. So many subtle fantastical factors going on here. TWO THUMBS UP. Before I read this, I didn’t know much about it beyond that, and it was still enough to entice me. It’s original and thank goodness, extremely well-executed.

IMPORTANT: A magical premise that didn’t go awry AND some really, really strong themes.

I know I’m running the risk of sounding like everyone’s least favorite Literature teacher here, but the messages contained within this book are exquisitely communicated and so powerful. Basically, this is a work about the dangers of loving nothing other than external beauty. But it’s also a story of desperation and corruption and youth and emotion. It’s about being hollow and lording that over everyone else you meet. This book is an incredibly valuable cautionary tale, especially in today’s world, where – I have to admit – it sometimes seems better to act jaded and develop obsessions with only the aesthetic rather than throwing yourself into life.

I tend to go for books that have characters I can root for in them. What can I say? If I were to categorize myself as a reader, I’d say that I’m definitely character-driven. I generally have to like a protagonist in order to care about where their story takes them. But occasionally a book will come along in which all the characters are super screwed up and layered and cold-hearted and I will not like a single one of them. But I will love the book, because its characters are complex and fascinating and I cannot bring myself to truly hate them.

(Case in point: The Great Gatsby.)

Dorian Gray was 110% one of those books. The three central characters – Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, and Lord Henry Wotton – are all in these moral gray areas (and sometimes darker-than-gray areas) throughout the novel. Their ideals are twisted, and the actions they take for the sake of those ideals even more so. Especially frightening is the insidious influence of Wotton, who reduces his entire life to wry, cynical maxims and values none of the principles that many others see as “good”: morality, courage, love, etc. He has a purely aesthetic lifestyle without a care for deep emotional attachments or anything beyond surface-level beauty. Wotton essentially imposes this poisonous thinking on Dorian, and this leads to a whole big mess of moral and spiritual issues. And yet I was intrigued. What might lead a character to develop that kind of mindset? What’s the effect of this on a young, naive, idealistic brain like Dorian’s? And how is this detrimental to the two men’s “lonely artist friend”, Basil? These kinds of questions are the ones explored by Wilde through these characters, and their flaws are laid bare in their subtle but deep descents into degeneracy.

It’s hard to find much that I love more from classics than well-delivered dialogue, and this book has that in abundance. From the very beginning, we’re treated to some frighteningly quotable banter in every single scene. (Really. You have no idea how many sentences I was highlighting to save for later. Everything was a potential quote to be used in some sort of epigraph.) It’s also very entertaining, which means that even when the plot got a little slow, I could hardly tell because the dialogue was so great.

As can be expected of such a witty book, the descriptions here are succinctly hilarious and almost sardonic in certain parts. Even minor characters have certain descriptive phrases attached to them that make them momentarily memorable. There’s a particular long passage where all of Dorian’s aesthetic passions (e.g., jewels, books, etc.) are laid out in great detail – which sounds awfully boring, I have to admit – but I actually found it really interesting to read because of the vivacity of the descriptions.

At times, The Picture of Dorian Gray got pretty plotless, but I think that some of the uneventful parts served the story very well later. Honestly, this isn’t a plot-driven book, and there isn’t much to say about the storyline. Readers looking for an action-packed, rollercoaster read with lots of ups and downs should probably continue their searches elsewhere. But there were some really well-delivered semi-twists in there that definitely contributed to my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

My only complaint about this book overall is that there could have been a more fair treatment of female characters. Women are constantly belittled and mocked by the men all the way through, and all of the women who are actually depicted (though there are only, like, two who are mentioned more than once) do little to break out of the stereotypes that the men so confidently lay out. Especially troubling is the portrayal of Sybil Vane. Though I can’t go into much detail without spoiling, she isn’t given any dimensions of her own, and (highlight to read spoiler) the way her suicide is glossed over and not discussed as much as it should have been seemed problematic to me. I was really disappointed by this lack of fleshed-out women, because I thought Wilde did a fairly good job of keeping women and men on the same footing in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Big-picture-wise, though, I have a lot of respect for what was done in this book and I really, really adored reading it. If you’re a fan of subtle magic, twisted characters, boldly stated themes, or all of the above, it’s a must-read.

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