Friday, October 5, 2012

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is yet another book whose premise is well-known, but that is worth reading, anyway, to get a closer look. Oscar Wilde was a first-rate satirist, and his biting remarks about modern society, marriage, love, morals, and Americans elicited many a wry smile out of me.

In case you haven't heard of it, The Picture of Dorian Gray is about a young man who has his portrait painted, and muses, as he gazes at its remarkable likeness, what a shame it is he'll grow older while the painting stays the same. He declares he'd sell his soul to have the reverse be true, and, apparently, some agent that can collect is listening. The full explanation for why this takes place is never given, though one could infer from the text that it's a particular convergence of circumstances. The artist's love for Dorian certainly feeds into it.

Most of what survives in popular culture shows the painting as an old man, though the book ends with Dorian at 36. However, every evil deed Dorian does leaves its mark on the painting, twisting and marring the features. I don't buy that people are ugly because they do terrible things, though I will accept it as a stand-in for Dorian's actions having no consequences.

I couldn't help but compare this to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where a person who can get away with things soon takes advantage of it, to his detriment. I also compared this to Austen, with a lot of the text taking place among polite society. Wilde's characters are far more dynamic than Robert Louis Stevenson's, though, and far less polite than Austen's.

I can see why high schoolers might groan about reading this book. There are interminable passages of lists, or about strange stories that don't have much of anything to do with the plot. Also, most high school students have a mentality much closer to Dorian's than to Basil Hallward's, the painter who tries to lead Dorian to a life of morality. That Dorian should care about people who killed themselves because of how he treated them was a lot more obvious to me as an adult reader than it would've been to a 16-year-old me.

There's some reading between the lines that escaped me, though. Dorian blackmails a man, Alan Campbell, but the text never states what he knows about Campbell that later makes him commit suicide. I have a few guesses, but they're only guesses.

I listened to an audio edition of this book, narrated by Simon Vance. The audio edition was crisp and easy to make out, though I did find myself adjusting the volume when characters muttered or whispered, and back down again when they raised their voices. The dialogue was easily differentiated from one character to the next.

This book was far more entertaining than I expected, and I felt a lot of the social commentary held up well. I could do without Wilde's attitude toward women, though I could never tell if he was showing how much of a jerk a character was for talking about women that way, or if the character was an author mouthpiece. Regardless, I enjoyed it, and I'd recommend reading this for yourself, even if you think you know the story.

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