Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Book Notes: "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, most well-known as a comedic and devilish playwright, is a miscreant. He was highly critical of British society - being an Irishman he was an outsider, though he called London his home until his exile (yes, exile! I told you he was a troublemaker).

He's a miscreant because he's willfully subversive to society. He wants to tantalize and corrupt people with his perversions, all while making logical justfications. And as far as literature is concerned, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. Dorian Gray is read and studied to this day not because it is a brilliant piece of fiction. It stays in the public consciousness because of its perceived audacity and willingness to explore the darker side of humanity.

Wilde doesn't care if you're turned on or off by Dorian Gray. If Gray's deviant misdeeds excite you, so much the better you nasty critter, you. If they disgust and horrify you, even better you uptight, close-minded Puritan. Wilde will be happy with either. The only thing that would upset him is if you didn't have much of a strong opinion at all.

I didn't have much of a strong opinion at all. I found Dorian Gray to be a tease - a promise to descend into real darkness and debauchery that is never really fulfilled. Yes there is some darkness but, though it may have been shocking in its time, it really fails to evoke the visceral, shocking impact that was intended. The modern play and film "Quills" does a much better job of gleefully assaulting civil society.

This is likely due to the cleansing and censoring that happened at publication. The novel is already rife with homoerotic implications and innuendoes (Wilde himself was gay), but it never dives into them in any real manner. Wilde probably wanted to scandalize London with glorious, decadent homoeroticism of a scale never before heard of in polite society. But his own internal censor and the actual censors of the day forced him to keep things tame. It's a shame. Dorian Gray would have been a much stronger, bolder novel for it.

Wilde's style and approach, taken out of the context of its day, is just bearable. His Lord Henry character is a tiresome, endless stream of bold statements and opinions that are never explored. The introduction to my edition of Dorian Gray discusses at length Wilde's personal influences that led to his creation of Lord Henry, among others. One can read Lord Henry with an eye on Wilde and appreciate the games Wilde was playing in his own mind. But on the surface, without that context, Lord Henry is just insufferable.

This can be said of much of the novel - especially the ridiculous Chapter XI that lists out ad nauseum (or more appropriately ad infinitum) Dorian Gray's new interests and the items he's acquired for study and appreciation. In the introduction the Wilde scholar explains why this chapter exists and what it is in reference to (and even where Wilde lifted verbatim passages from other texts). The explanation helps, but still does not justify that chapter's existence.

I would not recommend The Picture of Dorian Gray. The story is fine fodder for salacious adaptations, movies, etc. But the novel itself just isn't really worth the effort. Luckily it's a modest read at just over five hours.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude we already had this conversation but I LOVED the picture of dorian gray. You have to put the book in historical context and think about what an author of that time could and could not say. I think Wilde really pushed the envelope with that work and who doesn't like exploring the dark side of humanity?

The Phoenix

Thu Nov 17, 07:36:00 PM CST  

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