Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian GrayTitle: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Author: Oscar Wilde
Genre: Classics / Social Critique / Philosophical Fiction
Date: 2003 (1890)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 253
Started: 8th July 2016
Completed: 8th July 2016
Rating: 5/5
Summary: ‘The horror, whatever it was, had not yet entirely spoiled that marvellous beauty’

Enthralled by his own exquisite portrait, Dorian Gray exchanges his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Influenced by his friend Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life, indulging his desires in secret while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only his portrait bears the traces of his decadence. The Picture of Dorian Gray was a succès de scandale. Early readers were shocked by its hints at unspeakable sins, and the book was later used as evidence against Wilde at the Old Bailey in 1895.

Do I have to warn for spoilers for a book that was written in 1890? Probably. Spoilers ahead!

importance-of-being-earnestOscar Wilde is perhaps best known for his wit, his interest in dandyism, and his imprisonment. Wilde often used his writing to criticise the upper classes of English society even though he had joined their social circles. His best known play, The Importance of Being Earnest, focuses on the hypocrisy of the upper classes and the importance of status in 19th century England but it does so in a very lighthearted manner. However, The Picture of Dorian Gray delves into the seedy underbelly of English aristocracy to expose their flaws. The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde’s only novel although he did write several other stories.

Oscar Wilde is by far one of my favourite authors and I’m fascinated by his life story as much as I am with his work.

What I love most about this book is the characters that Wilde was able to create. Basil, perhaps my favourite character of all, is a deeply emotional man who is infatuated with Dorian. He is the artist who paints the portrait of Dorian which shows Dorian’s sins later in the novel. Their relationship has often been described as homoerotic as Basil adores Dorian’s beauty and almost worships him. However, Basil is a moral man who tries to keep Dorian pure and innocent but he fails. I genuinely love Basil as a character because he is so different to the others in the novel. He is not conceited and despite his friendships with aristocrats he seems humble.

Lord Henry Wotton is another wonderfully written character as he embodies the lavishness of the English aristocracy with his philosophy of self-indulgent hedonism. He is a Dandy, like Wilde himself, and therefore interested in fashion and the other finer things in life. He is also a libertine, a man without sexual morals, and he successfully corrupts Dorian. Henry Wotton does not feel like a villain in this novel, though he perhaps is one, and I think that this is one of Wilde’s greatest achievements in The Picture of Dorian Gray because despite Henry Wotton corrupting Dorian by taking him to opium dens etc. it is actually Dorian who commits terrible acts later in the novel, acts that shock even Henry Wotton.

Finally, there’s Dorian. Dorian is a spectacular character who is narcissistic and hedonistic. He commits pretty much every sin that you can think of and he loves every moment of it. Many people believe that the sins of a person show in their appearance but Dorian’s show upon his painting, allowing him to study the effects that each sin has upon his appearance. I don’t think that Dorian has any redeeming qualities and that’s what makes him such a great character. He does attempt to gain salvation at the end of the novel when he recongnises the effect of his own vanity and self-indulgence.

The main themes that Wilde focuses on in The Picture of Dorian Gray are aestheticism and duplicity. Wilde uses the idea of aestheticism to consider the concept of Beauty. Dorian is perhaps the most beautiful young man that the other characters have ever seen and this beauty excuses his other flaws. Dorian also becomes focused on his aesthetic appeal as he strives to remain beautiful and appealing despite his actions. Therefore, aestheticism in The Picture of Dorian Gray leads to duplicity as Dorian is forced to lead a double life in order to conserve his public image despite his hedonism. Wilde even addresses this within the novel as the narrator claims that Dorian enjoyed ‘the terrible pleasure of a double life’ (chapter 11). The ‘terrible pleasure’ that Dorian gets from this double life also indicates at his hedonism as he finds pleasure in even the most terrible things.

Dorian’s hedonism is another important theme within the novel as Wilde draws attention to the English aristocracy who, at the time, took pleasure from pleasure itself. They lived lavish lives despite their lack of financial capital and they took pleasure from everything they did. It’s clear how Wilde uses Dorian to mock the upper classes because Dorian is a murderer and yet he is still accepted within certain social circles because of his status and his beauty. It’s clear that the themes of The Picture of Dorian Gray centre around a criticism of the English aristocracy and this is what Wilde is best known for in his writing.

Wilde’s language can be over complicated at times but this novel was written in the late 19th century and other books from the 1890s such as Dracula and The Time Machine have the same quality since it was the style of the time. I can understand why the language would be off-putting but once you get used to it I think that it’s easy to follow and understand.

I can’t praise this book highly enough. I may be biased because of my love for classics, or perhaps my love of social critiques, or my love of 19th century literature, or my love of Gothic literature. Bascially, this book ticks every box on the list of things that I love. It even has Shakespeare in it. What’s not to love?

Anyway, I highly recommend this book. I adore it and I think that everyone should read it!


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