I originally read The Picture of Dorian Gray back in my senior year of high school in my AP Lit class. I picked it as an “outside reading” book, which meant that I had to read it, take notes, and write a one-page reaction paper throughout the quarter, while also reading the other two books for class and dealing with the rest of my AP classes. So needless to say, I didn’t read it very thoroughly, but I vaguely remember being more interested in it than I might have let on to my teacher, and I always meant to reread it. Luckily for me, I’m dating an Oscar Wilde fanatic who owns Wilde’s complete works, and I finally got around to rereading it.
Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man who we first encounter as he sits for a portrait, painted by his friend Basil Hallward. Hallward is infatuated with Dorian’s beauty, believing that Dorian’s portrait represents a new height of work for him. Lord Henry Wotton, another friend of Hallward’s, comes to the studio the same day that Hallward completes Dorian’s portrait. Dorian soon becomes entranced by Lord Henry’s world view, which suggests that the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfillment of the senses.
His mind set aflame by Lord Henry’s hedonism, and realizing that one day his own beauty will fate, Dorian becomes madly jealous of his portrait, whose beauty will always remain constant. He impulsively wishes that his portrait would show the inevitable signs of aging, rather than mar his own lovely face. He soon discovers that his wish—incredibly—has come true, and soon descends into a life of debauchery, with the portrait serving as a constant reminder of the degradation of his soul.
I remember only sort of “getting it” when I read this in high school, which is why I wanted to read it again in the first place, but isn’t this one of the most interesting plots ever? I love Gothic-style stories, and this is one of the best! We don’t get to see much of the actual debauchery Dorian embraces (we only getting second- and third-hand reports of it) but we do get to see the damage done to Dorian’s soul through the decay of the man in the portrait, which is even better in a way (especially considering the time period in which this was written. According to Wikipedia, Oscar Wilde originally wrote a much more immoral story that was heavily censored when it was first published in 1890, eventually revising it and republishing it in 1891).
The writing, of course, is fantastic, but a bit flowery for my taste. At some points, all I could think was “omit needless words,” especially the parts about Dorian’s sequential obsessions with jewels, tapestries, and the like. I realize I am in no position to criticize great literature, but I definitely think this would have worked better either as a short story with fewer flowery descriptions of random things, or a longer novel, still with fewer flowery descriptions but with more significant events. (I think those of you who have read this will know what I mean when I say there are really only 4 or 5 significant events in the whole story—the others are minor at best).
Regardless, the story was wonderful and if you like Gothic horror, you should absolutely read this one.