One of my reading priorities this year was to read more classics. I have not done very well on my other reading goals, so when Amazon and Audible released a ton of free classics to promote their new Whispersync for Voice I decided to pick up most of them and try to start reading more classics.
Honestly, other than the reference in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I had never heard of Dorian Gray (and I did not even know there is a Dorian Gray movie until I started looking around for this review.) I knew that his portrait aged instead of his body. I assumed it was some sort of faustian bargain with the devil.
The actual book leaves a lot to the reader. There is a sort of prayer that Dorian Gray says when he is first shown the portrait where he says that he would give anything to keep his beauty and youth as the painting shows. But there is no explanation, supernatural or otherwise, for why Dorian stops aging and his portrait starts aging. Similarly, we are not really told whether it is Dorian’s own nature that he becomes evil and depraved or whether there is some connection to his soul being lost in the bargain that causes him to become depraved. I assume that Wilde just was allowing his reader to make the faustian connection.
This is not a very long book, and a good section of the middle could be cut without any loss. The original book was shorter. But due to public outcry, Wilde rewrote the book, added a lot of background and toned down the homoerotic imagery. There is still some homoerotic imagery here, but it is not out of place from other romantic era novels that show close relationships between men (whether romantic or platonic in nature).
I understand why this is a classic, but it feels like a morality play. So many classics seem to be stuck in an idea that a novel must have a moral and that moral is usually some variation of it is better to be good and pure than rich and/or idle.
The idle classes of Victorian literature are odd to me. Did they really exist as portrayed? If so, how large was the idle class? The Devil figure in this book is Lord Henry. He is the one that influences Dorian originally and tells him that his youth and beauty are so important and was the one that made Dorian want to make the wish.
Dorian is a life long friend of Lord Henry and neither ever does anything in the book except make fun of people, ruin girl’s reputations and look for excitement. So in many ways it is idleness that is a villan here. But the pursuit of youth and beauty strongly prefigures modern culture. There were clearly roots of modern culture that were present in the 1890s when this book came out.
Really there are only a couple of important scenes in the book. (Spoiler alert) Dorian is painted. Dorian makes his wish. Dorian falls in love with a lower class actress. She falls in love with him and suddenly can’t act because of her love for him. He rejects her because he loved her for her beauty and acting. She commits suicide and he feels responsible. He embraces his depraved nature and starts corrupting people left and right. After 18 years (where he hasn’t aged and more and more people start whispering about him), his friend the painter confronts him. Dorian takes him to see the painting, which he keeps hidden and Dorian kills him to protect his secret. Dorian finds a conscious, his actress girlfriend’s brother tries to kill him but let him go because Dorian looks so young. Dorian realizes he can’t go on with murder on his hands (think Lady Macbeth in Hamlet). He is a tortured souls for a little while. Then the brother comes to the country to try to kill him again and is accidentally shot in a hunting accident. Dorian knows now that no one can find him out, but that he is still guilty. So he decides the problem is the painting, not his actions so he decides to destroy the painting. He stabs the painting with a knife and dies. He is found by his servants as an old wizened man (although he is only 38) and the portrait is back to its youthful original.
That is essentially the entire novel. The rest is explication of why the action is going on. And romantic era philosophy is interesting in its dated-feel, but still very dated.
In the end I am left wondering about my desire to read more classics. I guess next time I need more advice about which classics to read.