This is the famous story of the man who has a portrait in his attic which gets older as he stays young. It is, I think, a retelling of the story of Faust.
Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man (the homosexual undertones are scarcely undertones; they are blatant and startling for the time when it was written) whose portrait is painted by the artist Basil Hallward. The book starts with Lord Henry Wootton meeting Hallward in his studio and admiring the portrait. Hallward sees Dorian as his muse. There are little breadcrumbs such as the image of Lord Henry pulling a daisy to pieces and saying "Genius lasts longer than beauty" but our impression of LHW is that he speaks mainly in epigrams.
In Chapter Two we meet Gray. Suddenly the mood darkens. We've had the prologue; this is now the scene in which the die is cast. LHW becomes a Mephistophelean tempter. Are you really a bad influence? asks DG and LHW replies "to influence a person is to give him one's own soul"; he then proceeds to do just that.
LHW teaches the Epicurean philosophy of live life to its sensuous extreme: live now and pay later. "if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream - I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of medievalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal ... But the bravest man among us in afraid of himself. The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives."
He then tempts directly: "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful ... you have had passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror, day-dreams and sleeping dreams whose mere memory might stain your cheek with shame -" This sounds like a direct reference to Wilde's latent homosexual desires, especially when we discover that LHW has 'touched' DG: "had touched some secret chord that had never been touched before, but that he felt was now vibrating and throbbing to curious pulses." Whew!
Now they go outside into the garden to cool off. DG is scared: "Why had it been left for a stranger to reveal him to himself? ... He was not a schoolboy or a girl. It was absurd to be frightened."
Now LHW scares DG by describing how his beauty will fade: "You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you ... Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful ... Ah! realise your youth while you have it." He links this ageing with the need that he has already described to live life now to the full, lest we regret: "Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to." As Ogden Nash once pointed out: the sins of omission are worse than the sins of commission; at least for the latter you had fun at the time.
And DG is hooked. He goes back to the studio and looks at the portrait. "This picture will always remain young ... If it were only the other way! If it were I who was always to be young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that - for that - I would give everything! ... I would give my soul for that!" So the Faustian bargain is proclaimed.
Then Wilde foreshadows what will happen, although DG gets it the wrong way round: "If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now! Why did you paint it? It will mock me someday - mock me horribly!"
And he keeps on hammering the message home. Which is the real Dorian: the one in the flesh or the portrait? Basil, the artist, proclaims that it is the picture.
Chapter Two is the storming heart of this novel.
In Chapter 3, LHW goes about his social whirl of a life and floods us with Wildean epigrammatic wit: clever but somehow bloodless; usually constructed by using contradictions such as "He was a hero to his valet, who bullied him" and saying something deliberately antagonistic to received opinion: "His principles were out of date, but there was a good deal to be said for his prejudices." But he resolves, devilishly, that he would dominate Dorian: "He would make that wonderful spirit his own. There was something so fascinating in this son of Love and Death." (He has discovered that DG's birth was the result of his mum running away with some sort of servant who was swiftly killed in a duel; DG's mum died soon after he was born.) Mostly this chapter does little to progress the story, though the old Duchess of Harley wishes that LHW would "tell me how to become young again." He tells her "To get back to one's youth, one has merely to repeat one's follies" because "the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes" which is a little better than the usual shallow Wildeism.
In Chapter Four, Dorian falls in love with an actress, Sybil Vane, in a strange theatre introduced with a cascade of alliteration: grimy and grassless and great and gas-jets and gaudy and greasy and gorgeous and guinea. By the end of the chapter he is engaged. In Chapter 5 the girl talks to her mother; their brother is going to sea the next day and wants to know whether his mother ever married his father (no); he also threatens the pseudonymous 'Prince Charming' who is courting Sybil. But then, in Chapter 6 & 7, Dorian takes Basil and LHW to see his actress; she acts dreadfully and Dorian breaks off the engagement. He walks all night (this is a transformation scene) and when he gets home he finds that his portrait has changed: "there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth." He resolves to resist temptation and to be good. He writes to Sibyl reinstating the engagement but when LHW comes to the house he tells DG that SV committed suicide. He hides the portrait in a locked room (his old school room which sounds symbolic).
"He felt that the time had really come for making his choice ... Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins - he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame: that was all. ... If the picture was to alter it was to alter. That was all. Why enquire too closely into it?" We are now half the way through the book.
Wilde now writes of Dorian's years of dissipation. He does this by multiple references to history such as the antics of the early Caesars like Tiberius and Caligula and Nero. Dorian experiments with jewellery and perfumes and music. There is again a lot of gay references such as to King's favourites and St Sebastian. He becomes the target of society's disquiet and a number of young men with whom he is asssociated are ruined but mud never seems to stick to Dorian. Then Basil Hallward comes back to him and we are two thirds of the way through the book.
From here on events rush rapidly to their inevitable conclusion. There is still plenty of room for Wilde to pad the narrative out with witty conversations. At least he saves the final twist for the final paragraph.
Some parts of this novel (eg Chapter 2) are written almost perfectly but there are whole scenes which do little to advance the narrative and only serve to showcase Wilde's epigrammatic wit. This short book could be considerably shorter as a result.
March 2016; 177 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57