8.5/10 Gothic literature
Oscar Wilde the wordsmith is a powerful force of creation. The way he conjures up witticisms and stimulating little insights with a turn of a phrase is still like a bright ray of light a century after he was active.
The stretched-out conversation between Lord Henry (Dorian Gray’s bad influence) and Basil (the artist painting Dorian) sketches out the entire theme of the handsome but young and dimwitted Dorian who possessed youth but no wisdom. And every paragraph is full of funny lines, posing and stimulating ideas. None of this is really necessary for Wilde to properly introduce his story, but it is just the forceful projection of his creative power on the page. He couldn’t write a dull line if he tried.
The most interesting character is not Dorian Gray, at first, but Lord Henry who influences him. Henry is a dandy who doesn’t really take anything seriously except selfish pleasure. He thinks that everything good or proper is a paradox and he is in love with his own cleverness. Like Jurgen in Cabell’s Jurgen, a “monstrous clever fellow” who has a striking opinion about everything and hints at truth, but isn’t sincere about anything. Instead, he wants to live through the passions and experiences of the young Dorian Gray. Henry is like Gray’s ego, and Basil is like Gray’s conscience.
It is quite a stirring story because it tackles timeless themes, such as youth and growing older, first love, tragedy and how to be, or not to be, a good person. Under a thick layer of English whimsy and posturing, it is all very heartfelt. Wilde seems very wordy with his dialogues but he also strikes at the heart of things. It is a very philosophical book, with Wilde explaining Dorian Gray’s philosophy as aestheticism, as the love for form and shape and everything that is beautiful, and a certain truth or higher revelation that can be found in beauty itself. And Gray, as the eternally young and beautiful dandy, worships his own beauty. It also nicely reflects the love for customs and manners in high society, in which Gray lives.
It is also strange how many characters, Henry, Basil and other high society members, seem to regard Dorian Gray as a fundamentally good person, because he looks good. It is a paradox, and the novel plays with paradoxes like these. Also the paradox of art being beautiful and good, but can also corrupt. The novel plays with a confusion within people where beauty is fused with ideas about a pure spirit, and also the reverse: sins become visible in the lines of the face and in the body. The few ugly people in the book are also regarded as evil, at least by Dorian Gray. There is a fat theatre owner who Dorian sees as repulsive and greedy, while Lord Henry, always fascinated by degradation, likes him.
Wilde picks up the pace of Gray’s life only in the latter parts of the novel and here the reading actually becomes harder. We dive into summaries of Gray’s exploration of beauty in all its forms. There is also something that I don’t really understand and that is that Wilde keeps referring to a Renaissance book that influences Dorian Gray with stories of horrible deeds. Is it Dante’s Divine Comedy? Or some obscure French book?
In the final chapters, Lord Henry’s paradoxes become tiresome and the whole world of high society seems fake and corrupt. Dorian Gray starts wishing for redemption, but he won’t find it in this world that is made up only of form and surface.