Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray

After finishing uni I went on a rampage of reading fiction. After four and a half years of peer-reviewed academic articles I craved reading stories of fictional pro- and antagonists whose lives were created within the frame of written word. I craved seeking a reality within imagined plot, hardened and given life through language.

For the past month of so I’ve been trying to read ‘classics’ in English literatures, like The Great Gatsby and Brave New World, and whose esteemed authors include Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen.

Presently, I’m reading Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. To be honest, I know little to nothing of Oscar Wilde’s importance or of his contributions to society. His name was simply one that’s been ingrained in my memory from hearing it around me so often. After this book, I’d like to read a biography of Wilde so I can gain a better understanding of his contemporary relevance.

What’s struck me so far in terms of The Picture of Dorian Gray is Wilde’s character: Lord Henry Wotton, an eclectic and witty character abounding with amusing aphorisms. He is a explicit sexist, but unfortunately I’ve become quite numb to sexism – let people say what they will, my merits will speak for themselves.

Although I’m only a third of the way through the novel, I wanted to share my favourite quotes so far.

  • “The moral life of man forms part of the subject matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.” (Wilde, 1)
  • “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” (Wilde, 1)
  • “There is a fatality about all physical and intellectual distinction, the sort of fatality that seems to dog through history the faltering steps of kings. It is better not to be different from one’s fellows. The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play. If they know nothing of victory, they are at least spared the knowledge of defeat.” (Basil, 5)
  • “We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography.” (Basil, 13)
  • “The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us.” (Lord Henry, 20)
  • “Always! That is a dreadful word. It makes me shudder when I hear it. Women are so fond of using it. They spoil every romance by trying to make it last for ever. It is a meaningless word, too.” (Lord Henry, 25)
  • “To get back to one’s youth, one has merely to repeat one’s follies.” (Lord Henry, 44)
  • “Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed.” (Lord Henry, 51)
  • “It was true that as one watched life in its curious crucible of pain and pleasure, one could not wear over one’s face a mask of glass, nor keep the sulphurous fumes from troubling the brain and making the imagination turbid with monstrous fancies and misshapen dreams. There were poisons so subtle that to know their properties one had to sicken of them. There were maladies so strange that one had to pass through them if one sought to understand their nature. And, yet, what a great reward one received. How wonderful the whole world became to one!”

The classics I’ve read so far have been hit and miss, some I’ve loved, others I’ve only finished in order to say that I’ve finished them. I was discussing this topic with a friend I met in Madrid, we were specifically discussing War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, and we both thoroughly didn’t enjoy the book. My friend said that there’s something to be said about books being written for their times – no book is truly timeless, since the experiences of individuals in different generations are different, it’s going to be much harder for me at 22 to understand Tolstoy than say a thirty-five year old woman during that era or for a forty-year professor of literature, or for someone who specifically studies Russian history. The spiteful part of me thinks that young people who say they enjoy authors such as Tolstoy only do so in order to create some sort of deep facade about the literary knowledge. I simply don’t buy it. If you say you like Tolstoy, I simply won’t believe you without a 3,000 word essay explaining your opinions.

 

This novel, however, is different. Wilde’s writing continues to strike me, and his observations regarding human nature and the characteristics of society and of institutions such as marriage are interesting because they delve deeply, and sometimes disturbingly, into the human psyche. His willingness to be explicit in his observations and the philosophical manner in which he writes is refreshing. I can’t put his work down, apart to write positively about it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this novel is timeless. But there are ideas presented within it that strike at the human experience and at human nature in general. It’s also written in prose easily understandable to me rather than eighteenth century prose written in a style and etiquette thoroughly incomprehensible.

So, in short, I’m loving Oscar Wilde’s novel.