Monday, December 01, 2008

Review - The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Collector's Library)
I knew relatively little going into this book...and what little I did know was from less than 100% accurate retellings such as in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or references from cheesy shows or horror flicks (I think perhaps there was a reference in Scooby Doo somewhere?). I had the basic gist...there's a guy, Dorian Gray, who has some magical painting that ages while he stays young and wonderful forever. Not much to go on, but I was still excited to read it. I was pleasantly surprised that the book had much more depth to it.


The plot is intriguing and has been used in other stories, though I think this one has more depth than I've seen before. Essentially, Dorian makes a wish that he will be forever as pristine as the painting made of him and that instead the painting will take on it the toils of his life. Whatever supernatural forces allow this to happen are irrelevant...the wish is granted.

It's more than a simple "young forever" contract. Although age plays into the plot in a couple of places, the primary things that distorts the picture are the vices that Dorian engages in. The first transformation of the painting happens after an intense argument with the first woman he loved. It was interesting to me how quickly Dorian recognized the cause of the change for what it was, but had he belabored the motive for too long, the pacing of the book would have stalled and become unacceptable.

Dorian uses his "power" to be ruthlessly reckless in his living. Dorian Gray becomes entirely uninhibited, taking everything to its limit, seeking absolute pleasure. He even sneaks out at night (so as not to tarnish his pristine reputation) to the "bad side of town" and lives a sort of double life in opium dens with gangs and prostitutes.

In many ways (perhaps because I so recently read it), I felt many similarities to the morale commentary presented in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I felt that Wilde did a better job of delving into the psyche of the hypocritical character, largely because we were able to get into Dorian's head and think and feel with him, while in Jekyll/Hyde, we were kept at a distance by a third person narrative.


There are three pivotal characters in this book.

The first, obviously, is Dorian himself. For the first many chapters (perhaps nearly the first half of the book in fact), I wasn't terribly pleased with Dorian as a character...he felt very flat to me. He was basically a mirror to one of the other primary characters (Harry) and didn't ever show his own opinion. He was hailed as pure and beautiful. Perhaps it's all the art references in the book, but I often felt as if Dorian existed more as a classical statue than as a living, breathing character. As his interaction with the 'picture' progresses and once he takes some rather unexpected steps, he became a deeper character and a lot of fun to be with.

The second primary character is Lord Harry (or was it Henry...blast those Brits for swapping those names interchangeably so often *grin*). Harry exists as the provocative, cynical, always-with-a-comment-about-anything mentor to Dorian. Harry is absolutely encouragable and a lot of fun to listen to. His speeches often have to do with the pursuit of pleasure at any and all costs and the hazard of a virtuous and peaceful life. His influence over Dorian is profound. As I mentioned above, it often felt as if Dorian existed merely as a mirror for Harry's advice. Harry didn't seem to follow all of his own advice, but Dorian took it readily to heart and strove to live a 'come-what-may' existence. Harry had some of the funniest and most profound comments of the entire narrative. He's a fabulous character.

The third character I want to point out actually existed as more of a background character, but I feel the need to call him out merely because of his pivotal involvement in the plot. I actually can't even remember his name now...but it will suffice to call him, "the artist." He's the one who paints Dorian's picture. He's the one who introduces Dorian to Harry. He's the one who tries to give Dorian good advice to counter all the reckless advice that Harry poisons him with. The artist was kind of like Dorian's "Jiminey Cricket"...his conscious that was often (always?) ignored until it was far too late. He showed up in surprisingly few scenes considering the huge importance he had to the plot.

Style, Pacing, etc

The language used in this book was truly beautiful. Wilde wrote flowing, vivid descriptions of characters, places and actions. At times it was very poetic. It may be a bit too flowery for readers who don't enjoy that sort of came very close to being 'over the top' to me in a few places. Still, I generally enjoyed the formality of it and the life it gave to the text. The first dozen or two pages were tedious to me...whether because of the language or just the style and thematic pacing, I'm not sure.

The pacing was a bit slower than I would have liked. The main difficulty I saw was that Wilde was trying to present so many themes that he often had to result to lengthy passages praising or condemning one thing or another. There were often very long monologues by one of the three primary characters mentioned above. Harry's were generally offset by bits that made me laugh by their extremity while speeches from Dorian and the artist sometimes made me want to slap them and tell them to shut up.


I was a little torn on my overall feeling for the book. It took me a while to get into it and there were long passages that were drudgerous to push through. However, from a high level, this is one of the better books I've read this year...or even for numerous years. It had a plenitude of intriguing themes that left me thinking in between readings. It had a lot of humorous quips and paradigms as presented by Harry that I laughed out loud at. It had surprising twists and tension that left me curious as to the true outcome (as opposed to that from rip-off stories). There are a couple of spots that could be considered "climax"...the confrontation with the artist is the main turning point in the book. Personally, I would have rather seen more pages after that turning point than before it. I think the last 1/3 of the book was far more engaging. At the same time, the buildup was necessary to promote the intended mood.

Overall, this is a book I definitely recommend, with the caveat that you should be aware that it does slow down at points. Just push through those. The overall work is worthy of a couple of slow zones. In fact, perhaps those slow zones serve the purpose of allowing more pondering.

4.5 stars

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This book has been on my wish list for a long time, but considering what you've written about it, I'm not so sure if I want to pick up something slow-paced and long-winded at this point, even though the story seems quite intriguing.
However, I must say, I'm quite impressed by your critique, so now you've a new blog follower.