Monday 7 August 2023

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde (1890)


Rating: Excellent

This is the second time I've read The Picture of Dorian Gray. The first was at university for a unit called 'Ideas of Modernity', and the novel greatly impressed the twenty-three-year-old me. Reading it again after twenty years, this time for the library book club, is a different experience. Wilde's only novel is brilliant. Most people interested in culture and literature know the story, but to read it is a different thing altogether. Wilde's descriptive abilities were exceptional, one only needs to read the opening chapters, which sets the scene in the house and garden of artist Basil Hallward, with the summer garden through the open French doors redolent of flower scents and opulent foliage. It's here where Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton and wishes that he could stay as young as his portrait Hallward is applying some finishing touches to. Lord Henry holds forth with endless epigrams of the kind that Wilde made famous during his short and tragic life. The Picture of Dorian Gray is structured beautifully, with its plot flowing along with a modern sense of economy and vim. It is still a wonder to read, to admire Wilde's beautiful writing and skilful execution of a story that dovetails towards its memorable gothic conclusion.

The reason why it was a different experience after twenty years is partly due to the fact that I do not remember being so aware of the novel's racist and misogynistic content. The description of the Jewish theatre owner that Dorian encounters when he attends a shabby theatre to witness Sybil Vane for the first time, with whom he falls in love, is outrageously racist. Lord Henry talks about his wife and women in general with disdain, in a witty manner, of course, that makes his upper-class chums chortle. A member of the library book club voiced the opinion that the novel should be, to paraphrase, left in the dustbin of history as an example of past damaging attitudes. Such thoughts are indicative of the current reactionary practice of altering or banning narratives from the past that do not fit into our culture of moralistic self awareness. Firstly, it is a mistake to ascribe words and attitude of characters to that of the author, unless the author has displayed such attitudes in interviews or autobiographical writings. As far as I can ascertain Wilde was not a racist, nor a misogynist. Wilde, however, would have been well aware of the attitudes of the upper classes and the novel reflects those attitudes. Novels like The Picture of Dorian Gray are immensely valuable in showing us what the past was like and telling us how far we've come, or, indeed, how far we've slipped back. They shouldn't be censored or wilfully misunderstood. Wilde's novel is also prescient of the extreme narcissistic culture of our times and, in Dorian, presents a forerunner of celebrity culture that has dominated for decades. Perhaps some of the multitudes of Dorian Grays who exist online in their all narcissistic glory, forever young and forever influencing, should read the novel, it may well be a mirror that reveals their tormented souls.

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