Since we’re still looking at creativity and art, I thought I’d share my review of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. It was the first book our book club decided on last year November and I was excited to read it as it also featured in the Gilmore Girls Revival. Lorelai mentions Dorian Gray when she talks about how Emily never changes.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The book is set in 19th-century England and focuses on a young man called Dorian Gray. Dorian has his picture painted by his friend Basil Hallward. And, while Basil is busy with the painting, he introduces Dorian to Lord Henry Wotton, an old Oxford friend. Lord Henry keeps Dorian company and advises Dorian to appreciate his youth and beauty. He tells Dorian:
When Dorian looks at the finished painting, he thinks how unfair it is that the painting will forever be beautiful and youthful and that he should grow old. He then wishes that the painting would get old and that he would remain young.
Dorian gets what he asks for. He remains youthful while the painting becomes old and horrid. The portrait not only shows Dorian’s changing features as he ages but also the real degradation of his life after he chooses to listen to Lord Henry’s amoral advice:
Dorian gives in to all the temptations he stumbles upon, while the portrait becomes Dorian’s conscience. “The portrait … would be a guide to him through life, would be to him what holiness was to some, and conscience to others, and the fear of God to us all.”
And since his conscience lives outside himself, Dorian seems to be free to yield to his desires; unburdened by his morals. He falls in love with an actress, Sibyl Vane, only to cruelly reject her once she tells him she loves him. The reality of her proclamation makes Dorian aware that he was in love with the idea of her, and not with the real person. After being crushed by his rejection, Sybil commits suicide. But Dorian is comforted by Lord Henry who says that Sybil only existed as a phantom in Shakespeare’s plays: “The girl never really lived, and so she has never really died”.
Sybil’s death seems to be a catalyst that sends Dorian into a spiral of sins. His vices are not explained in detail in the book and this makes one wonder what his depraved acts might have involved. It could also explain why the book has remained so popular. Modern readers can fill in the blanks and imagine their own acts of wickedness.
Eternal youth and lasting beauty
Lord Henry values eternal youth above all other qualities. This is made clear by his constant reminders to Dorian not to take it for granted. Yet at the end of the book, Lord Henry says that he is not willing to sacrifice anything to achieve eternal youth.
One of the few things Lord Henry and I agree on. Exercising and getting up early is a challenge (especially getting up early to exercise).
Basil and Lord Henry, however, disagree on the idea of lasting beauty. Basil argues:
While Lord Henry says that good artists should give everything to their art.
Basil goes on to say that he doesn’t want anyone to see his painting as he has put his own life into his art. His painting reveals his true feelings for Dorian. Luckily for Basil, Dorian is so appalled by his changing image in the painting that he resorts to hiding it in the attic to which only he has a key.
Towards the end of the novel, Dorian takes Basil up to his attic to reveal the painting to him. He wants Basil to see what he has created, and it almost feels like Dorian blames Basil for how his life has turned out. In a fit of rage, Dorian stabs and kills Basil. He then blackmails an old acquaintance to get rid of the body.
Dorian escapes to the country and decides that he wants to be better. He falls in love with an innocent village girl, Hetty Merton, but leaves no disgrace upon her. “I determined to leave her as flower-like as I had found her,” Dorian says.
After this self-sacrifice, Dorian is sure that the painting must have returned to its original state. He is horrified when he returns home only to find that it is even more grotesque and that a red stain had appeared on his hand in the painting, like newly spilt blood. Since Dorian is doing good deeds for selfish reasons, the portrait is even more monstrous.
Dorian finally decides to get rid of the portrait and takes the knife that he had used to stab Basil Hallward.
When the servants came to investigate the loud cry they heard, they found a splendid portrait of their master hanging on the wall and on the floor, was a dead man, all withered and wrinkled, with a knife in his heart.
I was excited to read The Picture of Dorian Gray as it featured in the Gilmore Girls Revival, but I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed it. If you must read it for an English assignment it’s not the worst. The metaphors are beautifully written and the ideas are interesting and thought-provoking. Especially if you consider that it was published in 1890. But if you’re looking for a leisurely read, then The Picture of Dorian Gray probably isn’t the book for you.