Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is creepy. Dorian Gray, as an innocent and attractive young man, in a fit of passion exclaimed:
How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. … If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that! (page 25)
And that is what happened. In the beginning, Dorian was fascinated by the painting: scowls (representative of his wickedness) immediately began etching itself on the painting, while he remained innocent and attractive looking in all respects. At times, though, the image of his soul disgusted him and he decided to abandon his life of sin, hoping his image would then right itself. But Dorian Gray found himself unable to stop embracing the life he’d created for himself, even when it disgusted him.
When I found out that Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was written in 1891, I was surprised. It seemed far more modern than that, since it deals candidly with issues of immorality. It captures issues of sin versus innocence. But such issues seemed appropriate for the late Victorian age, since it is questioning the existing morals and the social constraints of that rigid era.
“[Society] feels instinctively that manners are more important than morals, and in its opinion the highest respectability is of much less value than the possession of a good chef,” says Lord Henry Wotton at one point (page 119). Although I found Lord Henry to be a bit of a devil, his comments on society always seemed the most enlightening. I enjoyed his interesting perspective on society.
In the end, then, is Wilde’s novel a warning against debauchery (such as American audiences thought)? Or is it a catalog of Wilde’s own life (such as British audiences thought, even calling on Wilde to defend himself)? I found the discussion of original understandings of the novel to be very interesting. (See the Norton Critical Edition.)
My Favorite Part
The part I enjoyed most was Sybil Vane’s commentary on finally falling in love:
Dorian, Dorian. Before I knew you, acting was the one reality of my life. It was only in the theatre that I lived. I thought that it was all true. … I believed in everything. The common people who acted with me seemed to me to be godlike. The painted scenes were my world. I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real. You came – oh, my beautiful love! – and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality really is. … You had brought me something higher, something of which all art is but a reflection. You had made me understand what love really is. … Suddenly it dawned on my soul what it all meant… (page 73-4)
In contrast to Dorian Gray, who only is going through an act throughout his life (the painting is the real Dorian Gray), Sybil’s relationship with another human being helped her to understand her own life. I found it tragic to see this sweet girl contrasted with Dorian Gray, and I honestly could relate to her epiphany of what love and life were.
The Graphic Novel
The graphic novel adaptation (done by I.N.J. Culbard and Ian Edginton) was, in short, horrible. It took me about 30 minutes to read this 125-page adaption and there was nothing intriguing about the story. It moved so fast that the tension and creepiness was nonexistent. I picked up the graphic novel because January’s Graphic Novel Mini-Challenge was to read an adaptation of a classic. Since Dorian Gray is about a painting, I thought it would be nice to see the painting’s changes illustrated. The picture was creepy but it changed so quickly that it didn’t have the same effect that reading a full novel about it changing had. A picture is not worth a thousand words in this version.
It horrifies me to think people will read the graphic novel and think “I’ve read that book” when they hear The Picture of Dorian Gray mentioned. I am not a fan of the concept of adapting a classic into a graphic novel to begin with, but this was even more disappointing than I anticipated.
The Bottom Line
The Picture of Dorian Gray made me uncomfortable. I don’t like creepy books, and I guess the sell-your-soul aspect was a bit out of my comfort zone.
It seems that many love Dorian Gray, though. Since I’m leading a book group about it tomorrow night, I’d love to know: What do you most enjoy most about Dorian Gray?