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The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

By ShinyKate | Books | March 4, 2010 | Comments ()

By ShinyKate | Books | March 4, 2010 |


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Alternate title: Kate writes a book review with a powerful migraine. Seriously folks, I'm on Day 6 of this sucker (though it was come and go throughout the weekend, to be fair). Now it's full-on, nonstop pain comparable to a railroad spike through the skull and it's getting to the point where the simplest words are escaping me. I just had to ask a coworker what it's called when a landlord kicks someone out of their apartment. I knew it was a word similar to "exhibition" but I couldn't get any further than that. I'm seriously considering asking my neurologist to give my MRI another look.

So, Dorian Gray. It didn't move me on a profound level, but I enjoyed it immensely. Now that I think about it, it's pretty much on par with how I usually feel about most of Wilde's work. It's full of clever witticisms, about half of which I agree with, and social satire that periodically lightens the horror story's gothic, foreboding tone.

It starts with a benevolent, compassionate painter who has taken on an idolatrous admiration for his latest subject, a stunningly beautiful youth by the name of Dorian Gray. More than just a pretty face, he also possesses an extremely charming character, being warm, frank, playful, and open-hearted. The painter reluctantly introduces Gray to an old friend, a cynical dandy with "dangerous ideas," who corrupts the youth over the course of a walk through a garden. Yes, the biblical reference is hard to ignore. Afterward, the painter completes Gray's portrait, which is to him, the ultimate labor of love. As he gazes upon it, Gray is so overwhelmed by his own beauty and muddled with "dangerous ideas" that he declares he would sell his soul to retain such youthful beauty forever.

Soon after, Gray's character changes for the worse. It comes on gradually, but he becomes increasingly cruel, selfish, petty, remorseless, and hedonistic. For every sin he commits, and for every year that goes by, his portrait grows not only older, but much uglier as his soul corrupts and degrades. At the same time, Gray himself retains his spotless, youthful physical beauty, not aging a day over the next twenty years or so. He is quick to hide the picture away (apparently not realizing that the whole eternal youth thing might be suspicious by itself), but retains a fearful paranoia throughout the story that it will be discovered. His attitude toward the portrait changes frequently, from disgust to fear to delight to pity to loathing. It can be confusing at times, but mirrors well the changing attitudes each of us carries toward our own wrongdoings and shortcomings.

What I found particularly interesting is how Wilde assaults and satirizes the very cynicism that many of his admirers seem to appreciate him for. One character in particular reminded me of Hamlet's Polonius, who is often quoted by people who wish to seem erudite...despite the fact that Polonius is the play's chief idiot. The cynic who fills Gray's head with "dangerous ideas" is plainly stated to be an egotistical, callow, solipsistic jerkface; yet he says the most delightfully clever things. Wise, right, or true? No. But clever and amusing, yes. In fact, I'm sure many of his sayings are included in a friend of mine's much-referenced book of Oscar Wilde quotes. I wonder how Wilde would feel about that, when I feel certain this character was meant as a target for much of his vitriol. Or I could be wrong. If I've horribly misinterpreted the book, please blame the migraine.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of ShinyKate's reviews, do check out her blog, The Aspiring Jedi.


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