Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

This is the last installment in my series of books I read over break. Make sure to check out the other ones in my last few posts!

The Picture of Dorian Gray, often considered to be the Magnum Opus of the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, is a philosophical novel that narrates the dissolution of a person’s moral character under unique circumstances. Much like the vast majority of his novels, the book contains many subtle criticisms of the Victorian Society that surrounded Wilde. The story revolves around Dorian Gray, a handsome young man whose beauty has captivated the painter Basil Hallward. Hallward introduces Dorian to the charming and witty Lord Henry, who enthralls the impressionable youth with his hedonistic world view. His philosophy is devoted to the exploration of “the senses.” In his own words, “nothing can cure the soul but the senses, and nothing can cure the senses but the soul.” Lord Henry also instills in Dorian an appreciation of physical beauty. Lord Henry’s “sage-like” advice perturbs Dorian so much that he begins to dread the effect of time on his appearance. Unwilling to let old age ravage his unblemished face, Dorian wishes that a portrait that Basil had painted for him should bear the scars of time rather than himself. Mysteriously, his wish comes true!

Throughout the novel, Dorian Gray exploits his eternal youth to commit immoral acts with virtual impunity. While he maintains the appearance of an angel, his portrait grows uglier with each sin he commits. I’m not going to spoil what he does, but he does some pretty awful things, culminating in a sad but just ending. I actually liked the novel a lot. It posits a lot of interesting ethical dilemmas that I wasn’t fully able to work through. If you were given the chance to do whatever you wanted with both legal and ethical immunity, would you do it? If you unwittingly lead someone awry with your influence, are you culpable for their mistakes?

In terms of the composition, Oscar Wilde brilliantly critiques the unfavorable aspects of society through witty lines of dialogue. He uses the character of Lord Henry to comment on society through what I like to call “Henry-isms.” Henry-isms are the brief and absurd conclusions that Lord Henry draws about the nature of the world which he supports with seemingly sound logic. He presents these conclusions so reasonably that nearly every character in the play, save for the virtuous and idealistic Basil Hallward, is swayed by his viewpoints. My personal favorites are “One should absorb the color of life, but one should never remember its details,” “sin is the only colorment left in life,” and “I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life.” Even though I disliked Dorian, he was written very well. Wilde brilliantly captures the panic upon realizing the brevity of youth, the cruel indifference towards those he has wronged, and the general haughtiness of Dorian Gray. This book is a difficult one to get through, but it’s fascinating and certainly worth a read.


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