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Sunday, 26 November 2017

Review - Book - The Picture of Dorian Gray

Note: This review is based on an unabridged 8-CD reading by CoverToCover.

Oscar Wilde is most widely remembered for his comic plays, which act as social satires of his time and contain some of the greatest witty dialogue ever put to paper. But Wilde's body of work also covers essays, short stories and novellas, the latter including classics such as The Canterville Ghost and Lord Arthur Savile's Crime. But one book has had a profound legacy outside his traditional sphere of work; the Gothic philosophical novel this review is dedicated to. It has been adapted multiple times for radio, television and the movies, but aside from a very few, they all seem to miss the point of this story.

The figure of Dorian Gray and his vaguely implied Faustian pact has cast a long shadow over Gothic and horror fiction, elevating the character and concept to a fame the original book has struggled to match. I'm sure most people know of Gray, but fewer know of the book itself. They know the character through the movies, where erotic elements have been added to appease a sex-hungry public in an age where many might consider romance to be dead. But this novel is so much more; it's a biting commentary on the society of the time, but without Wilde's traditional wit. This turns it into a far darker offering than his comparably fluffy plays.

The basic synopsis is well known and well worn. Gray, in the full flush of youth, curses a recently-completed portrait which captures a beauty which will inevitably fade. Through a disastrous romantic escapade with an actress, Gray sees the painting begin to change in a subtly unpleasant way while he remains pristine. This is the basic premise, but what many people will fail to grasp is the principles behind Gray's actions over the course of the novel. In his affair with the actress, there is nothing sexual; he falls in love with her acting ability, which brings life to the Shakespearean roles she performs. Later, when he resolves to use the painting's "gift" to experience life as never before, it is focused on the aesthetic wonders of life and experiences that heighten his sensations of the world (which, yes, includes the popular drugs of the time such as opium). We're never given exact details of his pursuits beyond his passing passions for music and jewels, but it's never stated once that he does anything sexual. It's all about the aesthetic beauties of life and gratifying his senses, in addition to a streak of experimentation that I'm sure most people will understand in some way. He also, at several points in the novel, exemplifies the Victorian upper class stereotype (and often reality) of never wanting to talk or thinking about things that were not "nice".

Alongside Gray are two characters that must not be forgotten. Lord Henry Wotten, an unrepentant and opinionated hedonist who influences the impressionable Gray, is arguably the one responsible for the events of the novel, even though he knows little of Gray's true nature. Basil Hallward, the painter who creates the eponymous picture, is Lord Henry's antithesis, being humble and morally upright. He is also gradually undermined by his complete infatuation with Gray as his ultimate muse (those who wish to see otherwise in Hallward's proclaimed "love" may do so, as I'm sure many at Wilde's indecency trials chose to). These two characters pull Gray in different directions, and provide mediums against which to compare Gray.

From a simple reading perspective, the prose can get a little difficult to swallow as Wilde goes into long philosophical expositions on Gray's inner thoughts, and a large portion of the central book is dedicated to explanatory time-skipping. But these parts inform and strengthen the experience, and key pieces of the narrative are scattered in within them. Without that additional exposition, you wouldn't understand Gray's progress through life half as well. Wilde's style, in contrast, helps convey the emotion of situations expertly and succeeded with a few lines in turning my sympathy for Gray into utter disgust - that's something a very few books have ever managed to do in my experience.

The story as a whole is highly enjoyable, and I recommend that you seek out a complete edition of the book rather than any abridgment or any but the most fanatically faithful adaptation. But for those who have seen Wilde's plays and expect light comedy and titter-worthy lines, be warned. There is little to no comedy in this novel, it's biting satire and mature philosophising people won't typically associate with Wilde. But in doing this, I'd say that Wilde created one of his finest works. and a true piece of literature. Regardless of its influence in horror, its place in the canon of fiction should not be ignored. In an additional note, the complete reading upon which this review is based - with narration by Edward Petherbridge - is top-notch and a worthy edition to any CD or audio collection. If you can find it...

9/10.

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