The Picture of Dorian Gray ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
London in the 1880s: Not only is Dorian Gray young, innocent, and fabulously wealthy (he doesn’t have to earn his daily bread), he is also extravagantly beautiful. When sometimes-mediocre painter Basil Hallward meets the beautiful young Dorian, he becomes obsessed and infatuated. “Gay attraction” and “love” are never mentioned, but isn’t that what we’re talking about here? After all, it’s Oscar Wilde.
Basil Hallward rises above his own mediocrity when he paints Dorian’s portrait. It is, everybody agrees, his masterpiece. He could sell it for a tidy sum but decides to give it to Dorian. Dorian mouths an innocent (or not so innocent) prayer to the effect that he wishes he could always remain young and beautiful, while his portrait would show the inevitable signs of aging and living. In a touch of “magic realism” (how else do you explain it?), he gets his wish.
Early in the story, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a character who could be Wilde himself. He’s worldly, cynical, intelligent, and in possession of a scathing wit. He speaks in epigrams (“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”) and doesn’t believe in goodness or much of anything else. He becomes an important character in the story because he is a corrupting influence on Dorian in his youth. Dorian admires him and is drawn to him and seeks to emulate him, even though he has a lot of the devil in him.
Dorian begins to live recklessly. He “falls in love” (or believes he does) with a young Shakespearean actress named Sybil Vane. Sybil’s biggest failing is that she doesn’t know what Dorian is all about or what she is getting herself into. Dorian believes she is a divinely talented actress and says he wants to marry her. When he brings his friends to the theatre to see her in a performance of Romeo and Juliet, she is terrible. She disappoints Dorian and embarrasses him in front of his friends. When he sees her after the performance, he is cruel to her. He tells her she is not what he thought she was and he can’t marry her and doesn’t want to see her again, while she says that her happiness at being his betrothed has robbed her of her “art.” He leaves her heartbroken and the next day discovers that she has committed suicide.
From Sybil Vane’s suicide, Dorian goes on to do other bad deeds. People are naturally drawn to him because he’s so attractive, but he turns out to be poison to everybody who comes into his sphere, male and female alike. Several young men are “ruined” because they acquire the taint of scandal from being Dorian’s “intimates.” (Homosexuality is still a crime in England at this time.) There are ruined careers and other suicides. Dorian immerses himself in a world of vice and degradation, frequenting opium dens and other low places of ill repute. Eventually he commits murder.
While Dorian becomes more and more immersed in sin, he remains young-looking and beautiful. At age thirty-eight, he still looks the same as he did at twenty-three. We (the reader) know what his secret is if nobody else does. The portrait that Basil Hallward painted of him (which he keeps locked away in the attic of his house) bears his shame and the marks of his vice and sin. It becomes more and more hideous while Dorian himself remains unscathed. The painting is, in a way, his soul and his conscience. We know this isn’t going to end well for Dorian.
There are elements of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in The Picture of Dorian Gray; also elements of Poe, although The Picture of Dorian Gray is generally easier reading than Poe. (We are told in the introduction that it started out as a shorter piece until Wilde expanded it into a novel.) It’s a readable classic, worth revisiting, if you read it once a long time ago, as I did, and want to experience it again now that you’re older and wiser. (If you’re interested in the life and too-early death of Oscar Wilde, the 1997 British movie, Wilde, makes for fascinating viewing.)
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp