Drastically Out of Context

wilde-small.jpgThe Picture of Dorian Gray is perhaps the worst epic fantasy I have ever read. Where are the dragons? The violent decapitations with a magical sword? All the author seems to care about is witty rich people making smart remarks to each other.

So… reading Dorian Gray as a modern-day genre piece. Is there really an
option of reading it any other way? Readers are always a part of their own
time, and any attempt to go back to an “original” context is inevitably a reconstruction framed by contemporary point-of-view.

Yes, I can draw a line from the horror and speculative elements of the book through to the psychological horror (and similar) of today, but I get a mix of “that’s familiar” and “wow, the gap is huge”. The book was published in 1891, and I found it fascinating to read, since it felt like dispatches from another world. (I got the same feeling from The Catcher in the Rye).

The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only novel, and it tells the story of Dorian Gray, a rich young dandy of London society. He starts out as an innocent boy, his sense of morality corrupted by the witticisms of his friends (I’ll discuss this aspect of the story in a moment), and then that process of corruption is literalized by the portrait of the title.

At the beginning of the book, Dorian is sitting for a portrait by his friend, the painter Basil Hallward. Through some conversation, he makes the Faustian mistake of wishing that he would stay young and the portrait would age in his stead. Cue the inevitable debauchery once Dorian discovers that his actions are essentially consequence-free – there’s talk of scandal around him, but he himself is still young and unmarked.

wilde-big.jpgOne of the biggest differences that I noticed is the way that Wilde spends a lot of time summarizing notions of art, artistic themes, the nature of civilization, and so on and so forth. Very talky, with an authorial voice that we don’t see so much anymore. Wilde is known more for his
epigrams and witty short works than book-length stories, so some of this overstuffed material might just be discomfort with a long-form narrative (based on a fairly simple premise). There’s a long, long passage near the middle of the book where Dorian thinks about all the famous gems that he wants to collect, a passage that definitely tested the patience of this reader.

In the next 120 years, most genre writers have dispensed with this style, throwing out most or all of these things like Wilde’s theorizing about art and culture. Maybe for the better, likely for the worse… but one thing that those same genre writers have developed (and simplified?) over the years is the use of the fantastic. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the genre elements here. Literalizing a metaphor is a tricky business. So… all the stuff about getting rid of temptation by yielding to it… that’s actually a horrific thing? Most of the famous quotes from the book are actually embedded pretty deeply in the narrative.

Lord Henry, a friend of Basil’s, is the main voice of corruption in Dorian’s life, and the main source of quips about society, husbands and wives, art, religion, etc. Henry’s words about the fleeting nature of youth lead Dorian to make his foolish wish, and Henry’s presence constantly eggs Dorian on in his pursuit of gratification (at the expense, it turns out, of others). Henry never discovers the truth of Dorian’s portrait, so he never stops in his damaging quest to change Dorian’s innocent nature. That said, I don’t think the book resolves into a simple precautionary tale, at least in the way that it privileges Lord Henry’s extensive monologues and shifts the blame to Dorian, who perhaps takes the wrong lesson from his friend’s remarks.

For all the apparent wordiness of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the ending is note-perfect. Wilde is
dealing in the inevitable here, but he makes it count. Bravo for

I read Dorian Gray when I was a kid, but I didn’t remember much about it apart from the premise of the painting that changes while its subject does not. I also read some of his fairy tales when I was in high school and I’d be curious to revisit those at some point, since my recollection is that the modern notion of a revisionist fairy tale owes a great debt to Wilde’s work.

1 reply »

  1. I recently re-read some of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales. There was something about them (especially “The Happy Prince”) that made a strong impression on me as a child – like there was something about them I didn’t quite understand. Perhaps because the characters have motivations and feelings that are not always explicitly spoken or stated.
    Now I find them profoundly sad.


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