Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Wildly Disappointed by The Picture of Dorian Gray

It was an odd experience reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time at this late date. I know that I’ve never read it before, but I kept feeling as if I had. It was all so familiar: the beauty-for-its-own-sake aesthetic, the clever device of the portrait that ages in place of its subject, and all those rapid-fire aphorisms piling on top of one another. I had to check my impulse to take Wilde to task for using clichés and remind myself that he was the wag that coined them.

How, then, to push aside all that was so familiar to me, and approach the novel as something fresh? I couldn’t do it and I soon realized that I didn’t want to. For the bits that have become familiar even to those that haven’t read the book are the best bits. If they’re pushed aside, all that’s left is cardboard characters, atrociously florid descriptive passages, and clunky dialogue.

Let me elaborate. First, the characters. I found it difficult to get worked up about Dorian Gray’s descent into vice. Even at the beginning I didn’t see him as perfectly innocent or charmingly naïve but rather as vapid and petulant. Good looks notwithstanding, there didn’t seem to be much there to spoil. Basil Hallward is a nice enough fellow, but his pining after beauty/Dorian quickly grows tedious. Of the main characters, Lord Henry interests me the most. His philosophy is intriguing and his wit fairly dances on the page. But before long I wearied of him as well. There are too many clever aphorisms one after another; they often seem to be thrown in simply because they're good lines rather than to advance the plot or the reader's understanding of Lord Henry's character. On that last point, part of the problem is that the barrage of aphorisms don’t belong solely to Lord Henry. They are also spoken by the third person narrator, Mr. Erskine, and occasionally some dutchess or other at dinner, but always in the same tone and with the same sensibility. This has the effect of watering down the uniqueness of Lord Henry’s voice thereby robbing the novel to some degree of one of its best features.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the clever lines. I won’t pause to list my favourites here, but I will point you to a post at So Many Books where Stefanie has listed eight great lines that she marked just in the first eleven pages of the novel. The problem is that although there are indeed a plethora of great lines worthy of copying down, these are counterbalanced by many cringe-inducing passages of description. For example, this:

As he thought of it, a sharp pang of pain struck through him like a knife and made each delicate fibre of his nature quiver. His eyes deepened into amethyst, and across them came a mist of tears. He felt as if a hand of ice had been laid upon his heart.

Or this:

His finely chiselled nostrils quivered, and some hidden nerve shook the scarlet of his lips and left them trembling.

Or this:

Her flowerlike lips touched the withered cheek and warmed its frost.

It’s not a long novel, but passages like these make it hard slogging.

And the dialogue. How could an accomplished playwright like Wilde pen such dreadful dialogue? The dinner party scenes are quite good. But in those scenes involving only two or three people, a prime example being the scene in which Basil first introduces Lord Henry to Dorian, they all seem to take turns declaiming lengthy soliloquies rather than speaking back and forth to one another. Who would have the patience to participate in such a conversation? Surely even Lord Henry, witty though he is, would have to let someone else get a word in edgewise every now and again.

I admire Oscar Wilde enormously for his wit, his style, and his reckless courage. I love his plays. I wanted to love The Picture of Dorian Gray. But I didn’t. I don’t think that the novel is Wilde’s forte. Ultimately, it strikes me as a fascinating idea that just wasn't very well executed.

Stop by the MetaxuCafé forum for links to other bloggers’ posts about The Picture of Dorian Gray and to join in a discussion about the book.


Quillhill said...

I agree with your observation about the weakness of aphorisms spreading beyond Lord Henry.

I begin to wonder if I don't want to like it so much, like you, but unlike you, I succeed--as a reader have I brought as much to the text as the author, and thereby filled in the gaps and bumps myself? Or is this genre writing that accepts/employs certain "givens"?

You note that it seemed old to you, and I remind myself that in its day it was fairly bold and original. So I wonder, should we judge (for lack of a better word) literature by its time and place, or ours?

Kate S. said...


You raise an important point. I do think that I'm hampered in my capacity to appreciate the novel because I'm not very familiar with the literary conventions of the time period in which it was written. I know that Wilde was taking risks with content; I don't know if he was taking risks with form. I don't know whether aspects that strike me as poor writing were in keeping with the conventions of the time, or deviations from them. The introduction to the edition that I read states that Wilde fashioned something wholly originally but "constructed it from a large array of time-honored, fashionable, or even hackneyed literary genres and devices." It would certainly help to know more about those genres and devices. Perhaps I ought to do a bit of research before I write off The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Stefanie said...

All the witty aphorisms do wear after awhile. They also keep the reader from getting any deeper into the character of Henry. I wonder about him. Does he really believe in his witticisms? Or is he just witty because it shocks and clever, shocking people are more appreciated in society than thoughtful, serious ones?

Kate S. said...

Early on Basil suggests that Lord Henry does construct a facade with his witticisms:"`I hate the way you talk about your married life, Harry,' said Basil Hallward [...] `I believe that you are really a very good husband, but that you are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. You are an extraordinary fellow. You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose.'" However, given the way Lord Henry toys with Dorian's life and the lives of those around him, I'm not inclined to believe that he never does a wrong thing. And if Basil really believed that, why was he immediately concerned about Lord Henry's influence on Dorian? Was it about the danger of words again (linking to the forum discussion about whether books can be dangerous)? Was it jealousy -- fear of losing his beloved Dorian to his more entertaining friend? Or did Basil have a clearer idea of the wrongs Lord Henry was capable of than he acknowledged on the surface?

Quillhill said...

Definitely jealousy.

That Girl Who Writes Stuff said...

Thanks a lot.

Now I'm going to be watching people to see if their "finely chiselled nostrils quiver"

Booklad said...

(with nostrils quivering) I don't remember being as disappointed with Dorian as you, Kate. You make some good points here though. Wilde was always difficult to appreciate because he was so facile and self conscious. Quillhill is right about it's impact at the time. It's worth a re-read with your thoughts in mind.

R J Keefe said...

The Picture of Dorian Gray is, I think, a novel for young readers who fancy that they'd get in trouble if they were discovered reading it.

I recall it as an endless catalogue of Dorian's many beautiful possessions.

chapman said...

i feel the same way about everything of wilde's i've ever read, with one exception: de profundis.

i honor his life story, but usually find him maddening to read. clever aphorisms and inverted truisms and shallowness everyplace.

de profundis kinda rescues the whole meaning of writing, for me. it's such a demonstration of the fact that when catastrophic things happen in your life, art can actually redeem and justify them. and in his case, he needed something like that to raise his writing to a serious level. it's a tragedy that he didn't outlive that book.

meanwhile, you know what's really wonderful? that green book dorian's always reading: "against the grain" by huysmanns. that's astounding.

Lenito said...

yes, i believe Lord Henry's witty aphorisms do tend to get much, and i do not think he believes them himself. i feel he is a sad man, yearning for any form of attention. sigh. just thought i would post up my little comment