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