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The Picture of Dorian Gray

Our book worm, Anam Sufi, takes on the literary classic by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. It goes without saying that this is a must read, but if you're lagging, let this review be a push in the right direction...

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is, or should be, a novel that needs no introduction. A canon in philosophical fiction, the story is one that should definitely secure a place in all readers' “must read before you die” list.

Having stood the test of time, a classic in its own right, the story is the only published novel by Wilde and first appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. Keeping in tune with the censoring tradition of the time, the editors initially feared the risqué subject matter of the text and accordingly removed 500 words from the story. Regardless of such attempts, the text was still met with sweeping consternation from British reviewers, who went as far as to demand the author’s prosecution for having over stepped moral boundaries. Wilde responded meekly by editing the text, removing various passages and adding others, and it was this version that was then reprinted by Ward, Lock and Company in 1891.  

The story follows the slow demise of a young and abnormally attractive man named Dorian Gray. Dorian oozes beauty and physical perfection from every angle and thus becomes the obsession of a painter named Basil Hallward. Basil’s infatuation with Dorian’s beauty leads him to use him as a muse and subject for a painting. During the completion process of the painting Dorian becomes acquainted with Lord Henry Wotton, a highly reflective and philosophical friend of Basil’s. Dorian is enthralled by Lord Henry’s worldview, one that idolises hedonism and lauds the idea that the only significant thing worthy of pursuance is beauty and the fulfillment of one’s superficial senses. The influence of such a doctrine effectively begins to offer Dorian much angst, as he becomes acutely aware of the temporal nature of his beauty. In a moment of despair, he whimsically expresses a wish to sell his soul in a manner that would result in the painting of him to age instead of himself. In a classic example of “be careful what you wish for,” Dorian’s yearning is fulfilled. He begins to indulge in a life of debauchery, uncaring of the consequences that unfold when he begins to break all mores of morality. Accordingly, the portrait, notably hidden in the attic, begins to disfigure as it projects the rotting and sinful marring of Dorian’s soul. 

Not only is the story one that wholly captures creativity in terms of a plot line, the lyrical and stylistic form through which it is told, demands multiple reads of the text. Infused with philosophical critiques on themes of love, beauty, morality, good vs. evil, the nature of man, and the inescapable reality of our temporal existence, The Picture of Dorian Gray is wrought with varying layers and literary elements that provide readers with a complex and wholesome encounter with the themes that it attempts to present. 

My favourite passages from the novel involve the dialogues and monologues that transpire between Dorian and Lord Henry. Emblematic of a Machiavellian approach towards life, one that is wrought with arrogant assumptions, the conversation is adorned with line after line of philosophical musings that not only enlighten the reader of a different outlook in life, but also somehow manages to exude a foreshadowing of impending doom.

What’s especially worthy of appreciation is the lyricism that Wilde infuses his sentence structure with. Take the following lines as an example: 

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” 

Ultimately, Dorian emerges as a character who, as is posed in the story itself, “You will always be fond of… [as he] represents to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.” Accordingly, the reader becomes intimately attached to the character, making the experience of reading the novel a process whereby we are desperate to offer Dorian a word of caution, only because we are painfully aware of his detriment.

Reading this novel is a trip. It blurs the lines between fiction and reality, and consumes the reader’s attention at every step. If what I have to say on its brilliance is not enough to convince you to read, you might as well read it anyway based on its literary legacy that has kept it at the forefront of literature studies even today.