The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde [Book Thoughts]

The Picture of Dorian Gray is powerful, dark and witty. It’s hard not to be moved by Oscar Wilde’s only novel. What a pity he didn’t get the chance to write more.


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The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel written by Oscar Wilde, a man famous in the 1890s for his plays and his razor sharp wit. Other than Dorian Gray, he’s most renowned for his play The Importance of Being Earnest. I picked up his book because it’s considered a classic in English literature and because I admired his many quotes. In my first reading it went from being a book that profoundly disturbed me to becoming one of my all-time favourites. I’ve just finished it for the second time and it still maintains its place as one of my favourite novels, if not my absolute favourite.

 The book follows the story of Dorian Gray, young man practically worshipped by his friends for his incredible good looks. After having his portrait painted by a friend, Dorian is able to appreciate his own beauty for the first time and agonizes when he realizes that the portrait will always be perfect while he will wither and grow old. In desperation, he makes a prayer asking that the painting would age in his place so that he can retain his good looks forever. His prayer is granted and, in addition, the painting takes on the burden of his sins so that no matter what he does, he remains eternally flawless. This frees him up to live pretty much any kind of life he chooses without apparent consequence and the book chronicles Dorian’s life as the painter implores him to stay good while his other friend, Lord Henry, whispers in his ear about temptation, pleasure and hedonism.

Without spoiling too much, it’s a book about corruption, narcissism and spiritual decay and some of its page read like a guidebook on how to live the most selfish and amoral life possible. When I initially read some of the passages, it was the first book that ever actually made me physically nauseous. It was only after I finished reading it that I began to appreciate just how powerful some of the writing is. It’s the kind of book that could either serve as a temptation or a warning and if it disturbs you or upsets you, then it’s probably done its job.

It’s also worth noting that the first time I read it was directly after Hamlet, so I noted some of the influences. Like Shakespeare, Wilde opens the story with two characters discussing the lead character before he actually makes his appearance. The characters of Sybil and James Vane are also analogous to Ophelia and Laertes in a sense but other than a few references, the similarities are minor.

It’s also worth a mention that the version I’ve read (and that’s most well-known) is not actually the original. The second version is 20 chapters as opposed to the originals 13 and the tone is quite altered. I currently own two copies of the second version but I definitely want to read the first version someday.

My only major criticism of the second version is that some of the later chapters, which were inserted in afterwards, seem only to delay the book’s conclusion. Aside from that, it’s a powerful story with powerful themes.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is powerful, dark and witty. It’s hard not to be moved by Oscar Wilde’s only novel. What a pity he didn’t get the chance to write more.

See you next week

Click here for some of Oscar Wilde’s quotes.


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