OF DORIAN GRAY
Harvard University Press. Annotated edition 2011. 304 pp.
reviewed by Patrick Killough
(1) biblio.com 12/13/2011
Would you recommend this book to other readers? Yes.
Within months of each other appeared two sensational first English novels: THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and THE LIGHT THAT FAILED.
The first was by Irishman Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854 - 1900); the second by Anglo-Indian Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936). Both appeared in the same Philadelphia magazine in 1890. Both were then in 1891 quickly reworked, enlarged and issued as books. Both novels are about London painters, paintings, art and theories of art. Both have been made into excellent feature films. Both novels end tragically for their heroes, respectively pleasure-seeking Dorian Gray and war scenes painter Dick Heldar.
Oscar Wilde preached that life imitates art, Rudyard Kipling the opposite. For Kipling (who grew up in artistic circles on both his mother's and his father's side) a good painter looked carefully at a scene then painted his memory of it better than what he had actually seen. Much traveled painter Dick Heldar in THE LIGHT THAT FAILED notes that during his months in London he heard more admittedly competent painters talking at parties about painting than he ever saw evidence that they actually worked with canvases. That would have been the fashionable world of Oscar Wilde and his fanatic imitatators.
It is, in a nutshell, instructive to read and compare THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and THE LIGHT THAT FAILED.
Dorian Gray is 20 at novel's beginning and 38 or older when on Wilde's novel's last page he is found in his locked childhood nursery deformed, hideous and dead, a knife in his heart and with his famous picture once again that of a beautiful, innocent 20-year old, looming in judgment above him. Gray's ten years older (Ch. 19) friend Lord Henry Wotton very early on convinces a still innocent Dorian that his youth and beauty are his greatest assets. An agitated Dorian then wishes or prays that his body might remain young while a just completed adoring portrait would both age and display his moral developments -- instead of Dorian himself. Over time the picture and its changes for the worse became Dorian's conscience.
Dorian got his wish.
Despite sporadic, perhaps merely hypocritical efforts to be good, Dorian Gray does heartless deeds. He callously rebuffs Sybil Vane, a young, good, innocent actress who loves him and who then takes poison. Dorian Gray murders his onetime friend and admirer the painter Basil Hallward who created the picture that is his conscience. Over an 18 year period, Gray alienates most of the ostensbily correct, decent upper class people in London. His friends are always the worse for being his friends.
At times throughout the novel's 20 chapters, a reader feels as if half the text is non-narrative, given over to philosophizing about morality and art, to discussing aesthetic theories and to giving hints at literary sources behind the decadent nihilism preached by Dorian Gray and his mentor Lord Henry Wotton. This didactic dimension of the novel is well summarized when Dorian Gray tells Lord Henry:
"You would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram" (Ch. 18).
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY is a good read. The narrative is undemanding, gothic, realistic, and moves forward, posed tableau following tableau with increasing speed. The didactic half, with its digressions into architecture, decadent French literature, tapestries and priestly vestments and far more besides demands close attention. The last ten chapters are shorter than the first ten and the pace of the narrative accordingly accelerates. This is above all a novel of conscience, religion, morals and the life of artists. It abounds in epigrams, smart sayings and repartee. -OOO-
(2) lunch.com 12/14/2011
name of review: "You would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram."
rating: * * * *
Oscar Wilde's 1890 -- quickly revised and enlarged in 1891 -- first and only novel, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, is many different things to different readers.
-- Baldly stated, its story must begin around 1872 and tells the gothic tale of a beautiful soon to be very wealthy twenty-year old boy-man, Dorian Gray. Gray's tale ends 18 or more years later when ever youthful but conscience-destroyed Dorian stabs and kills his own beautiful "ivory and rose leaves" body when he was merely intending to destroy the hideous, vile, ever evolving 1872 portrait which by 1890 reflected all the sins and cruelties that the gorgeous face should have exhibited but did not.
Why had the body remained young and innocent for nearly two decades? Because Dorian Gray had fancifully wished, had prayed that it might be so.
But why did Dorian Gray wish to remain forever young and beautiful, regardless of what awful future deeds he might do? Because a ten years older tempter, Lord Henry Wotton, at their very first meeting in the studio of painter Basil Hallward, persuaded hitherto innocent, naive Dorian that only youth and beauty were worth having and that they would not last. Hence Dorian must use his body for pleasure while fleeting youth yet endured.
What else in there in THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY besides its grotesque plot?
-- Smart talk, ostensibly spontaneous, more likely mentally rehearsed by the interlocutors before being tossed into a conversation. For instance:
---- "'I am told...that her father keeps an American dry-goods store...'
'Dry-goods! What are American dry-goods?,' asked the Duchess.
'American novels," answered Lord Henry, helping himself to some quail." (Ch. 3)
---- (Lord Henry To Lady Narborough:) "Her capacity for family affection is extraordinary. When her third husband died, her hair turned quite gold from grief" (Ch. 15).
---- (Dorian Gray to Lord Wotton:) "You would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram." (Ch. 18).
-- There is the sense that, as an adult, a man simply repeats what he enjoyed doing when a boy or at university.
---- Thus, the painter Basil Hallward, having just decided not to exhibit his greatest painting, a portrait of young Dorian Gray, tossed "his head back in that odd way that used to make his friends laugh at him at Oxford" (Ch. 1).
---- In his first conversation with Gray at Hallward's studio, Lord Henry Wotton spoke "in his low, musical voice, and with that graceful wave of the hand that was always so characteristic of him, and that he had even in his Eton days" (Ch. 2).
---- The only good-looking successful men are those rarities whom thinking has not made hideous, opines Lord Henry: "A bishop keeps on saying at the age of eighty what he was told to say when he was a boy of eighteen, and as a natural consequence he always looks absolutely delightful" (Ch. 1)
--What more is in THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY?
----Art. Talk of Art. Unaging Dorian Gray's eighteen year pursuit of pleasure in opium, low companions, ruining his friends and lovers. Gray's pursuit of curious knowledge: of music, tapestries, French decadent writers, debates with Lord Henry about whether art should be divorced from other values, the nature of the soul and religion, conscience and whether repentance is possible.THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY is an important book in its own right. Another first novel published at the same time is Rudyard Kipling's THE LIGHT THAT FAILED. Both novels are set in and around London, deal with art and artists, with men and women good and bad and both end tragically for their heroes. It is hard to imagine that Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling were not each aware of the other's novel, each of which first appeared in the same Philadelphia magazine and then was hastily revised, enlarged and issued in London in book form. Both novels were about art. But Wilde insisted that life imitated art while Kipling said, "no such thing!"
(3) bn.com 12/15/2011
title of review: "Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered their secret in my ear."
rating: * * * *
Posted 12/15/2011: Oscar Wilde's 1890/1891 THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY is gothic, bitter, tragic but not long. But its story line is fleshed out by needlessly many excursuses into church vestments, tapestries, perfumes, musical instruments, mysticism, conscience, repentance, relations between art, morality and human life and more.
Twenty-year old Dorian Gray is introduced around 1870-72. He is found dead in his ancestral London home in 1890 or thereabouts, in the very nursery where he once played under his stern grandfather's dominion. Basil Hallward, painter, and Lord Henry Wotton, effete immoral tempter, have discovered and determined to influence this innocent, un-selfconscious, handsome young man. The painter tries to keep the lad good and uninfluenced by the decadent views of Lord Henry, who persuades Dorian that youth is the supreme human perfection and must be indulged in whatever it wants to do. Dorian wishes, perhaps prays, that he might stay young forever while his image in a just completed portrait by Basil Hallward will show the ravages of time and the visible effects of real-time Dorian's good and evil deeds. The wish is granted. And despite occasional feeble efforts to be good, Dorian Gray descends into a personal hell that sucks in friends and admirers as well
Allow me to sketch two turning points in Gray's downward spiral: (1) his mistreatment of his one and only love, young Shakespearean actress Sybyl Vane and (2) his murder of his friend who had painted the picture that became Dorian's all too palpable conscience
-- (1) Sybil Vane was an innocent teenage actress in a low-class London bar and supper theater discovered by slumming Dorian Gray. She was a genuinely outstanding actress who played in sequence all of Shakespeare's major heroines. Gray fell in love not with the real girl but with the art which brought her characters to life on stage.
One night they kissed and
"Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered their secret in my ear. I have had the arms of Rosamund around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth." (Ch. 6)
As Sybil's bad luck would have it, the next night Dorian brought his two best friends, Basil and Lord Henry, to see his intended wife play Juliet. Sybil played very, very badly, flatly.
After the three-hour performance, she told Dorian that their kiss and their love had made her despise acting with its shadows of reality. Only their love was real. An irate Dorian Gray denounces Sybil as a third-rate actress and storms out of her life. Later that night, she kills herself by drinking prussic acid. Back home, Dorian consults his portrait and sees a change: his lips have become cruel.
-- (2) Dorian briefly repented his role in Sybil's death. But at least it was not murder.
That came later when he finally showed his painting to its creator Basil Hallward. Hallward invited Dorian to pray that both might be forgiven their sins. Dorian said that it was too late for prayer. Basil:
"It is never too late, Dorian. Let us kneel down and try if we cannot remember a prayer. Isn't there a verse somewhere, 'Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them white as snow?'"
A mad rage overcomes Dorian and he stabs his friend repeatedly from behind. Soon he blackmails another friend to dispose of the corpse.
It is for you to decide whether or not to read this dark novel.
-- Joris-Karl Huysmans - À rebours (translated into English as Against Nature or Against the Grain) 1884
-- Rudyard Kipling - THE LIGHT THAT FAILED (1891)
(4) amazon.com 12/16//2011
title of review: "When her third husband died, her hair turned quite gold from grief."
rating: * * * *
It must have been around 1870 when very capable artist Basil Hallward brilliantly painted soon to be very rich 20-year old Dorian Gray. Hallward's wordy, witty friend Lord Henry Wotton on their first meeting in the painter's studio persuaded Dorian Gray that youth was any good looking human's greatest attribute. And youth, since it did not long endure, must be lived to the utmost while it did last. This meant Dorian's "expressing," externalizing every insight, impulse and passion that most people learn to keep bottled up inside them. An early version of "let it all hang out."
Oh, how hitherto naive and innocent Dorian wished that he would never have to say farewell to his youth and beauty! If only he might stay young while the young man in his portrait did all the aging? That wish was granted. And THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1890, 1891) unrolls the next 18 or 19 years of Gray's while everyone around him grew older but he did not.
It can be argued,that Dorian's wish for eternal youth was morally indifferent, neither good nor bad. It might have remained harmless, like Ponce de Leon's search for the Fountain of Youth. It was conceivably a well-meaning God who granted Dorian Gray's wish. What would matter in the end was what Gray did with his youth.
He was given good albeit secular advice by painter Basil Hallward and very bad, cynical, character-ruining advice by Lord Henry. Unfortunately for Hallward (whom Gray would later murder) and for Dorian himself, the young man consistently heeded Lord Henry. In consequence, Dorian Gray learned to separate art from reality, learned to value clever words and eptithets more than unselfish deeds and denied himself nothing that his fertile brain could imagine. This self-indulgence included frequent visits to London opium dens, brawls with foreign sailors on the docks and viciously spurning Sybil Vane, the teenage Shakespearean actress, whom he loved for her acting skills but who renounced them because they seemed unreal compared with Dorian's love for her. Hours after a scathing denunciation by a disappointed Dorian, young Sybil swallows prussic acid and dies.
All this dissent into hell is faithfully reproduced in the increasingly cruel, vicious lines of face and body in the portrait of Dorian Gray. The picture becomes the conscience of the novel's hero who often sits spell-bound before it. It sometimes persuades him, very briefly, to make half-hearted efforts at reform. But the portrait allows Dorian to understand that every single one of his half-hearted good deeds is hypocritical, is bad acting. For 18 years, until he destroys himelf with a knife intended to destroy his portrait, Dorian Gray remains a handsome 20-year old while all others move steadily toward the grave.
Telling the bare story of Gray's decline takes up perhaps a third of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. The rest is ballast, starting with excursuses into Gray's sometimes year long fads of the moment: tapestries, music, religion (especially Roman Catholicism), mysticism and decadent French literature. Then there are teas, dinners and parties among the swells and aristocrats of London. These are all contrived social stages for Oscar Wilde to let his decadent characters like Lord Henry Wotton and handsome young Dorian Gray skewer institutions like marriage and preen themselves before admiring audiences as they drop several hundred seemingly spontaneous epithets into sparkling conversations. The London ambience of useless Duchesses, members of Parliament and wealthy society widows is lovingly limned by Oscar Wilde.
Let one party and its smart talk suffice for many.
As brilliant for its repartee as any other social occasion in the novel is Chapter 15's small, hastily puled together dinner at Lady Narborough's. Dorian Gray appears, having mere hours before having stabbed to death his friend painter Basil Hallward and having then blackmailed another onetime friend to dispose of the body. At Lady Narborough's Dorian was wildly excited but outwardly calm and his manner "as easy and graceful as ever."
The company was rather dull.
-- His hostess's married daughter had
"one of those characteristic British faces that, once seen, are never remembered."
-- Things became livelier when Lord Henry Wotton arrived, very, very late. The table discusses the amours of Madame de Ferrol. Lord Henry summed her up:
"Her capacity for family affection is extraordinary. When her third husband died, her hair turned quite gold from grief."
-- Henry preens himself when accused of wickedness:
"It is perfectly monstrous ... the way people go about nowadays saying things against one behind one's back that are absolutely and entirely true."
The question arises at Lady Narborough's: are we such a sorry lot because it is "the end of the century" (fin de siecle)? or the end of the world (fin de globe)? Certainly none of the players is morally outstanding or even self-content. They are useless and they know it.
(5) epinions.com 12/17/2011
Review Title: Dorian Gray: "When I find that I am growing old, I shall kill myself."
Product Rating: * * * *
PROS: Content invites spirited discussions regarding good/evil, art/living, senses/soul, youth/age and more.
CONS: Mechanical use of contrasting pairs (grey, gold) for epithets. Distracting excursuses into tapestries, music, etc.
BOTTOM LINE: Wilde's PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY is a flawed, provocative master work. The plot has undertones of Eden, the Fall, Faust and Mephisto. Inter-relations of good and evil prefigure Graham Greene.
aohcapablanca's Full Review:
Oscar Wilde's 1890/91 novel, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY: dare I add so much as a word about it to the masterly epinions review of August 06 2004 by johngo/John Ollason in Scotland?
In three easy steps Mr Ollason dethroned the greatest strength of Lord Henry Wotton, the novel's brilliant talker sans pareil. Apparently without even wrinkling his noble brow, Lord Henry tosses apt paradoxes, epithets and original bons mots and witticisms into remarks to friends or to dinner companions.
Thanks to Ollason's review I now see Oscar Wilde's "wit-by-numbers" mechanism hard at work marshalling synonyms and antonyms to score a verbal point. I also understand how any of us can become as brilliant as Lord Henry made himself appear to be simply by putting together
-- (1) any pair of opposites or contrasts (e.g. , father-son),
-- (2) some well-known, common platitude linking the the two ("e.g." the apple does not fall far from the tree") and then
-- (3) reversing the sense of the platitude to create a paradox.
In the hands of another renowned master of paradox, G. K. Chesterton, that piece of folk wisdom might morph into "Are you saying that the apple does not fall far from the tree? Of course it does. Consider the bumbling son(s) of brilliant Pericles of Athens or of masterful Oliver Cromwell. Or big-spending King Henry VIII, son of penny pinching Henry VII."
This is Oscar Wilde's popularization of Hegelian dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis, at work to crank out "fresh" truths.
Time has, indeed, not been kind to either Oscar Wilde or Sir Henry Wotton when it comes to grinding out hundreds of epithets as on an assembly line. Sir Henry's rhetorical bombast becomes boring even before the devastating John Ollason dissection. After Ollason, Lord Henry Wotton seems pitiable.
And yet...and yet: despite weak bons mots, and notwithstanding all its rhetorical padding and its endless excursuses into its hero's fad of the moment (ecclesiastical vestments, exotic music and on and on), THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY is a marvel of didacticism, Education 101 and power to spur a reader to think new thoughts. Oscar Wilde has concocted in this last gasp gothic novel a heady mixture of religious images and dogmas (the Garden of Eden, man's Fall, selling one's eternal soul for a few years of earthly gain, Mephistopheles, Faust, eternal youth, conscience, morality, social criticism, anti-feminism, the aesthetic views of Walter Pater and the decadent views of Dutch-French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, and more). The novel makes us want to talk about it.
Pick up readers' reviews of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and judge for yourself the extent to which this dark piece of writing touches something deep down inside young and old, inside men and women that they want, sometimes desperately and almost incoherently to communicate to you. For all its big flaws, this novel is a provocative, teaching book. I challenge you to read it without thinking new thoughts or making fresh verbal connections at least as good as Lord Henry's epithets.
Sometime around 1870 or a bit later, we readers meet 20-year old heir Dorian Gray coming in to a studio to pose for his new friend, the painter Basil Hayward. There Dorian also meets effete, bearded, low-voiced, ten years older Lord Henry Wotton. Eighteen or nineteen years later, Gray's servants enter from a balcony their master's locked nursery and find him dead by his own hand. His corpse is hideous, barely recognizable. Above it broods the gloriously handsome portrait painted many years earlier by Hayward. In the interim Gray has driven to suicide Mable Vane, a talented young Shakespearean actress whom he loves, and has murdered Basil, the friend who immortalized him in paint. The novel explains how all this came to be.
At tale's beginning, Dorian Gray was an affable, innocent man-boy, not yet aware of his beauty or how soon it would follow his youth in saying farewell. Lord Henry on their first meeting drove home to Dorian how fleeting and precious youth is. How did Dorian react? "When I find that I am growing old, I shall kill myself" (Ch. 2).
By a powerful instinct, many reviewers seem instinctively to go on to quote from the passage which sets this tragic tale in motion. Here, Dorian Gray turns Lord Henry's thesis on the fleeting quality of youth on its head. With Ponce de Leon of Fountain of Youth fame, Dorian Gray proposes an anti-thesis to Lord Henry's thesis:
"'How sad it is!' murmured Dorian Gray with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. 'How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day in June. ... If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that -- for that -- I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!'" (Ch. 2).
Gray (a color both black and white) gets his wish. Was God kind to grant it to a young man with great potential for saintliness? If so, God wept while Satan smiled, for Gray lived the life of self-expression and self-indulgence far beyond what his Mephistopheles Lord Henry Wotton dared to do more than talk about. He descended into hell. And as Vergil said long ago facilis descensus Averno ("easy is the descent to the Underworld," -- Aeneid VI). It is the climb back up and out that is hard. Indeed it proved too hard for Dorian Gray.
Perhaps the most horrible scene of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY is the one where Gray first rejects his painter friend Basil's plea that the two pray mercy for the evil that the portrait reveals -- then kills him.
Basil Hallward: "It is never too late, Dorian. Let us kneel down and try if we cannot remember a prayer. Isn't there a verse somewhere, 'Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them white as snow?'"
I have recently, for the first time in several decades, reread THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY not for its own sake but to throw light on eerie parallels to the virtually simultaneously published first novel by young Rudyard Kipling, THE LIGHT THAT FAILED. I suggest that you, too, will find the two novels caught up in a mutually reinforcing Hegelian dialectic larger than Lord Henry Wotton's now silly-seeming way of building epithets and smart remarks. Both novels are about painters and painting, theories of art and the good and bad things that people do in the presence of a great portrait. Enjoy!