Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

**Spoiler Alert – I give away a minor plot point.  In my defense, you’ve had more than 150 years to read this book.**

Remember Wishbone?  For those amongst you who were never introduced to the joys of the Wishbone television show, Wishbone was a dog who liked to tell stories based on great pieces of literature.  Inevitably, Wishbone himself would play a part in the telling of the story – what really stands out in my mind is the canine Odysseus.  But I digress, and bring us back to my purpose here today.  During the time that Wishbone was on the air, I took a serious interest in classical works.  I usually couldn’t get through any of them, but I still tried.  In that spirit, my dad took me to the Chapters store on Rideau (I remember it being one of my first trips there!) and bought me The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, to read.  It promptly sat on my bookshelf though three moves, and I didn’t get around to reading it until this week.  Sorry Dad.

Onwards….  The plot: This is the story of one Dorian Gray to whom the reader is introduced while he is in his young and impressionable 20s.  Gray is sitting for a portrait being created by his friend Basil, and while there, he meets Basil’s friend Lord Henry.  Henry takes great delight in being a dilatant with few exhibited morals and cares for those around him, and takes great delight in impressing this way of life on Gray.  Upon the portrait’s completion, Gray laments that it will continue to be a beautiful testament to his youth while he’ll grow old overtime; in a Freaky Friday kind of thing, he wishes that the portrait would grow old while he stays young.  It’s not until later, after he breaks the heart of a young actress, leading to her suicide, that he notices that the portrait takes on the physical imprint of the things he does in his life, while he retains his youthful charm.  Here I’ll leave off with a summary of the plot, as things move into climax and dénouement, and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for anyone.

So there – it took me about a paragraph to give you the plot.  One would wish that Wilde also learnt to be a bit more concise.  This novel suffers from what a lot of Georgian/Victorian novels suffer from – an author with a social agenda and a penchant for moralizing.  For those that aren’t familiar with Wilde, he lived one of the worst kept secrets in London – namely that he was gay.  He was a well received author and whit however, which kept some of the negative censure at bay for his lifestyle during the famously repressive Victorian age, but he still faced criticism and austerized.  The Picture of Dorian Gray reads like an indictment of the life styles of those who hounded Wilde.  For those not knowledgeable about nineteenth century London and its society (or for those who don’t care), this book is a slog.  I’m pretty sure that a judicious editor could get this story in under 50 page if they really tried.  Many times, I found the moralizing to be just too much – I didn’t find it interesting and it distracted from the rest of the work.

As for the other points I usually hit on in a review: in terms of writing style, it’s good, but the moralizing gets in the way.  More, character development is hampered by the moralizing as well; for a story based completely on one man’s journey from impressionable youth to hurtful bon vivant, there’s not a lot of character development that isn’t wrapped up in the moralizing; consequently, it gets lost.

So, final verdict?  Find an abridged version of this story.  There’s no need to read it in its entirety.  If you’re interested in reading Wilde’s work, why not try some of his plays, which are funny and full of the whit he was renowned for (like The Importance of Being Ernest or A Woman of No Importance).  Or, if you have a friend who has a friend, get them to revive Wishbone and have him cover it – it would end up being a lot more enjoyable that way….

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