Book Reviews

[Review] The picture of Dorian Gray

The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.

The picture of Dorian Gray is my very first English classic novel. After much procrastination and laziness, finally, I could finish it. Having heard of Wilde two years ago and read many Vietnamese translations of his short stories, I challenged myself to read his one and only novel. With appropriate length, it is a good start if you want to read original copies of classic literature.

Let’s discover the author first. Born in 1854, Oscar Wilde is a well-known Irish author, poet, and playwright. Five of his outstanding plays are The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salome, A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband. Moreover, he also possessed two other short stories collections, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories, The Happy Prince and Other Tales and A House of Pomegranates. In 1890, he published his only novel – The Picture of Dorian Gray. Being known as a representative of ‘Art for art’s sake’ literature, he was famous for witty and sarcastic conversation in his works. However, he had a controversial personal lifestyle and was imprisoned for two years because of his homosexual nature. He passed away in 1900 as his health was negatively destroyed in imprisonment period.

There are three main characters in this novel: Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, and Lord Henry. Dorian, a naive, handsome and young twenty-year-old boy, is a model for Basil, a painter, to draw a portrait. However, Basil doesn’t want to exhibit this portrait, because he has put too much of himself in it. After much persuasion, Basil allows Lord Henry to meet Dorian, and the handsome guy is negatively influenced by Lord Henry who is obsessed with beauty and believes that he would do anything in the world to be young forever, ‘except taking exercises, getting up early or being respectable’. As a result, Dorian wishes that the portrait will age instead of him. One day, Dorian discovers Sibyl, an actress from a working-class theater. He thinks that he falls in love with her and invites Henry and Basil to her performance. However, she acts badly on that day and Dorian leaves her as he thinks that she embarrasses him. His wish comes true, a sign of cruelty appears in the portrait. After that, many crimes happen and Dorian still remains young and beautiful.

Although conversations in this novel is a little bit wordy and sometimes nonsense, it contains several intriguing lexical and depiction patterns that you can learn from if you want to better your English writing skill. I would rate 3.5/5 for it.

1. Witty conversation

Witty conversation is a ‘cuisine’ in Wilde’s works. At the very beginning of this book, he shows his perspectives towards art.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

We can find some of his interesting thoughts all over the book.

Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.

Art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him.

‘What of Art?’, she asked.

‘It is a malady.’

‘Love?’

‘An illusion.’

‘Religion?’

‘The fashionable substitute for Belief.’

‘You are a sceptic.’

‘Never! Scepticism is the beginning of Faith.’

‘What are you?’

‘To define is to limit.

American, women, marriage, friendship, experience, romance and idiocy are the target of Wilde’s criticism. Though the language Wilde used is exquisite, it is pretty challenging for readers to anticipate plot and character development. Sometimes, I found it hard to follow the lengthy conversation as the dialogues are all about unsystematic philosophy and conception.

‘When good Americans die, they go to Paris.’

‘Where do bad Americans go?’

‘They stay in America.’

Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed.

It is always the women who propose to us, and not we who propose to the women.

I like men who have a future and women who have a past.

I  choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects.

2. Obsession with eternal beauty

It is a sad thing to think of, but there is no doubt that genius lasts longer than beauty. That accounts for the fact that we all take such pains to over-educate ourselves. In the wild struggle for existence, we want to have something that endures, and so we fill our minds with rubbish and facts, in the silly hope of keeping our place. The thoroughly well-informed man-that is the modern ideal. And the mind of the thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.

Real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face.

Henry seems like a nice mentor with splendid saying about every subject in life, right? He always uses beautiful words and expressions, which sugarcoats life realities and makes a young man believe in ephemeral vanity. However, his influence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to Dorian. He believes that one should not pursue academic achievements nor be a profession in a certain area. You are beautiful, that is enough. Intellect will make you aged, wrinkled, ugly and unattractive. Without firmness nor determination, Dorian believes in Henry blindly and commits sin after sin. Because of his immaturity and blindness, in the end, Dorian has to pay the price for all his crimes.

Dorian is just a child when it comes to accountability. He blames Basil for painting the portrait. He blames Sibyl for performing badly. It is Henry who has a bad influence on him. If it was not for his immaturity, he would not commit such tragic crime and the lives of several characters would not have been ruined. A part of being an adult is to be accountable for every mistake you make and learn from your experience. Beauty is worthless if it does not parallel with humanity, intelligence, independence, and determination.

Oscar Wilde is not a moralist, as he stated. However, we cannot deny that there is one moral lesson we can conclude from this novel: Ageing is natural, and if you sell your soul to go against this rule, you will be paid a tragic price.

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