The Picture of Dorian Gray

I’m on a bit of a tear this year with the Classic Books Reading List of Doom, which feels really good. I was stuck on Karamazov for so long it seemed like I’d never get any further, but once I got past the eponymous Brothers, I hit a little stretch of reasonably short and readable options, the first of which was The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Dorian Gray was the only novel that Oscar Wilde ever wrote, having written instead a number of plays, poetry, and assorted essays and commentaries. I’m familiar with his work in the abstract, which frankly it’s hard not to be if you’re a nerd in academics at all, but I’d never actually read any of it beyond eight hundred assorted quotes on sticky notes/mugs/”best of” lists/etc. I knew he was funny, and I knew that he was scandalous, but I’d never experienced any of it directly until this reading.

The Picture of Dorian Gray was good! I really enjoyed it, to the point that I kept reading bits of it aloud to my partner over the lunch table, and added it to his pile of Things To Read when I was done. It’s a gothic horror premise on the surface: a beautiful young man is corrupted in his mind and spirit by an influential and hedonistic mentor, to the point that he makes a wish that a portrait painted of him at the height of his innocence and beauty might show all the vagaries of age and corruption instead of his person. He eventually goes mad, of course, and Wilde enjoys milking the trajectory of his fall and the effects of it on those around him until the inevitable conclusion.

Honestly, though, I enjoyed the start of the book the best? It begins in a very leisurely fashion, and is really grounded in what’s obviously Oscar Wilde enjoying his own writing genius. Because he is, in fact, a genius, I enjoyed it too, and could happily have stayed wallowing in the descriptions and witticisms that characterize the first half for longer than the book allows. Once we hit the turning point of the narrative, though, it moves from being an exercise in poetic comedy into being more truly a horror novel, and that’s a genre in which I’m just less personally invested. It’s still very well done, of course, and Wilde takes us skillfully and unavoidably to the final scenes with gusto.

The book is also, as critics at the time noted, very gay. This was another thing I knew in the abstract, that Oscar Wilde had been in a lot of trouble for writing things which were too gay and also for being caught being too gay, but I wasn’t fully prepared for exactly how…unsubtle…bits of this book are. Not a problem for me, obviously, but one can understand how it caused a scandal. It’s worth getting a copy which goes through some of the contemporary response to the book and also the changes made between subsequent editions of it – it was really interesting to read about how it was received and by whom, and what the effects on Oscar were at the time.

Tl;dr: 9/10, did enjoy and would read again! A good, reasonably easy, and quick read which is also genuinely entertaining.

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