The Pleasure of Reading Dorian Gray

Wherein I explain why Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is my favorite novel so far

Reading a book in public can invite querulous snippets of conversation.  This alternatively welcome and unwelcome truth can interrupt the flow of a good book, but does result in human contact in such unlikely places as, say, a MUNI bus.  Often, the interrupting stranger simply inquires as to the title, nods or grunts in satisfaction at the reply, and rejoins the anonymous scenery of the city’s background.  Other times, the question and answer spark the tinder of a real conversation.

One question I have been asked countless times in those conversations always catches me off guard: what is your favorite book?  I have learned not to respond with what comes naturally, which is “favorite book of what kind?”  That tends to confuse people.  So, I have accepted that it is socially aberrant to be unable to identify the one book that stands out among all other and is worthy of the title “favorite.”

For about two years, my favorite book was The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.  For anyone unfamiliar, he is the author best known for The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask.  The Count of Monte Cristo, much different from these other stories, details the protagonist’s careful, meticulous, and ultimately gut-wrenching revenge on his former lover, and the friend who betrayed him.  The revenge tale is brilliantly conceived, indulgent in detail, and very satisfying.

When I first picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray, the only novel written by playwright Oscar Wilde, I was underwhelmed.  The publishers of my particular copy used such brilliant literary devices as small pages, unnecessarily long chapter spacing, and courier new font to buff the book out to its still modest 164 pages.  My previous knowledge of Oscar Wilde consisted in large part of witty quotations, and the overall impression that if one looked up the old noun “dandy” in an illustrated dictionary, his image would appear.  However, the book had found its way into my hands, and I figured that reading it would be a one-sitting venture, and would add another so-called classic to my list.

As it turned out, the book took me nearly a week to read.  The reason is not that the book is difficult to understand, or dense, or confusing.  Rather, I found on every other page a passage or excerpt that was so amusing, so insightful, or so profound that I would stop reading, mark the page, and seek out my wife so I could share it with her.  I quoted it to my parents, to my friends, even to some of my coworkers.  The writing was so good, the ideas and observations so on-point, that I simply could not read it quickly.

The plot of the story is a good one.  An artist paints a portrait of a young man, Dorian Gray.  The subject believes it is a great work, but he remarks sadly that it is a shame that he will grow old and his good looks will fade, but the picture will remain young and handsome.  He laments that it cannot be the other way around.

Of course, the story’s device is that things do become the other way around.  The picture ages, and Dorian does not.  As he becomes morally depraved, it is the features of the picture, not his own, that show the signs of a hard life.  The face in the picture becomes cruel, older, withered; Dorian remains young and unblemished.

There is a particularly good representative scene in which a man confronts Dorian for wronging a female relation of his some years past.  Faced with being beaten or killed by the angry relative, Dorian insists that he be taken in front of a streetlight.  When the man sees his illuminated face, he remarks that this must be the wrong person, for nobody who committed such a cruel act so long ago could still be so young and innocent-looking.

Throughout the short novel, Dorian struggles against a life of depravity, though he outwardly expresses his desire to be good.  In the end, he destroys the picture, and it returns to its original, youthful state, while his body is transformed into the monster he has truly become.

Though the guilty pleasure of The Count of Monte Cristo is superior in many other technical respects, I have never thoroughly enjoyed reading a book as much as I did The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It is a refreshing, thought-provoking, and worthwhile read.

~Andrew

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Published in: on July 26, 2011 at 3:54 am  Leave a Comment  

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