Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin Classics, 2000
I read the novel version. I heard from a friend who studies Wilde that there were two versions, one printed in a magazine and then the longer novel version expanded and revised, especially with much of the more homoerotic sections taken out.
I have to apologize to Wilde because my first instinct was to find the book somewhat tedious. The “Preface,” which is a series of maxims about art and life, might have made me put the book down entirely if it weren’t regarded as a classic. It’s one thing for Lord Henry’s “philosophical” speeches to be tedious–characters are entitled to be whatever they are. For an author to start a book by stating, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” Great.
I suppose I’m glad I stuck with it. I can’t say it’s the favorite thing I’ve ever read. My best friend has read most things so I asked her about it, and though she couldn’t remember much as it had been several years, she said in WhatsApp message, “I did my high school senior thesis on oscar wilde because surprise surprise as a little closeted gay I was fascinated by him but even I couldn’t bring myself to actually like him lmao”
I would say the sense of tediousness did wane a bit. Lord Henry is incredibly tedious and I found myself skimming his discourses a bit, but the book itself is nice and hangs together nicely. My friend also said how much she liked the “horror” concept even if it’s not a horror novel, and I agree with her. It reminds a little bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, just in the Victorian fascination with crime and a kind of dark scientific occult. The mechanics of Dorian Gray are more magical than the chemical business at play in Jekyll. Although the issue of moral duality is quite similar, even if the results and outlook may be quite different.
I suppose what I enjoyed most from it was the obsession with form, beauty, and hypocrisy. I won’t be tedious myself and say that’s particularly relevant to our own age. I suppose it is, but I imagine it’s relevant to any time and place, depending on how you look at it. In the one passage where the narrator breaks to the 1st person, we hear,
For the canons of good society are, or should be, the same as the canons of art. Form is absolutely essential to it. It should have the dignity of ceremony, as well as its unreality, and should combine the insincere character of a romantic play with the wit and beauty that make such plays delightful to us. Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we multiply our personalities.
The point, of course, is that Lord Henry’s obsession with form only differs from that of his contemporaries in that he doesn’t pretend it’s about anything else. That makes him more honest, but it makes him dangerous, only because a ruling class needs to get legitimacy from somewhere, and holiness, or at least holier-than-thou-ness, is how Western ruling classes have gotten it since Christianity.
Anyway, the last thing I’ll include is a series of notes on misogynistic moments in the book. A different friend is working on Dorian Gray for his PhD in translation at the moment. This is not every place I noticed a misogynistic flavor, but only those I thought were particularly noteworthy. Page numbers refer to the edition listed above
24: women’s obsession with permanent comes immediately before Dorian’s wish for eternal youth–how feminine is Dorian himself?
35: Eve and the feminine need to break out of paradise
41: a bad sign for an old woman to blush–Duchess of Harley
47: women are the “decorative” sex–but surely that should be a compliment coming from Harry?
53: Sibyl’s mom has “seen better days,” aging and tiredness–also, Manu, this just came to me. Definitely take note of how he uses the word “dowdy.”
61: again Sibyl wants to be happy forever (but also we know that so do Dorian and Harry despite Harry’s encomium on the importance of the fleeting, although I can’t remember where that was)
63: “Women defend themselves by attacking, just as they attack by sudden and strange surrenders.”
68: parasols like “monstrous butterflies.” Butterflies are interesting imagery in the novel. It was interesting to note because it’s only women who carry parasols. There might be something there.
77: women more practical than men; and again the question of who proposes to whom
92: scene, emotion, and time; the feminine and the emotional
135: substances with sensuous effects come from exotic cultures and lands (this is for your other concern with exoticism)
194: the “Malay crease” on the face of the woman. I didn’t know what to make of this. A Malay crease or keris is a kind of wavy knife or sword.