This would have made a better play than a novel.
I love a book that gets me thinking about ideas that I was either dimly aware of previously or gave me an insight into something completely new. On the other hand, I love a good story, too. When one of these concepts so outweighs the other I feel let down and Wilde let me down with Dorian Gray in the way Dostoevsky almost let me down with ‘Crime and Punishment’: too much philosophizing and moralizing. All the characters talk too much and we wind up sitting around stuffy rooms listening to someone who won’t shut up. It’s tedious and makes me feel like the author is just trying to show off.
I will say that I liked Wilde’s humorous cynicism because unlike ‘Brideshead Revisited’ which was full of hateful people who all hated each other, Dorian Gray’s hateful people are fun and interesting and are content knowing how debauched they all are – in fact they revel in it.
Yet the problem with the book is that it’s not really a book, it’s just a collection of stage pieces for the characters to talk inside of. We move from one room to another without much sense of place (something Dostoevsky at least managed to do a much better job at) and all the action pretty much happens off-stage. The best parts of the story were when Dorian went down to the wharf to find a quiet opium den – that whole sequence was well written and interesting. However, not much really happens and we’re forced to take the word of everyone that Dorian is a total monster.
And here’s the thing with Dorian – aside from his vanity, what do we really know about him that would convince us he’s a horrid person whom all good society would sneer at and leave the dining room when ever he entered it? Yes he became a murderer, but that was after we learn people have despised Dorian for years. Wilde does nothing to show us why everyone hates him other than assume we’ll believe people are all just jealous of his eternal youth. To me, Dorian was shallow and vain, but that’s not enough for me to believe he corrupts people to the point of suicide. The whole idea of him is presented poorly.
Funny as this might sound, but this book would have been much better had Stephen King wrote it. King would have made Dorian more realistic as a human being, we would have seen his flaws and his good points, and we would have been drawn much further into the Gothic setting of London and this macabre idea of the painting as the soul. In fact, King’s ‘Pet Cemetery’ comes sort of close to this idea, but that had more to do with greed than it did with anything to do with vanity.
But it’s not fair to talk about the book I wanted; I can only talk about the book I have in front of me.
And Dorian Gray is not that great of a book. I enjoyed the banter for what it was, enjoyed how Wilde tows the line between cold cynicism and cold reality (a distinction many people still can’t make), but it all sort of felt empty and the ending was weak, too. I didn’t feel like it led up to that moment more than I felt Wilde just wanted to get the book over with and decided to end it with a predictable scene.
Still, there is a lot to think about here, especially for someone, like myself, who is no longer ‘youthful’. There is much good in youth and much folly too, however it does get a little to easy to play ‘the grass is always greener’ game when comparing youth to age. Besides, people are more than any one snapshot in time, they ‘contain multitudes’ and can’t be judged only one way because of a single youthful indiscretion. People are allowed to change, and even though Dorian was the same on the outside, he grew on the inside; he was not the same person whom the portrait captured 20 years previously and so Dorian was not bound to some hellish existence where he was static and never changing in all aspects of life – just in appearance. So then why did Wilde condemn Dorian so badly? Was Wilde saying every bad decision we make in youth has to haunt us forever? I disagree.
The other point I’m sure WIlde was trying to make was on of the meaning of art. Art, unlike people, is a snapshot of a moment from the artist’s mind – art is eternal, it’s subjects never aging or corrupting while we, the audience, grow old, cynical, and die around it. The idea of turning a piece of art into a human being, while a fantastic idea, is not explored as well as I hoped by Wilde. Wilde had an opportunity to explore how people really interact with art and how more realistically they would have grown more fond and nostalgic over Dorian as time wore on and not grown to despise him.
I will add that the book is worth reading even if it isn’t all that great – the ideas are interesting and the humor first-rate, it’s just not a really well written novel – it’s a play masquerading as a book and it would be a very fun play if staged well, but here, as a novel, it feels too Socratic in its otherwise Gothic, foggy, mysterious, London setting.