You may have heard of the Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and you may have been able to deduce from this title that the story is about a portrait of a man named Dorian Gray. More specifically, this is the story of a man whose soul was accidentally captured in a portrait of himself, which was painted by a man who was in love with him. The painting aged, Dorian Gray became immortal, and eventually Gray killed the painter and himself.
Forgive me, for there is a chance that I have made this book sound more interesting than it is. However, it is a quick read (ReadingLength.com says it takes the average reader 5 hours), so if you want to read it just to explore Oscar Wilde’s work, it won’t take too much time. It’s no Tolstoy in terms of difficulty or length, but there is a lot of antisemitism and sexism, so it really was not worth it for me.
Brimming with floral prose and an abundance of the word “muttered,” a Picture of Dorian Gray succeeds in being a bit pedantic and indulgent with its vocabulary, if that is in fact its goal. The story follows Dorian Gray, who is the picture of youth and romanticism; he is an aphrodisiac to nearly everyone he encounters. Carefree at first, he becomes the muse of a wistful genius of a painter, Basil. During one of their painting sessions, the painter’s friend visits. He steals Dorian away into the garden and unintentionally disturbs his emotional placidity. The friend, Lord Henry, advises Dorian not to waste his anomalous beauty and signature youth. Dorian spirals into despair at the thought of one day being old and unattractive, something that had never crossed his mind. This is very much a didactic tale of narcissism, and in the midst of a tantrum, Dorian says that he would sell his soul to have the painting Basil made of him bear the violent will of time and sin–time and sin that would otherwise reflect in his own figure as he aged.
By some unknown power, this cry is answered, and he begins to notice that the portrait on his wall seems to be dawning a cruel expression. It doesn’t take him long to realize that his wish was fulfilled and it takes even less time for the painting’s presence to haunt him. From then on, every time he does something cruel or sinful, the cold expression on the painting is exacerbated. In addition to the manifestation of moral wrongdoings, the painting assumes his age, while Dorian’s real body stays the same as it was when it was painted. He hides this painting in a locked room, but thinks of it incessantly. After years of torment, he confronts Basil, and in a bout of fury, kills him with a palette knife. Later, after successfully covering up his crime, he slashes the painting with the same knife, which, due to the link between the painting and himself, effectively kills him.
One of the things that stood out to me in this novel was a recurring minor character, the Jewish theater manager, Isaac. He is portrayed profoundly unfavorably, and as if every one of his supposed flaws is inextricably linked with his being Jewish. Wilde’s disdain for this character shines through how disgusting he finds the setting of the theater that Isaac owns. For a brief period in the book, Dorian Gray is infatuated with a young actress that he stumbles upon in this theater. It feels like Wilde is using Isaac as the far end of a sliding scale, so as to emphatically contrast with how seraphic the girl, Sybil, is. To elaborate on the portrayal of Isaac: he is a side character, so my complaint is not that he doesn’t have much depth. Rather, what we do see of him is an extreme stereotype of a Jewish man. Isaac’s character is obsessed with money and having his loans repaid; these are not inherently bad qualities, but when the narrator consistently refers to Isaac as a “fat,” “oily,” “disgusting,” and “horrid jew,” it becomes antisemitic. The usage of this Victorian-Gothic stock figure is, for me, a large turn-off from this book.
In A Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde seems to wonder if it is possible to be obsessed with another person’s true self, rather than with one’s romanticized image of them. This book seems to suggest that idolatry cannot persist after the object of one’s affection acts contrary to one’s idealization of them. Even those whom you admire can act in ways that you don’t like, which is natural. Gray and Basil grapple with their obsessions and the letdown or even anger that arises when something happens that disrupts their infatuations.
If you read this far, and the antisemitism and vanity speak to you, you should do some self-reflection. If you think that this book sounds boring, but think you should read it so you can say that you have, go ahead.