Monday, September 21, 2020

Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other WritingsThe Picture of Dorian Gray.  Oscar Wilde.  Bantam Books (1982) (First published 1890). Genre:  Classic.

First Line: "The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the most delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn."

Summary: Lord Henry Wotton is visiting his friend, Basil Hallward.  Basil has been work on a portrait.  Lord Henry thinks it is the best work he has done and that he should sent it to Grosvenor to be put on exhibition.  Basil says he is going to do no such thing and won't tell Lord Henry why.  Lord Henry is rather wily and charming and is able to get out of Basil that he feels there is too much of himself in that painting.  He feels as though he would be putting his soul on display.  Basil says that when he first met Dorian Gray, 

"A curious sensation of terror came over me.  I knew I had come face to face with someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself."

Now Lord Henry is intrigued and insists on meeting Dorian Gray.  When he does, he finds him fascinating as well.  Dorian Gray loses his interest in friendship with Basil and thinks Lord Henry is the one who is more interesting and becomes strongly influenced by him.  Unfortunately, Lord Henry is rather careless when it comes to morality.  He says things like;

"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.  Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful."


"Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul."


"Beauty is the wonder of wonders.  It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.  The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible... Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you.  But what the gods give they quickly take away.  You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully.  When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats.  Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful."

When Basil finishes the portrait of Dorian and allows him to see it he is at first delighted.  But as he remembers what Lord Henry said about his youth going away, he becomes sad and afraid.  He declares, "If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!  For that - for that I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!"

Lord Henry brushes it off as a silly thing to say, while Basil is shocked and insists that Dorian should not talk that way.  But Dorian has now become obsessed by the desire to remain young and beautiful.  As the story progresses we see how this worship of youth and beauty completely consumes his  soul.  

My thoughts:  I didn't know much about this story before starting it and I think that was a good thing.  However, I almost gave up on it after about 50 pages.  It seemed strange and I wasn't sure where it was going.  But around 60 or 70 pages in, the story picks up and I could see where it was headed and wanted to know how it turned out.

Oscar Wilde writes great dialogue that is quite humorous at times.  This story does contain some humor in the character of Lord Henry, but there is not much humor as the story progresses.  It is a dark story in many ways.  The destruction of a soul is not pretty.  Oscar Wilde seemed to have some good insight into what a journey down this path might look like.  He keeps the story moving along and you never feel you are stuck under the heavy weight of darkness.

Throughout the story Wilde references so many other writers and works of literature, which was fun.  Oscar Wilde's writing is a delight to read.  Even though this is heavy subject matter, I am glad I persisted and finished the book.


"I am too fond of reading books to care to write them, Mr. Erskine."

"Some large blue china jars and parrot tulips were ranged on the mantelshelf, and through the small leaded panes of the window streamed the apricot-coloured light of a summer day in London."

"What is marriage? An irrevocable vow.  You mock at it for that. Ah! don't mock. It is an irrevocable vow that I want to take. Her trust makes me faithful, her belief makes me good."

"But the picture? What was he to say of that? It held the secret of his life, and told his story.  It had taught him to love his own beauty.  Would it teach him to loathe his own soul? Would he ever look at it again?"


  1. I read this way back in college. I enjoy Wilde's writing. If anyone remembers him at all, it's probably for his brilliant witticisms, but in a book like Dorian Gray, it's obvious that the man knew how to write more than one-liners.

    1. Yes, Wilde sure does know how to write! I think you are right about him being remembered for his brilliant witticisms. It was after experiencing so many of those in The Importance of Being Earnest that I had the courage to tackle Dorian Gray.