Goodreads Facebook Twitter RSS Feed

Book Review : The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Friday, 14 August 2009

As everyone knows, Dorian Gray is the novel with the painting in : the one that ages while its subject – Dorian – remains youthful. Only, that’s not it at all. The real point is that the miraculous portrait records Dorian’s moral corruption, not just his mere aging. The image becomes slowly uglier and crueller as Dorian sinks further and further into depravity, but he himself remains beautiful. This is a book that plays with the familiar conflation of attractiveness and goodness in literature : baddies that are ugly and deformed, heroes that are handsome. Dorian’s appearance is not a reliable indicator of his personality. He looks wonderful, but isn’t.

So this is a novel with much relevance to the modern world : Dorian could be any modern-day celebrity adored for his good looks, regardless of his true worth. Mind you, I did find myself wanting him to get away with all his various crimes and misdemeanours rather than receiving his inevitable come-uppance. I'm sure Wilde had strong sympathy for his character too. Someone should write a modern version in which the protagonist gets away with it all – because, in life, they so often do, of course. Hmmm ...

This is certainly an ambitious book. As well as being a Victorian morality tale it is, by turns, an overwrought gothic melodrama, a comedy of social manners complete with a stream of Wildean witticisms, a criticism of Victorian hypocrisy, a psyhchological study and a fantasy/magic realist book. I often wish modern writers were more ambitious like this : Wilde clearly wasn’t concerned about targeting a particular genre or market-sector. Would a modern author succeed with a manuscript like this, I wonder, or would they be encouraged to write something more "focused", something easier to fit into a marketing pigeon-hole?

It's amusing to me, also, that this book is marketed as a "classic". It's rare, of course, for a "genre" novel to be elevated to this status. I remain deeply sceptical about the notion of a canon of great works and deeply sceptical about categorizing books by genre. I found this book in the "Classics" section of my bookshop, and not, say, the "Fantasy" section. Which seems completely arbitrary to me. Who exactly are the people that decide a particular work is "a classic"?

The book sags a little occasionally and I could never quite shake the notion that Wilde would have preferred to write the story as a play rather than a novel. But still, it's a book everyone should read.


Post a Comment

I'd love to know what you think.