Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whenever I review a classic I feel like anything I say will be mediocre next to what others have said. So instead of being all philosophical or talking about the morals, themes, etc. in The Picture of Dorian Gray, I'm going to focus on my reading experience of the book. You can check out others comprehensive reviews of the themes and thoughts on what Oscar Wilde was thinking.

While there are a number of characters that come and go in the book the base set are three men. Dorian Gray himself, the painter of the infamous painting and Lord Henry who is the morally abject influence on Dorian. (yes I am calling him Dorian as I refuse to say Gray and be reminded of Fifty Shades... shudder). Of these three characters I found Dorian to be the most interesting. Now you may be thinking that's obvious but actually many might find the loose Lord Henry to be more exciting. I like Dorian because he struggles with the idea of good versus evil, morality, immorality and doing what is 'right'.

This is really where my experience with Dorian Gray wasn't five stars. As with most books from the late 19th century we are subject to a lot of plot points while people are gossiping over tea or at a party. Usually dialogue and I are friends, but I found some of Wilde's dialogue to be as boring as his lengthy descriptions. It was almost as though he just arbitrarily decided when to be boring in dialogue versus boring in a paragraph. Overall the real pacing issue for me is that there are some very, very slow areas . I read the 20 chapter version; perhaps had I read the original shortened version I would have felt less like this, hard to say. What I do know is I feel asleep reading this book on many occasions. Not a good sign. So four stars it is as I would not look forward to a re-read (unless I skipped the boring parts).

As mentioned above, I read the 20 chapter version of Dorian Gray and had a Penguin copy with references and notes in the back. Some of which were interesting (where Wilde changed key phrasing in the second, expanded chapter version) and others were just explanations of something referred to that the average modern reader might not know. I found these to be some of the most interesting parts of the book as it gave some insight into Wilde's thoughts and how he was influenced by the backlash of the first version being published. I'm sure there is a dissertation or two (or a thousand) to be found about these changes so I won't belabor the point. I do however recommend getting a version, like the Penguin one, that has these notes in it.

Talking to my husband about the book after finishing we were trying to determine why it was so controversial for it's time. There's hardly any sex, some nominal drug use and not a lot else. Until I mentioned to him the murder descriptions and he reminded me that we live in a world where CSI and Dexter have taken away the 'shock' of blood spatter, arteries versus veins and other detailed aspects to a murder. In 1985 no one who hadn't murdered someone or wasn't an investigator should know what blood spatter looks like or how it reacts unless you've killed someone yourself. This leads me to believe that some of the details, that today seem mundane or average, are actually what got Wilde scrutinized by the law. It's an interesting theory and perhaps someone knows more about it than I do. But it did remind me of how desensitized we all are. I mean, Game of Thrones alone has taken away the mystery of almost every way to die, have sex or otherwise engage in frivolities that society may frown upon. Poor Wilde was just born a little too early to be appreciated and celebrated the way he would be today.

While I really disliked many long, drawn out sections of The Picture of Dorian Gray; overall I believe it to be a superb piece of literature. The story itself is genius. Having seen Penny Dreadful (and loved the show) I knew a little about Dorian and his painting. But I can say that I am happy to have read Wilde's novel so I have context around other incarnations of Dorian.

Without a doubt, as always, I'm drawn to the morally confused anti-hero and so of course I love Dorian. He certainly remains in the top 10 (where he already was based on references I've read about him) of my most interesting people in fiction. That I wouldn't kick him that beautiful face out of bed is just a bonus (lol - especially the actor in Penny Dreadful)
If you're thinking of reading Dorian Gray I suggest a buddy system or group read. I sort of read this with a group, although I fell behind (and am a terrible buddy reader), but the comments and reviews that came out of that group read really had me push to finish it. And I'm glad I did. The most interesting parts of the story are surely at the end. So while it may be boring in places, the pay-off is worth it if you like classics. If you don't enjoy most classics just watch the gothic beauty of Penny Dreadful and you'll know enough about Dorian to love (or hate) him.

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1 comment:

Leonore Winterer said...

Reviewing a classic is always difficult...I feel like a lot of people forget that those books were not 'born' classics, and most of them were at one point just books meant to entertain people, just like contemporary books are. But if you review a so-called 'classic' just by how entertaining it is to you today, you'll get so much backlash about how you obviously didn't understand the book at all...I think that might be a part of what discourages people from reading older books, which is a shame really because, as you review here shows, some of them can still be entertaining today!