When I first picked up Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, I didn’t really know what to expect: from an upperclassman two years ago, I heard it was the worst book ever; from my classmate’s senior thesis that I helped edit, not worth the read at all. But having read Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (which, if you haven’t read, is absolutely hilarious), I hoped The Picture of Dorian Gray, being Wilde’s most famous novel, wasn’t going to be that bad.
Perhaps the answer to why so many dislike it, though, can be found in the preface itself:
“The nineteenth-century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass…It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”
Not saying there are other aspects of the book that could turn off readers, but indeed, art is merely a reflection of the viewer (see: Jackson Pollock & Nancy Sullivan). As some critics have said, it may be that Dorian’s self-obsession and craving for beauty and youth is so inherently reflective of society’s attitude towards beauty and youth that it makes us uncomfortable reading the novel. In other words, although we do, on the surface, say that beauty is what matters on the inside, we as a society have been so deeply ingrained from the start (from our culture and our media) with the idea that beauty is everything. Thus, it’s this recognition that makes some of us uneasy.
And damn, does Lord Henry know how to talk. Sometimes, I’d find myself reading his sentences and nodding along before my mind says, “HOLD UP THERE. REREAD THAT SENTENCE. NOPE NOPE WHAT YOU JUST SAID WAS ABSOLUTE BULLSHIT.” He’s that one suave person who, if you don’t actually critically think about his words, will make you believe everything he says (which is why Dorian easily falls into his hands). More interesting than Lord Henry’s words, though, is Dorian Gray’s recognition of the harm that will befall him if he continues to pursue beauty and wealth. He knows disaster will arrive soon enough, but to quote Macbeth: “I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
Among some other themes the novel addresses are women, and on that note, romance and marriage. Clearly, Lord Henry sees marriage as a bore and merely a social duty that every man must endure. And Dorian and Sibyl’s marriage fail after that performance in which Sibyl “embarrasses” Dorian in front of his friends by not performing well and Dorian then proceeds to reject her obvious love for his own reputation.
All the while, the picture of Dorian Gray grows older and nastier, and though Wilde claims that all art is immoral and has no moralistic purpose, it’s almost as if the theme “BEAUTY IS EPHEMERAL” or “DO NOT SELL YOUR SOUL TO BEAUTY AND FAME” is glaring off the pages. But it’s true that those messages are never explicitly stated. Once again, we see in the novel our own messages and we choose to draw our own conclusions…Isn’t that in every novel, though (okay, maybe except Aesop’s Fables)?