The best I can say about this book is that #118 The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is free on Kindle and from Project Gutenberg. I absolutely hated the first 75% of this book, up to chapter 14. After that point, I got interested, briefly, and then ended up simply strongly disliking the rest of it. It reminded me of Perfume, in that it was unpleasant to read to the point where I wished it wasn’t on the list at all, and wondered who could possibly love this book, and also the manner of its unpleasantness.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a beautiful young man. After sitting as an artist’s model, he realises that the portrait will never change, while for him, there’s nothing to look forward to but the ruin of his good looks. A fervent prayer seems to alter the natural order of things, and the painting begins to decay…
The book is angry and bitter. The main character, Dorian, takes his tone from a friend of his, the louche Lord Henry. I can’t picture what these people would be like in person, as they’re so unpleasant to read about, yet they seem so charming, if the reactions of people about them are to be believed.
We’ve been watching Elementary and the description of an addict in that resonates with how both Lord Henry and Dorian act. They disregard the feelings and rights of others to the point where sociopath seems a good description. They are both set on following their own course, like an addict who prioritizes the next hit over anything else. They value nothing but their own continued existence, not love, friendship, money, or others’ lives. I can’t quite grasp what they’re searching for. They say ‘pleasure’ and yet, don’t seem to be enjoying much of anything. Oblivion, perhaps, when the experiments with drugs come up, but that doesn’t explain the previous decade.
Wilde is famous for his clever turns of phrase, and he’s very quotable. His most famous quotations tend not to come from Dorian Gray, though, as the lines are so bleak. Lord Henry is the main mouthpiece for Wilde’s famous epigrams, and these are largely vicious.
Women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated.
I’ve read and rather like The Importance of Being Ernest. In that, the quips are tempered. In this, the hate is palpable and all the more dangerous for being cleverly worded. Wilde seems to have a particular hate for women, and refers to them constantly as inferior, dragging men down in one way or another. The middle and working classes come in for a bashing as well, as does anyone who presumes to have some kind of morality.
Moderation is a fatal thing. Enough is as bad as a meal. More than enough is as good as a feast.
I can’t tell and don’t care enough to find out which parts of this are supposed to be Wilde’s own beliefs and which are a clever satire of the society of the time. I found the whole thing unpleasant to read, and generally wished I wasn’t reading it. As it’s easy to put a book down, the novel took under 3 hours to read, stretched over at least four months. I also fundamentally disagree with the core premise of the book:
Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices. There are no such things.
And I don’t hold the same views on art. Sorry, that should be Art, with a capital A. Wilde treats art as something entirely separate from everyday living. He opens with a preface describing this view, which can be summed up in two of his neat phrases:
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is useless.
Latter, in a flash of insight, Dorian claims to have been harmed by a book lent to him by Lord Henry (who plays the role of the devil in this work quite effectively). Lord Henry counters:
As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame. That is all.
And I would say: that is bullshit. What’s the point of art, or Art even, if it doesn’t stir some emotion? And how can we expect that all emotions thus stirred will be so fleeting as to pass through a life without a ripple? My life has certainly been changed, for better and for worse, by the books I’ve read at different times. The NHS now offers books on prescription, making official something many of us have been doing for years. When I want to feel cheered, I read something cheerful. When I want to be more productive, I read a book about someone who has accomplished great things, and I’m stirred to action. As a child, when I wanted to read a scary story at bedtime I learned to follow it up with a does of Enid Blyton, and then I slept well.
Just as there are books that can help and heal, that can encourage the reader to be their better self, there are books that can harm. It’s not always obvious which are which, as some people thrive on books that are poisonous to others, but I do believe that one can be poisoned by a book. In fact, this book felt toxic to me, and I’ll be happy when it’s gone from my system.