Dorian Gray, a handsome and narcissistic young man, lives thoughtlessly for his own pleasure - an attitude encouraged by the company he keeps. One day, after having his portrait painted, Dorian makes a frivolous Faustian wish: that he should always remain as young and beautiful as he is in that painting, while the portrait grows old in his stead.The wish comes true, and Dorian soon finds that none of his wicked actions have visible consequences. Realizing that he will appear fresh and unspoiled no matter what kind of life he lives, Dorian becomes increasingly corrupt, unchecked by public opinion. Only the portrait grows degenerate and ugly, a powerful symbol of Dorian's internal ruin.Wilde's dreamlike exploration of life without limits scandalized its late-Victorian audience and has haunted readers' imaginations for more than a hundred years.
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There are books you like. There are books you enjoy. There are books you admire. And then there are books that go off in your head like a bomb. Or, rather, fireworks. Bombs can only destroy. Fireworks illuminate. And I haven’t felt this illuminated by a book since I listened to Michal York reading Brave New World—a work that pales in comparison.
Like many people, I used to docket Oscar Wilde as a mere maker of glittering, memorable aphorisms and observations. And, indeed, his conversational flourishes can tickle us with their humorous dexterity:
“My dear fellow, she tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant”.
Or titillate us with their utter cynicism:
"Young people, nowadays, imagine that money is everything." "Yes," murmured Lord Henry, settling his button-hole in his coat; "and when they grow older they know it.”
Or simply stop us in our tracks with a subtle distinction that has never occurred to us before:
"I didn't say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference." "Ah, you have discovered that?" murmured Lord Henry.
We laugh at Wilde’s humor, admire his penetration or relish his audacity—and we take a moment to try to commit what we have just read to memory. But Lord Henry Wotton coins so many aphorisms that, early on, I began to tire of them—the excess of brilliance and scandal, the detonation of so many conversational hand grenades in my ears, made me wonder if Wilde were nothing more than what he seemed in his photographs: a gifted dandy, the petted aesthete who lived on the surface of life, a committed spectator, much like his creation, Lord Henry.
And when, in the book’s preface, Wilde asserts that, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” I assumed he was setting forth a principle that would inform the book I was about to hear. That I was entering a world where Art was never good or evil but just well- or ill-wrought—a world were, as Lord Henry says, only ugliness is a sin. Like many other readers before me, I assumed wrong.
The more I listened the more Wilde’s assertion in his preface perplexed me. From the evidence of the story it is absurd: one of the major influences that corrupts Dorian Grey (and this story is all about the power of influences) is a book, lent to him by (who else?) Lord Henry. As the story unfolds it becomes abundantly clear that, for all Lord Henry’s wicked witticisms, the real sin is the studied avoidance of ugliness.
In fact, it was the sheer weight of Lord Henry’s endless aphorisms and sophisticated cynicism, at first so charming, that gives us the first indication that our trio of friends (Lord Henry, Basil Hallwood and Dorian) have the wrong end of the stick. Though amusing, Lord Henry’s dicta are unworkable; though others refer to it as a, “philosophy” it fails to hang together in any coherent way. As the book progresses, Basil Hallward and even by Dorian himself tire of the endless, empty effusions; they grate on their nerves as much as they grated on mine. (What an artist Wilde is—to create in the reader the same visceral frisson of annoyance his characters are feeling.) Predictably, Lord Henry, like so many destructive thinkers before and after him, dresses up his point of view as courageous: “The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly--that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays.” The real danger, of course, is that he is half-right. We really are here to realize our true nature. But that realization can only be achieved by serving others, not by primping and pampering ourselves. So when Dorian adopts Lord Henry’s empty tenants (“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul”) the consequence of trying to live out his unworkable ideas is a life that is unlivable.
Yes, Wilde was a flamboyant aesthete, a bad boy who made his reputation saying what we all think but never dare to say—and saying it far better than we would ever be able to. But he also died a Catholic convert, received into the faith he had felt drawn to since his undergraduate days. Yes, some books are neither moral nor immoral. But The Picture of Dorian Grey is not one of them.
I’m not going to spoil your chance to experience the arc of this story firsthand. It is a masterly performance throughout, both by the writer and the reader—Simon Vance was the perfect choice, from the timbre of his voice to his ability to read Wilde’s words as familiarly as if he had written them himself. He reinforces the power of the work he is reading. And there is power here—enough to change your life; or at least make you take a good long look at it. A book about a portrait that reflect the moral corruption of it's subject becomes a mirror for us.
And, now that it’s all over, I think I may have a line on the reason Wilde wrote what he did in his preface. After its publication he spilled much ink defending his book from those who thought it was immoral. But rather than reiterate the audacious ideas in his preface this self-declared aesthete, who had often borne the banner of art-for-art’s-sake in the public square, offered instead something very different:
“Yes; there is a terrible moral in Dorian Grey—a moral which the prurient will not be able to find in it, but which will be revealed to all whose minds are healthy. Is this an artistic error? I fear it is. It is the only error in the book.”
While writing Dorian Grey, Wilde confessed, “I felt that, from an aesthetic point of view, it would be difficult to keep the moral in its proper secondary place; and now I do not feel quite sure that I have been able to do so. I think the moral too apparent.”
In his preface Wilde could very easily have been playing a part—at one point in the novel Dorian observes that we are never more at our ease than when playing a part. But there is another possibility. Fearing that his moral was too apparent and that his art had been compromised, he may have been simply trying to throw his readers off the scent.
He needn’t have worried. There is great art and great truth in this book, which will be evident, as Wilde said, to healthy minds. In fact, he blended art and truth so well that perhaps this book might even heal unhealthy ones. As he once observed, “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”
There is no other word that truly describes Oscar Wilde. In this, one of his very best, there is the hallmark of his genius, his wit, his insatiable urge to shock and to flirt with danger. In De Profundis, his farewell apologia in exile, he wrote of how he "entertained at dinner the evil things of life ... [because] ... the danger was half the excitement." This sums up this title, too. In it, Lord Henry Wotton is Wilde's alter ego and one can't help but speculate if the physical attractions of Dorian Gray were drawn from the real life canvas of Lord Alfred Douglas, whom was to be Wilde's undoing. I listened to the narrative and followed along in my Folio copy, interspersing passages with the transcript from Wilde's famous defamation trial. Sir Edward Carson's classic cross examination about this very book and whether Wilde adhered to the view that "there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. It is well written or badly written", is so much clearer with the book in hand. The fact that Wilde could hold at bay such a prodigious legal assault by strength of his intellect in the face of its obvious innuendo is amazing in itself. The story, so Gothic yet so simple and clever, is as ageless as Gray's features. I loved Simon Vance's performance, too. There were times when it reminded me of his dialogue in the Audible Edition of Dracula between Jonathan Harker and the Count. Other times, it was Wilde speaking to Lord Alfred. The intonation is perfect and the timing impeccable. I loved re-visiting this classic. Top marks!