01 March 2015

Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

It's been a while since I have read a novel that is widely considered as a classic. So when I suddenly found myself without a book to read (I typically order books online and have one or two sitting down in the apartment, but I just got back from vacation and finished all of the books I had so I had no time to order a new one), I headed to the bookstore and picked myself a classic. It happened to be this one, Oscar Wilde's philosophical novel about decadence and corruption, which happens to be the only novel he has written.

What can I say? It's a short novel, clocking in at just 194 pages (at least the version I had), but it definitely packs a mean punch. At first, I didn't like the novel, as I felt like it wasn't straight to the point. It meandered here and there at times, such as the chapter on Sybil Vane, who happens to be the main character's first love interest. I wondered why were we spending several pages on her, when at that time it wasn't clear what her role was in the story. But anyway, overall I think I still have a positive impression about this book.

First, let us talk about the narrative progression. It is narrated with the regular linear progression of time. No flashbacks. Relatively simple. But the events are not linearly distributed. See, going in, I already knew that this book is about the main character's corruption, but unlike regular people, his soul's corruption is not manifest in his physical appearance, but rather, in a portrait of him, which is kept in some dusty attic. I expected that page after page, his soul gets gradually corrupt, and the portrait slowly get gradually gets uglier and uglier. However, that is not the case. The narrative describes one case of corruption, namely, the main character being the cause of Sybil Vane's death, which makes the portrait slightly uglier, and then the narrative zooms forward so to speak, years forward, in fact. In other words, there are jumps in the narrative progression, and instead of chronicling the main character's descent into spiritual demise, the narrative just picks highlights of the trip. While I have nothing against this technique, at times it needed a little bit of brain work, and some bridging had to be done. It's not a negative thing obviously, all I want to say is that Wilde expected his readers to be a little bit more intelligent to be able to do this. I wonder if this book is required reading in high school, and if so, at what age.

There are aspects of the book that I didn't like, and most if not all of these aspects have something to do with the fact that morality back in 1890 was drastically different from today's. Remember, this was a novel that was written during the Victorian Period, and while this book was no Henry Miller, it was already considered immoral by readers back then and actually got the author into trouble. I find myself being on the other side of the fence, so to speak. In 1890, Wilde was being avantgarde when he wrote this book, and the conservatives thought he was immoral. Now in 2015, I think that Wilde was conservative, and that some of the motifs in the book clash with my contemporary morality. Hence, I seesaw between hating parts of the book because it contradicts what I currently think is moral, and liking parts of the book because it is a manifestation of Wilde's rebellious attitude against a conservative society that he was living in.

Take for example his references to Jews and women. At some level, this book is racist and sexist. Every time he described the Jewish owner of the theatre where Sybil Vane worked, he appended a negative adjective to it. And with regards to women, women were depicted as someone who cannot engage in logical conversation and rational thought, and as someone who always gets preoccupied in very minor affairs and shallow feelings. In today's society and today's morality, I think these expressions are incompatible. But at the same time, I also acknowledge that these views were the prevailing views in 19th century England.

And yes, I also acknowledge that the book was radical enough to actually make the conservative society of 19th century England angry. I understand that some passages might be homoerotic. And overall, I understand that this novel represents a very liberal slice of an otherwise conservative English crowd of 1890.

To conclude, I would say I liked the book. In fact, I would even say that I liked the main character and don't consider him as evil. After all, I am not the best supporter for Victorian morality. The book emphasizes too much the importance of external and outsider morality. In other words, most of the "moral" characters in the book think that being moral or being good basically means having a good reputation. But in my book, people in the Victorian Era were too pre-occupied with thinking about what other people think about them. Why do we even need to care? I don't need to care what my neighbor thinks of me. I only care about the opinion of the people I care about. So while I care about my reputation to my friends, I don't care for my reputation to strangers. In this view, I actually consider Dorian Gray to be a hero, and not an anti-hero. And yes, while I understand and still believe in the maxim that "you reap what you sow", and totally agree that Dorian Gray's demise is due to his decadent lifestyle and wrong life choices, which I have no problem with, I disagree with the idea that one's morality should be determined by the people around you. While I do not think that Dorian Gray's habits were positive (opium smoking and murder for example), I also think that Victorian society could care less about what other people did. While I don't engage in opium smoking nor murder, there is a part of me that agrees with Dorian in having a hedonistic worldview, where I place emphasis in the pursuit of happiness, rather than the pursuit of a good reputation to society. In other words, I couldn't care less what other people think. And for that, I liked Dorian Gray's mindset.

Overall, I have a positive impression of this book. It was small, but it definitely was very multi-faceted and complex. I would recommend this as a book to read if one wants a philosophical novel. It provides good venue to reflect on how morality has changed since then, and how it is still the same. I give this book 5 out of 5 stars.

See my other book reviews here.


  1. I recognize your feeling here. I decided to read only classic books for two years straight. After one year and five months, I'm about to cut it short. If on one hand I'm acquiring a better idea and taste of how people behaved and felt two hundred years ago, on the other there's so much suffering and struggling around appearances, impressions and values that completely disappeared, fortunately!

    In summary, reading those books is pleasant for giving one the opportunity of interacting with minds of centuries ago and of learning straight from them what disturbed their peace of mind. The down point is that those matters can hardly disturb our minds today, and sometimes you close the book without feeling provoked once.

    I liked "The Picture of Dorian Gray." But like you I have no fond passions for it.

    1. Renan,

      I agree. I think that reading classic literature is at most, providing us with a window through time, giving us access to different opinions and mores back then. It is still useful to reflect how things have changed (or not), and perhaps be grateful that we are not living in those times.

  2. I should read it again. I remember it from high school, and it's been a while but I loved it then. Dark themes... but for once, it felts "honest".

    1. Zhu,

      By all means read it again. I am pretty sure your opinion about this book probably would have changed due to a different context.