Those of you who have been reading my blog regularly from the start will know that The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the few books I had ever DNF’d (did not finish). Not this time. I was determined to get through it, and I was actually pleasantly surprised when I did!
The last time I tried reading it, I was clearly not in the right frame of mind. I got about two chapters in and gave up. Knowing that this had been an issue for me in the past, I chose to download a free e-book version for my kindle rather than tie up a library copy, potentially for weeks as I tried to plough through it.
I love The Importance of Being Earnest (a stage play also by Oscar Wilde). So why did I have so much trouble with The Picture of Dorian Gray? Here’s why I think I gave up last time.
The first two chapters have an excessive amount of description, but almost no plot development. The dialogue tries to be witty, but what might have worked as a scene in a stage play didn’t come across that way when printed in black and white. We hear an excessive amount about why Basil Hallward (the artist) is infatuated with Gray, and how wonderful the portrait is, but it is not until we stop hearing about Gray from his friends and actually meet him that the story begins to get interesting.
When the picture is finished, Gray is overwhelmed, and wishes or prays that he could remain always as young and attractive as he is portrayed. For some reason which is never entirely explained, the wish is granted, and from this point on, the portrait ages, while Dorian Gray outwardly remains a boyish 20-year-old.
The young Dorian Gray is heavily influenced by Lord Henry Wooten, who lives entirely for pleasure. After a brief love affair with a teenaged actress ends tragically, Gray first notices that his portrait has altered. He now faces a choice: to atone for his sins, or give in to a life of pleasure, knowing that any physical manifestations of his crimes will be borne by the painting, while he retains the outward appearance of innocence.
At this point the story finally becomes interesting: we follow Gray’s internal struggles as he wavers between Lord Henry’s influence and Basil’s concerns for Dorian’s soul, and his (Basil’s) confusion at not being allowed to see the portrait he painted.
The second half of the novel is a fast-paced, fascinating read, well worth the effort of struggling through the slow beginning. I thought the novel was going to deal more with the supernatural (my only previous experience of Dorian Gray being the character’s appearance in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) but instead the drama is almost entirely psychological. I enjoyed it anyway and would recommend it to fans of late 19th century literature.