Wednesday, April 12, 2006

14. The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

I just checked out the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000, certain that The Picture of Dorian Gray would appear on it. Why, you may ask, would I expect to find this book among those the public claim to be of questionable content? Have you read this book? I’m sure you have a general idea of the concept behind it – man sells his soul to remain forever young and beautiful while a portrait of him ages in a disturbing mirror of his true self. It’s been somewhat indoctrinated into pop culture, but, again I ask, have you read this book? Because it is gay. Gay, gay, gay.

The story starts with Basil Hallward preparing to work on the eponymous painting when his friend Lord Henry Wotton convinces Basil to let him stay while Dorian sits for the portrait. During the sitting, Henry, or “Harry” as he is often referred to here, has some choice words for Dorian, mainly planting the idea that while today he takes his youth for granted and has “passions” and thoughts that frighten him, he will one day grow old and ugly and be full of regret. This conversation, during which Harry talks greatly of youth’s beauty, leads Dorian to utter the pivotal statement:

“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June…If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”

Indeed, Dorian does. As he grows older and more depraved, there are no lines on his face or any traces of age while, in a turn that is at first shocking then shameful then angering, Dorian’s portrait grows wrinkled and ugly, plainly showing all of the sins he’s committed. And does Dorian ever commit some sins. While pop culture’s knowledge of the story stops at the simple aging process, the source material goes further than that to strip Dorian of the ability to feel any remorse or sadness. He visits whorehouses and opium dens and creates quite a reputation for himself, causing even old friends to make their separation from him. When Dorian falls in love with and becomes engaged to the Shakespearean actress Sybil Vane (note the interesting choice of surname), he takes Harry to see her performance of Juliet and is greatly disappointed when her show is less than stellar. Sybil’s explanation is that now that she knows true love, she has no need to pretend it. Dorian’s response to this is cold and he immediately falls out of love and breaks off the engagement. Devastated, Sybil kills herself. Not that Dorian cares.

Although Dorian is at disturbed by the portrait’s change, he begins to take a bizarre delight in watching it grow more repulsive with each of his acts, keeping it behind a curtain in an unused room of his house. After many years – almost twenty! I had no idea this story went on that long! – Basil comes to revisit Dorian and confront him about the horrible things he’s heard about his character while revealing the intense admiration he held for the young man he painted. When Basil asks Dorian to see his soul, Dorian leads him upstairs and unveils the artist’s work. “Christ! What a thing I must have worshipped!” Basil exclaims. “It has the eyes of a devil.” No sooner does Basil implores Dorian to beg for forgiveness, to redeem his soul, than Dorian picks up a knife a stabs the artist to death. Then he calls his buddy Alan Campbell and blackmails him into burning the body. And, oh yeah, Campbell kills himself out of guilt for the act he’s done. Not that Dorian cares.

The only point in time that Dorian cares about anything is when Sybil Vane’s brother goes after him, vengeful for his sister’s death. Dorian’s scared then, but any other ill emotion leaves him when James Vane is accidentally killed. Although this does drive Dorian to a mad fury and he rushes to destroy the portrait that holds all his secrets. He grabs the knife he used to kill Basil and stabs furiously at the painting. A sharp cry is heard and the servants rush in to find a dead man “withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage,” and the painting restored its original beauty. I’m not doing that ending justice so just trust me, it’s pretty cool.

I realize I didn’t explain quite why this book is so gay, but once you read it you’ll be surprised by how strong the homosexual overtones are. Both Basil and Harry are very complimentary of Dorian, while Dorian just eats up their praise. It’s not your usual 19th century story of men, women, morals, and money – this ain’t your Jane Austen’s tale of morality. It’s wonderfully salacious and succinctly told. Two hundred pages rarely packs this much punch. But still, I’m surprised that this ode to man-love goes on being taught in schools and no one protests!* Basil and Harry clearly love Dorian and I imagine it was only a matter of social mores that kept this story from being the gay love triangle that it truly is. Not that there would have been anything wrong with that.

*I’m not saying the book should be banned, just that in an age when books like Harry Potter and James and the Giant Peach have been challenged, I’m surprised this isn’t on the list. You know how the crazies are.


Blogger piksea said...

I never thought of it before, but I'm surprised that the book challengy types didn't pick up on that. Most of them don't actually read any of the books, they just say they heard they were obscene. In all likelihood they remember the book about the painting that changes and the guy who stays young.

These are the people who say that Huckleberry Finn is racist and finds the content of Maya Angelou's autobiography and Ann Frank's diary inappropriate, like they just made up salacious tidbits to ruin the next generation.

Oops! Did I get a little carried away... again?

11:04 AM  
Blogger Exxie said...

I know. It's always, "I heard this was bad so no one should read it EVER." And some people are lactose intolent but that doesn't mean we should stop selling milk.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Carrie said...

This si the first review of this that has actually made me want to read it.


2:04 PM  
Blogger Exxie said...

Aww...that touches my little bibliophilic heart! No, really! I'm glad you want to read it was really much more enjoyable than I had expected so I'd encourage any book lover to pick it up if they haven't already done so.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Carrie said...

I have so many on my list right now that I don't see a DG reading in the near future, but I'll definitely pick it up next itme I see it at the thrift store.

How do you pick the books on your list? I've been thinking about this recently. I read tons, but I am always surprised what ends up getting finished and thought about and which books just fall by the wayside.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Exxie said...

It's pretty random. Some of the books are ones I read for my book club - those are all Chicago related - and others are ones that I've read about in Esquire or Bitch. There are lots of classics that I've always wanted to read. Dante's Divine Comedy is on my list and now that Barnes & Noble has put out their version of it I'm pretty psyched to pick it up. Lots of times it's just by word or mouth...or blog, as the case may be. I used to pick up lots of recommendations when I spent a lot of time on Chicklit, but I also get them from the book blogs that I read. It's always amazing how my list is so long and there's always some book I have to read right now which only gets replaced by another book that I have to read right away. It's kind of a never ending race, isn't it? How do you pick the books that make it to your list?

7:19 PM  
Blogger Carrie said...

Uh, I have a physical pile of to-read, and sometimes those get read, but never as soon as I planned. Often I read about a book on, or in blogs and see if my library has it. If they do, it is NEVER at my branch, so I put a hold on it and when I go next to my branch , see if it is there. I tend to read in strings too, if one book by an author/ small publisher is good, I often just find something else by them to read next. I alos go book shopping at used stores/ thrift stores when I am stressed...

I read more than one book at a time too, so often what I finish is dictated by how much time I spend in one place-- I have a book for the toilet, in bed, on transit, etc.


5:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post here, and I liked this one almost as your insights into the world of Stuart Dybek....check out the 1945 (or 1946) version of Picture of Dorian Gray with a very young Angela Lansbury and the late, great George's a little less "gay, gay, gay", but hey, what can you do. There are some choice bon mots, of course (Thanks O. Wilde!)


7:22 PM  
Blogger Prat said...

yeah, it is kind of surprising.
however, wilde has his own little party going on between the pages.
i think post reading his biography and picking up little details on his life made me see the book in new light. you know what i mean.
however, the happy prince still remains the face of wilde to me.

3:34 AM  

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