Monday, 3 December 2012

The Picture of Dorian Gray | Review

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. It's, if you don't count a read-out-of-order Great Expectations, the first 'classic' novel I have ever finished, and certainly the first one I've read by choice. It was probably Big Finish, with their announcement of a Dorian Gray audio series, that reminded me to read this, and initially I expect it was hearing about the concept of the book that interested me. It is, though not a completely original idea, a very strong idea and it is a new take on an older idea, that of 'selling your soul to the Devil'.

This review won't contain any spoilers, and I find it difficult to criticise something written so long ago. I aim to watch the movie made a few years ago (which I can see myself disliking because it's meant to deviate from the plot of the book), and I'll be able to offer a more complete opinion of that. But - for now it's the book, and I will try my best to review it well.

It is a typical 19th Century novel (although this is the first one I've finished, it's by no means the first one I've started, and I have knowledge of lots of other novels of the period), and it revels in being, to a modern reader, over the top and elaborate. For me, the 'over the top' side to it adds richness to it. It's delightfully full of words and language, it's easy to follow and it's fascinating. It's not just the characters that are fascinating, but it's also the descriptions. We aren't told action as it unfolds, but it's shown initially by the reaction of the character, and then explained later on through speech, as or as some insignificant sentence amongst the description. The descriptions also describe thing is in incredible detail, fully conveying the idea of the importance of 'beauty' with the book.

The characters are wonderful. Lord Henry, or Harry to his mates, is fantastically over the top and elaborate, with pretty outrageous views even for modern day. He's a character that is practically the embodiment of controversy, and this book and its author carry a lot of that. Dorian Gray starts off as an over the top, emotional 'boy', and his speech does change and develop, he does become more mature in how he speaks, and less irrational. However, through the descriptions, in which we are given an insight of how he thinks, and through the underlying theme of what he says and occasionally how he speaks, there are always hints of emotion and the 'boy' that he looks like. The trick of never-ageing is only really used once, when someone threatens Dorian many years after a certain event. It's also something that isn't really mentioned. People accept Dorian's eternal youth (that's not a spoiler, the blurb will tell you that much), and they think that a man of his position, and his lifestyle, will of course look young forever. Lord Henry believes he has some secret - but doesn't question it, because - well because basically he probably enjoys staring at Dorian's face all day.

The other character of note (though they are all full, developed, and wonderful to read about) is Basil, the painter. He is the 'innocent' character, whereas Henry is all for sin, and Dorian is somewhere in the middle of the two. He provides the 'angel' side of the arguable angel/Devil symbols of Basil/Henry. He, again, is a full and well written character, and the care he has for Dorian is really quite touching. It's even more touching when the book develops and the stakes are raised. That's the other thing. It is a fairly linear story, albeit with some strange and complex ideas, but there are twists along the way that change the way you perceive things within the book.

The thing that I dislike in books is when you skip years within the space of a page, or in between a chapter. Dorian Gray does this a lot. First it skips a month, then a large section of years. It didn't annoy me as much as I thought it would, though the 'catch up' chapter, in which Wilde describes Dorian Gray's escapades and indulgence in various beautiful things, is quite long. In fact - very long, and it drags out, with long, elaborate sentences, describing historical items in great detail. My eyes did blur a couple of times while reading that chapter, but the action soon picks up again after, and the gap of years is referenced and also included well in the rest of the book.

A few other things to mention then. The references to other works of literature, such as Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet, are brilliant. There are a lot of references to, not just beauty, but also sophisticated things, literature, history, poetry, music. It is a highly sophisticated book, with properly strong ideas. I can see why it caused controversy at the time - and I've no idea whether the book I read is the 'full' version with all the controversial bits still in (not sure I did), but I can find various controversial items in there.

I'm not sure if this is the book for everyone. I loved it, but then I'm interested in literature, and the idea of 'beauty' is something I'm currently trying to pick out for my English coursework, so the theme of Dorian Gray was something I was interested in. It's also a book that's ahead of its time. It talks openly and daringly about things, it portrays Victorian life fantastically, and it shows you inside the head of the character, while still developing all of them. The story moves along well, there's a suitable amount of action, and it's all contained and believable. If you like developed, classic books - then this is for you. If you prefer lighter books - this is not the book for you. As um, the characters do like to go on... And on...

I really, really enjoyed this book. I finished it - so that's proof. I'm not sure whether I'd tackle Wilde's 'Importance of Being Earnest', but I'd definitely read Dorian Gray again. It's my kind of book, and I loved it.

I don't really rate things 10/10 that often, and there is the long 'catch up' chapter to consider so - 9.5/10

And something to watch out for: the end of the chapter where Dorian faints in the garden. The last few sentences of the chapter are truly chilling.

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