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The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel by Oscar Wilde ( Book recommendation and review)

I'm finally ready to review an amazingly lyrical and beautiful piece of writing that is also known as The Picture of Dorian Gray. I  shall start by talking about The Preface to this novel because I think it deserves special attention.  Now, The Preface can be studied both on its own and with the novel in mind. I think that as a text it works well either way. Because of its brevity, I will influde a direct quote of it: 

The Preface

The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.
No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.
No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.
No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
Oscar Wilde.

 In my opinion, ‘The Preface’ has be one of the most important and profound essays on the nature of Art ever written. It can be applied to any and all Art forms. Interestingly, the way it is written is very simple and minimalistic, almost mathematical. It employs logic effortlessly and even the way it is written resembles a mathematical formula. Did Wilde wanted to show that he can express the most complex matters clearly (and seemingly even nonchalantly) in just a few paragraphs? Did he wanted to make it seem evident? No reservations, no embellishment, just getting straight to the point—that is what is feels like. However, at the same time there is something about The Preface that feels quite vulnerable, almost like Wilde cared about the subject matter too deeply, like there was no other way to express it then putting it as clearly as simply as possible. For aren’t declarations of strong love and expressions of deep emotion, often surprisingly uncomplicated? There is no place for wit and sarcasm where there is talk of love. Even when it is a talk of love for Art, or perhaps especially then, for personal love always has a personal dimension and love for art can be seen as something truly eternal. For me, The Preface is a work of art in itself. Brilliantly and beautifully written, it is a befitting introduction to such a complex and magnificent novel. Oscar Wilde and his famous preface! I really can’t think of anyone who has managed to speak so brilliantly and eloquently about Art, and all that, in a text that is under 400 words. No wonder that The Preface seems absolutely timeless. Wilde’s words about Art continue to echo with power, lightening the way for artists to come. Simple but incredibly powerful piece of writing.

The novel itself? Nothing simple about this one, not with its complex characters, ambiguous messages, delicious poetry, stunning dialogues, wild descriptions, painful mysteries and seducing wrongness pouring from each page. The novel is an exceptional piece of writing, no doubts about that. Elements of fantasy, gothic and surreal come together to tell about a young man who wanted to hold onto his beauty. Dorian, a young man posing for a portrait, stirred with flattering words from charming Lord Henry, falls in love with his own painting and admits he would be willing to give up his soul to retain his beauty. The devil seems to take him on his offer, for the painting starts to age instead of him…and so his story begins. A story that, perhaps, has never been more relevant. We live in an age that is obsessed with beauty. Not beauty in a spiritual, artistic or philosophical sense, but beauty of the flesh. Physical beauty has become a full blown obsession of the masses. The standards of masculine and feminine beauty fitted into neat fetish proportions. Personal physical beauty can be attained more easily than before (with help of science) and why should it be attained at all costs in the first place needn’t be asked- or so is implied. Obviously as society we’re more than willing to pay the price for it. Generally speaking, isn’t it so? There has always been something that made us long for beauty. Sometimes we call it the pursuit of happiness, something we give it more philosophical and less naïve names but we always search for beauty. It can be maintained that humans have always been involved in the pursuit of beauty, but I dare say, I’m not sure that this pursuit has ever been quite this much consumerist oriented, as in this time we live in. All the more reason to read this fascinating novel.

"The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.
From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as usual, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of the laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flame-like as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid jade-faced painters who, in an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the black-crocketed spires of the early June hollyhocks, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive, and the dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.
In the centre of the room, clamped to an upright easel, stood the full-length portrait of a young man of extraordinary personal beauty, and in front of it, some little distance away, was sitting the artist himself, Basil Hallward, whose sudden disappearance some years ago caused, at the time, such public excitement, and gave rise to so many strange conjectures." The opening paragraphs of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

This novel can be read as psychological study and not only of Dorian, the protagonist but of other characters as well. Both Basil (the painter, the embodiment of an artist) and Lord Henry (self-portrait of Wilde himself?) play an immensely important role in this novel. Almost effortlessly, this novel portrays Victorian society. It reveals its hidden horrors without ever losing the tread of the story. The story is, after all, about Dorian. The way Dorian’s life is narrated feels at times, almost detached, but this only enhances our feeling of suspense. We get a glimpses inside Dorian’s mind, but at times he seems to positively drift away from us.  Somehow, this made me, as a reader, all the more interested in what was going on in his head. The first time I read this novel I had a feeling my head was going to explode. I must have had read in an hour or so and I will never forget that feeling of bewilderment. Every other reading felt just as intense. It is like there is a magic in this novel, a magic that can’t be resist. That might be why my mind refuses to offer some finite interpretation of this text, I want to be seduced anew every time I read it.

What it comes down to is, quite possibly, the subject of eternal struggle against the wrong and the right. I truly believe that this struggle is masterfully described in this novel. Right from the start of the novel, Dorian has plenty of opportunities to choose either, and often he chooses to act selfishly, to behave badly and wrongly…. Perhaps this can be put to his young age? Or can it? As for the end, we won’t discuss that to avoid spoilers, but I think it is safe to say we’re always left in suspense as what his next action will be. Perhaps because we remember what an innocent thing he was to start with. Yet, can it not be said that Dorian seduced both Basil and Lord Henry and not the other way around? Or was it Dorian’s beauty that seduced everyone? Is beauty a power? If so, why are we so vulnerable to beauty? If absolute power corrupts absolutely, does absolute beauty does the same? Nevertheless, I must add that personally I don’t believe that power corrupts, what I believe is what Herbert said and that is that pathological creatures are draws to power hence those who seek power should be examined for sanity.  Having that in mind, could it be said that Dorian’s desire for beauty is a seed of desire for power and as such something to be questioned? Does Dorian longs for beauty because it is a tool of seduction? As in a way perhaps visual Art/painting (represented by Basil) and eloquence/writing (represented by Lord Henry) are a way of achieving power over others and seducing them? One thing is sure. There is a lot of seducing in this novel. I, as a reader, certainly felt seduced both by the sheer beauty of the writing and by the complexity of the story itself.

How ironic that this novel should be called immoral! It is one of the most moral pieces of writing that I have ever read. The moral paradoxes of Lord Henry might seem to be an invitation for immorality, but isn’t that just one way to read them?  Lord Henry certainly appears to be tempting us, reassuring us to succumb to every temptation, but let not forget that he is a character in a novel and that means he has to be studied within the context. I’m sure it was not Lord Henry that shocked the Victorian critics of this novel, it was probably seeing themselves in a metaphorical mirror that had put them out of their wits. Without being pretentious about it, Wilde managed to make Dorian’s story into something more, something that spoke about the present times and false morals. The fact that author seems to, casually, flirt with immorality only strengthens the contrast between true and false morality. This novel is filled with warnings, painfully honest and heart-braking warnings that quite possibly come from author’s own experiences. I would make this novel a required reading for teachers, educators, mentors and leaders of any kind. Why? As a warning! Leaders and mentors are often idolized by those who admire them (often the young) and hence hold a lot of power over them.  There is always that temptation of pouring your soul into an another, of watching your desires play out in another person. A temptation Lord Henry succumbs to.  And how did that work out?

Time to make a conlusion of some kind. I have to say that I’m not sure I have a favourite reading of its novels. I’ve reading many interesting studies of it and at present, I look forward to reading more. What I’m sure is that this novel should remain open to new readings and interpretations. It has so much to give, it has so much to teach us, both in terms of style and content! The writing of this novel is nothing short of perfect and the way Oscar uses his famous wit is nothing short of ingenious. He may have written only one novel but he has certainly got it right the first time!

*** First time I mentioned Oscar Wilde and this novel on my other blog was here but there I only briefly wrote about this novel. This is my, for the time being, final say on this subject.

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