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Friday, May 18, 2012

How long will you like me?

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a beautiful young man, the men who idolize him, and his own path through immorality and misdeeds to self-destruction. The novel begins with Basil Hallward painting a portrait of Dorian; Dorian loves the painting, but wishes that he could stay forever beautiful and the painting would change with time, instead of the other way around. Basil's friend Lord Henry Wotton befriends Dorian and begins to influence him negatively. Dorian falls in love with a lowly actress named Sibyl Vane and proposes to her. When Dorian takes his friends Basil and Lord Henry to the theater to see Sibyl perform, however, Sibyl is terrible (when Dorian saw her in the past, she was an excellent actress). Dorian is embarrassed and furious with Sibyl, and he breaks up with her. Dorian finds out a few days later that Sibyl poisoned herself and died the night he broke things off with her. When Dorian looks at the painting, he swears he sees it change after this event, taking on a cruel sneer. Dorian begins to influence many good people around him for the worse, and several of them fall into ruin or commit suicide. Dorian becomes obsessed with the painting, and though he keeps it locked away, he frequently leaves parties and events to run home and check on the changes in the painting.  Basil confronts Dorian about his behavior and influence, at which point Dorian reveals to Basil the power of the portrait and the negative changes it has undergone. At first, Dorian is relieved to share the secret, but then he becomes horrified that Basil knows, and he stabs Basil to death before he can leave.  He gets his former friend Alan Campbell to dispose of the body (by blackmailing him) and later Campbell commits suicide. Dorian tries to escape to an opium den to forget, but leaves after seeing an acquaintance. Outside the den, he is attacked by James Vane, Sibyl's brother who swore to protect her. Dorian convinces James that he can't be the man he's looking for because he looks far too young, but after Dorian gets away, an old woman convinces James that Dorian simply hasn't aged physically, but he is the same man who led Sibyl to commit suicide.  James begins his search anew, and Dorian begins to become paranoid, thinking he sees James everywhere he goes. On a hunting trip with friends, Dorian discovers that James has accidentally been shot by a friend of his and Dorian is enormously relieved. Dorian finally decides he needs to turn over a new leaf and start being good, but when he checks the portrait to see if his good deeds reverse the negative effects, he sees that not only are the good effects not visible, but a cunning, devious look has appeared as well. Sick of his conscience and tired of feeling like a slave to the painting, Dorian tries to destroy it. Cries are heard from the street and when the servants break in, they find a much older, nearly unrecognizable Dorian lying on the floor with a knife through his heart with a pristine painting of the young Dorian looking on.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book was pretty bizarre. I sort of knew the basic premise (but not the ending - that part was crazy pants!) which made it a less thrilling read, and the book is also one of those books that's really about almost nothing but a morality lesson. Which I find to be a bit tedious, personally, though Wilde's writing is quite eloquent and witty in places. Overall, though, I think I much prefer his comedies (Importance of Being Earnest, anyone?)

Some thoughts....

This book was filled with adages or truisms, mostly provided by Lord Henry. I felt like because there were so many, they started to either contradict each other or just blend together. Here's a sampling:
"The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world." (I admit I have often thought this.)
"The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it."
"Genius lasts longer than Beauty."
"Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are."
and, my favorite -- "Never trust a woman who wears mauve."

So, there were a bunch of unhealthy, Ali Larter-Beyoncé style obsessions in this book; Basil to Dorian, Lord Henry to Dorian, Dorian to Sibyl, Sibyl to Dorian, James to Dorian, the list goes on and on and on. Basil starts us off by saying things like, "I couldn't be happy if I didn't see him every day. He is absolutely necessary to me" about Dorian. Ahem -- this seems a bit EXTREME, Basil. Maybe you should take it down a notch, eh? Maybe if everyone simply liked each other incrementally over time, Dorian wouldn't have snapped and murdered Basil and he wouldn't have snapped at Sibyl and made her kill herself. Just a suggestion!

-Lady Henry's entrance
Lady Henry plays an almost nonexistent role in the book, but I love the description of her character when she first enters the book:
"She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest.  She was usually in love with somebody, and, as her passion was never returned, she had kept all her illusions.  She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy.  Her name was Victoria, and she had a perfect mania for going to church."

-Dinner at 6:30
When Dorian asks Basil and Lord Henry to meet him for dinner before they go to see Sibyl's show, he asks to meet at 6:30. Lord Henry is horrified at the time choice (he had suggested 8) and replies, "Half-past six! What an hour! It will be like having a meat-tea, or reading an English novel. It must be seven. No gentleman dines before seven." Hee hee hee. This made me think of PA Dutch country where all the restaurants start serving supper at 4 and are closed and everyone's gone home to bed by 9. Where would Lord Henry eat if he was stuck in PA Dutch country?

-James tries to warn Sibyl
When Sibyl confesses her love for Dorian (she calls him Prince Charming; she doesn't even know his real name) to James, he tries to warn her of the possible dangers of men in general and wealthy men who might want to use her. I loved the intensity of this exchange:
James: "He wants to enslave you."
Sibyl: "I shudder at the thought of being free."

-Dorian breaks it off with Sibyl
I've never been broken up with before, but I certainly hope that if/when it happens in the future, the man is kinder than Dorian. Here are a few nuggets from his breakup speech to Sibyl:
"You have killed my love." (ouch!)
"You used to stir my imagination. Now you don't even stir my curiosity." (burn!)
"I will never see you again. I will never think of you. I will never mention your name." (cold. ice cold!)
"You have disappointed me." (ooh, the classic parent line. i'm not angry. i'm just disaPPOINted.)
Seriously harsh, Dorian! No wonder the poor girl poisoned herself!

-San Francisco shout out
I finished this book in a Starbucks near "The Gold Dust" in San Francisco (I'm on vacation visiting my sister and my cousins!) so imagine my surprise when Wilde throws in a line about San Francisco! In reference to Basil's missing body, Lord Henry says,
"I suppose in about a fortnight we shall be told that he has been seen in San Francisco.  It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world." It IS a delightful city, Oscar! It is a lovely place to disappear to!

-Dorian tries to confess to murder but no one believes him
When Dorian casually suggests that he might have murdered Basil, Lord Henry refuses to believe him. One of my favorite lines follows from their ensuing conversation:
"Murder is always a mistake.  One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner."  Ahh, rules to live by. ;)

-The title of this post is a telling line from Dorian, and a rather haunting question he torments himself with throughout the book.

I'll leave you with this, a more hopeful line from Lord Henry to Dorian from earlier on in the novel:
"Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you!"

I'm off to continue my disappearance to San Francisco, and to sail into the sea with that famous vegan singer whose real name is coincidentally Richard (aha! just looked it up and it's not a coincidence! he's a distant relative of Melville!), to search for a big grey dolphin. Or something of that ilk.

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