Every year, in addition to my Goodreads reading challenge, I try to make myself read a work of “classic” literature that I’ve never read before. Occasionally it’ll be things that people read in high school – or that I should have read in high school (A Tale of Two Cities, I’m looking at you). Sometimes it’s just books you’ve heard about as being big and important books of all time – things you can impress people by saying you’ve read (I liked the peace bits of War and Peace – those felt very Jane Austen-esque, but the strategy and violence in the war sections bored me). But mostly it’s just to make sure I’m not reading the same kind of safe an easy-to-read book over and over again.
The selection I’d chosen for this year is one I thought I knew. We all know the story of Dorian Gray – he has a painting of himself locked in his attic, and while he never ages a single day, the painting grows old. And not only does Dorian himself never age, but his face never bears a single line from brow furrowed out of worry or anger. The scars of deep-felt emotion or physical signs of a life lived with too much pleasure and vice never cross his face. Dorian’s is the ideal face of eternal youth – the face in the painting that which we all fear becoming.
I liked the book. It was well written – Oscar Wilde isn’t lauded for nothing – but little questions kept niggling at the back of my mind. Is this meant to be magic? We know that Dorian wishes that he could be as young and attractive as he is in the painting always. So when was the magic infused into the painting? Was it something that the painter – Basil Hallward – did? Or was it some mystical being that infused this painting with the power to absorb the consequences of Dorian’s bad behavior? If Dorian had never listened to the selfish and hedonistic viewpoint espoused to him by Lord Henry Wotton, would Dorian have gone down the dark path that is the basis for our story? Or would he have been a better behaved man? Was he always a beautiful young man whose life would take a darker turn, or was he corrupted by the the idea of giving anything to be young and beautiful forever?
And how did the people around him not notice? I realize that some people age better than others, but when someone gets to be in their 40s without one wrinkle, gray hair or spot of age showing…it is suspicious. Even in our modern day and age, we know that there are those who age normally, those who age well, and those who seek outside intervention in the form of plastic surgery. But even in this prior time period – wouldn’t people have noticed? Dorian was a social man – surely people must have wondered how he did it it. Or maybe he wasn’t quite old enough where it was noticeably strange yet, and instead his acquaintances thought him lucky.
But I think the point is that we as a species are vain. Men and women will go to great lengths to preserve the last remnants of youth an vitality. The fact that we have major markets for youth and beauty creams which promise to erase wrinkles is part of this need to turn back the clock. I wonder how many people would be willing to maintain their youth forever in exchange for a portrait like Dorian’s? And how badly would they behave knowing that their follies would never make a physical impact on their person? Dorian behaves badly enough, and that’s even with the limitations of what people knew could be done in the 19th century.
I know there are film adaptations of this book, and I feel like I ought to see at least one. It would also be interesting to see a modern version, as I believe it makes even more of a statement in today’s society about the pains through which people are willing to go for eternal youth.
So – who else has read The Picture of Dorian Gray? What did you think? Were your questions at the end the same as mine? Did you have others? Do you think this really is a work of horror the way that some people make it out to be, or is it more mystical and Faustian? Ideas on what my next classic book should be?
Details: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, first published in 1890.