Continuing my theme of “classics I really should have read already,” I practically devoured The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde on my recent vacation. I started this book on the flight (after finishing another book only an hour into the trip–I really do love my Kindle for travel!) and was annoyed several hours later by the flight attendants announcing the time to put away all electronics so we could land.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray

This is the second Oscar Wilde piece I’ve read, and I am really enjoying his writing. It’s both beautiful and thoughtful, and his characters are adorably misguided. The Picture of Dorian Gray follows the life of a young London socialite, Dorian Gray. Dorian is not the most educated man, nor the most well-connected or prestigious–his main skill lies in being so achingly beautiful that people cannot help but love him. Among his admirers/friends is a painter, Basil Hallward. Basil claims that Dorian has become his muse and paints a glorious portrait of Dorian. It is during the sitting for this painting that Dorian meets Lord Henry, a friend of Basil. Lord Henry claims that the only goal in life is to selfishly pursue all things beautiful and fulfilling to the senses, a life theory Dorian latches onto immediately. Despite Basil’s warnings that Lord Henry is not a good influence, Dorian begins to abandon his innocent way of life for the beautiful indulgence of Lord Henry’s theory.

It is during one of the many conversations about Lord Henry’s theory that Dorian jokingly prays for the painting of himself to age while he stays young forever, as youth and beautify are the only things of value he holds. It is only some time later, after Dorian has become a destructive force of indulgence, that he realizes he is indeed staying young and pure while his painting bears all the ill effects of his sins.

In parts, this book reads like science fiction instead of classic literature. A magical painting that is linked to its subject on some sort of cellular level to share physical changes? Experiments by Dorian to prove he can in fact do anything (lie, steal, murder) without showing any sings of age or grief? Sounds like science fiction to me! But the writing is more lyrical than any sci-fi I’ve ever read, and the theme here has less to do with overall societal destruction and more to do with personal responsibility to not become a terrible person just because you can. The scenes of Dorian’s extravagant life of constant youth are intoxicating in their beauty–piles of exotic cloth for stylish new clothes, chests of jewels from far off travels, friends to welcome him wherever he goes, and hordes of women eagerly awaiting their chance to be his lover. Yet the dangers of his life are just as wonderfully described–a dependence on drugs to ease his growing paranoia that his secret may be found out, his first love dead by suicide, and many once-friends who had their reputations ruined when they could not hide the impact of the lifestyle Dorian follows.

There was some controversy when The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published because of it’s not-so-subtle allusions to homosexuality, drugs, and mistresses. Maybe our society is a morally depraved place, but I was reading along going “yup, I totally know people like this.” So much of social media today is creating an ideal, fictional version of our lives. I know many people who may be struggling to establish a career or create a stable relationship, but if you look at their Facebook or Instagram feed you get the impression that everything is perfect. While we may not have a painting to hide our fears from society, people today hide behind the self-selecting anonymity of the internet to remain youthful and beautiful forever.

All this to say, I loved this book. Dorian read as a confused young man who made some bad friends and bad decisions, Basil was helplessly in love, and Lord Henry enjoyed playing with people’s emotions more than he enjoyed living his own life. Overall, these were naive men swept up in the life of a strong personality, and I believe that’s something we can all relate to. It was a quick read, and one I look forward to rereading soon.

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