This book is all about why surfaces can be deceptive and the same could be true of the novel itself. It looks so small and everyone thinks they know the story already, but there is an explosive force packed into under 250 pages
‘The Portrait’ is one part horror story to five parts philosophy. The two intertwine and comment on each other, but it can be a shock on reading because it’s only the horror that really goes into the ‘Dorian Gray’ myth, while the book contains so much more.
First things first, Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man, whose beauty is remarkable because it seems to be more than skin deep. It’s not just that he’s good-looking, his looks evoke spring time and hope and innocence; you look at him and you believe in goodness. He’s certainly too much of a temptation for the debauched Lord Henry Wotton who is determined to introduce the young man to his hedonistic aestheticism. Gray is fascinated and troubled by their first conversation. The immediate result is that he realises the power of his newly completed portrait, which will show him at the height of his physical perfection while he himself will be a pray to the ravages of time. This realisation is the start of Gray’s exploration of an aesthetic lifestyle in which surface is all, superficiality is prime and anything or person that falls below this ideal can be casually discarded.
It is also a book about the power of books. My favourite moment is when Gray discovers an unnamed book that he loves in a way guaranteed strike a chord with any devoted reader
The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Décadents. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids, and as evil in color. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odor of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain.
In one of my favourite expressions of bibliomania. We’re later told that:
For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the memory of this book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he never sought to free himself from it. He procured from Paris no less than five large-paper copies of the first edition, and had them bound in different colours, so that they might suit his various moods and the changing fancies of a nature over which he seemed, at times, to have almost entirely lost control.
The book in question is hinted to be ‘Á Rebours’ by J. K. Huysman in which the hero explores and eventually tires of all sensual pleasures. It’s not a racy read, it’s languid and sensual as Des Esseintes tires of all society and instead devotes himself to cultivating obscure flowers and creating living jewels. It’s a great companion piece to ‘The Picture’ (an English translation, slightly edited, can be found at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12341.) As Gray discovers, books can change your life and I love that Wilde has woven this message into his own novel.
My overall conclusion is that ‘The Picture’ is a philosophical tract first and a horror story second, but Oscar Wilde was a genius for writing and merging the two so well. This is definitely a Gothic must read.