Review of The Picture of Dorian Gray

It’s true, in Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, that thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.  In fact that’s pretty well a truism, isn’t it? since the art, if art, would in this case be of written language.  We are being nudged into believing what we’re to read is art, that he’s an artist.  The first time I read this novel I found it cold and repellent.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t art.  It might be all the greater an artefact to make for that effect.

How is it the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors?  What does that mean anyway?  The artist in his art is mirroring the spectator – of the art? the reader? or the artist, as a spectator, of life?  Wouldn’t it have to be the former since the artist is making the mirror for the spectator to look at and see himself?  That’s likely a shelving of responsibility from the artist to the reader, by likening the artefact to a mirror, a reflective surface, diverting attention from itself, its makeup, who made it and why he made it as it is or was, cold and repellent.  Was I seeing myself or the artist himself in his artefact? or neither?  This is a preface to a fiction which deals with the relationship of an artist to what he puts himself into and that of a spectator who sees himself in it.

How flame-like can laburnum be?  I’ve struck a match to see.  Honey-coloured the flame may be above the blue but nowhere near as yellow as laburnum which hangs down.

For goodness’ sake! I exclaim, incredulous at an affected character’s saying ‘I can believe anything provided that it is quite incredible.’  Really?  Is that supposed to be wit? A paradox? That the basis of belief is unbelievability?  Mind you I have heard somebody insist the resurrection is so unbelievable it has to be true.  The Xian did affect to believe what he was saying; the character doesn’t.

His friend, a painter, is inspired by another character into putting love for him into his art.  The witty one observes how useful passion is for publication.  ‘Genius lasts longer than beauty.’  You use the love to make the art rather than waste it on the beloved.  Never trust what a poet says about love.  Poets don’t know.  They’ve never finished that course.  They’re running quite another.  Venus may rule both love and art but under separate signs.

Beauty is not so superficial as thought is, says the would-be witty one.  Really?  Food for thought there.  I remember noticing one in ten men on the tube gape at me.  It couldn’t be at my clothes which, like theirs, were drab.  It had to be my face.  None acted further on its effect.  I was with somebody I thought beautiful.  Now, was my beauty less superficial than my thinking on it?  I set no store by it.  How superficial was that! since it’s also an aspect of soul and its goodness, that this novel explores.

Wit is an accomplishment in saying something from your perspective that others suddenly understand from theirs but once you’ve established wittiness you can, experimentally, say something that’s not funny and they’ll laugh anyway.  Written wit is a greater accomplishment, even the greatest, because you’re laying a mine in one time for any reader’s eye at a future time to trip over and trigger an explosion in his brain that bursts out as an involuntary guffaw.  Oh, the power, the power!  ‘The only difference between a caprice and a life-long passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer’ evoked not a laugh but an ‘och’ and face averted in disgust at the failure of intended wit.  I’ve since done my research; I looked up the dictionary.  Incontrovertibly a life-long passion lasts the length of a life.  If, as may be inferred, for somebody other than yourself, for your mother, till she dies or hers, for you, till she dies, if you’re lucky.   A caprice is by definition an unaccountable change of mind or conduct, on a whim, a turn on a sixpence, in an instant.  If I have a life-long passion for anything it’s for life itself and to make art of it. This book is about making art from life though you’d have to suspend you disbelief an artefact which isn’t life can do that.

The idea is brilliant, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and deftly worked out.

Aristotle defined man as a rational animal.

There are nice touches.  A character smiles at missing where he was going from having been lost in thought.  Without giving the content the author conveys the brio of an improvisation by a wit keen to fascinate one of his hearers.  I’ve done that, working out why I was being witty and turning about to find the one I entranced following me upstairs.

It can also be a bit forced.  A character excuses himself for being late because he had to haggle for hours over a piece of brocade simply for the author to get in ‘people know the price of everything and the value of nothing’ as a witticism bolted onto the character though it makes little sense in the context of him as a prospective buyer arguing to reduce the price of what he thought valuable.

It’s true women are always bothering us to do something for them, though that nothing is ever quite true is also true, but …acting is so much more real than life?  Please!  The statement it is, however, is relevant since the actress Dorian loves can no longer take acting for real on loving him and acts badly.  Unfortunately it’s for her acting he loves her.  I was morally outraged at his ensuing behaviour, as I was supposed to be, though it did bring to mind my own with the girl from Millau I encouraged to come to London and on our meeting up there unceremoniously dumped.  That was entirely different!

The actress has an uncouth brother who you know just exists to make an appearance later as nemesis.

The fear of god to us all?  We no longer all fear god.  How times have changed!  It’s still possible to appreciate the exasperation in ‘women never know when the curtain has fallen.  They always want a sixth act, and as soon as the play’ of love ‘is entirely over they propose to continue it!’  He was too clever and too cynical for Dorian to be really fond of him, Lord Harry.  I’ll say!  All that wit becomes quite wearisome, as his wife agrees by action if not words.  You keep wanting to see the reality behind the mask.  His clever tongue gets on one’s nerves.  Looming over all is what you know of the author.  There are moments, the narrator says, when the passion for sin, or’ – he excuses himself – ‘for what the world calls sin, so dominates a nature, that every fibre of the body …seems to be instinct with fearful impulses.  Men …at such moments lose the freedom of their will.  They move to their terrible end as automatons move.  Choice is taken from them.’  Wilde is anticipating himself when, urged to flee by Robbie Ross, he would wait to be arrested.  He quite rightly, artistically, doesn’t make explicit what Dorian’s corruption of young men might be, leaving that to our imaginations.

It wasn’t Nero who had the velarium stretched across the Colosseum which was built where his golden palace had been razed.   Probably Domitian.  Dorian Gray was looking on evil as a mode through which he could realise his conception of the beautiful.  I had to laugh at his ‘Poor Basil!’ of the painter character, as if he’d nothing to do with the ‘horrible way’ he died.

‘Ten years’ marriage ‘with Monmouth must’ve been like eternity,’ isn’t witty but ‘with time thrown in’ is.  There’s a nice indirectness about Dorian’s reaction to what Harry said being conveyed through another character’s dialogue but, while her teeth showing like white seeds in a scarlet fruit is supposed to be beautiful, I had the ugly impression of a smashed fruit, a water melon say, with its seeds thus revealed.  The reappearance of nemesis is nicely disguised and dealt with.  I was a bit disoriented by the upper class milieu depicted but the working classes weren’t yet educated enough to write fiction with a different setting though Hardy was doing pretty well.

There are nice throwaway lines like ‘Scotland Yard still insists that the man in the grey Ulster who left for Paris …was poor Basil’ and ‘“What do you think has happened to Basil?” asked Dorian.’  And funny ones: ‘The man with whom my wife ran away played Chopin exquisitely’ and ‘I dare say he fell into the Seine off an omnibus and that the conductor hushed up the scandal.’

Dorian ‘had often told the girl whom he had lured to love him that he was poor and she had believed him.   He had told her once that he was wicked and she had laughed.’  It was no laughing matter.  The soul may keep receptivity but badness hurts it and makes for unhappiness.  I’d say it was driving Dorian insane because how else explain a most satisfactory ending.


About johnbrucecairns

I'm a retired history teacher who's written for most of his life with a book readied for publication.
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