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The Picture of Dorian Gray: A book review


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Nothing makes one so vain as being told one is a sinner

One of my favourite coincidences in life was stumbling upon this story at the impressionable age of 17. Reading this novella then, all I noticed was the sly sincere words that turned scandalous in context. I was left sometimes blushing, sometimes chuckling like an imbecile but constantly speechless. Later, I saw that what Oscar Wilde accomplishes with his only novel is the feat of giving more than three dimensions to a story. The tale is told with intense, and at the time, immoral sensual depth.

From the very beginning, the story’s words have aimed to be consistently contradictory and incessantly dedicated to aesthetics. The protagonist of the story, Dorian Gray, is on the brink of adulthood and is blessed with paranormal beauty. This striking man is in the company of men who enjoy beautiful things and to each he becomes a symbol. For the painter, Basil, Dorian becomes a talisman, a muse; he is ‘a dream of form in days of thought.’ His beauty is so monumental that he has become the paradigm of enlightenment in regards to art. For Lord Henry Wotton, he becomes the face for ‘New Hedonism.’

Due to Dorian becoming almost a whole new genre of art and aesthetics, Basil paints him. In the process, as he tells him later, he ‘had put too much of himself into’ the portrait. His affection turned into idolatry and as is custom for idols, mortal or otherwise, Dorian forsook him. It is really the painting of Dorian Gray that is the protagonist of the tale, as the title would suggest. For in a ‘mad wish’ Dorian asks the Gods to spare him the ravages of time and make the painting take the brunt of it instead. As is convenient for the plot, the gods grant this request. The picture of Dorian becomes a sentient being, that suffers the degradation a soul marred by transgressions and Dorian himself is spared.

His journey of curiosity, vanity and hypocrisy begins with his attraction to Basil’s ‘incorrigible’ and ‘fascinating’ friend Lord Henry Wotton. Henry grows to become our protagonists’ friend, mentor and greatest enabler. He is Dorian’s priest and psychiatrist. He ‘represent(s) to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit.’ It is also Lord Henry who opens the wormhole in Dorian’s life that leads to that transient place of sins and all that is sensational.

Through Dorian’s expedition into the passionately taboo and the exquisitely extravagant explorations, the reader is experiencing an intense hedonism as text. It’s as though your eyes and imagination are in sin just through the open pages. However, morality and nature calls back into balance the free reign it had given to the cause of decadence. The conclusion is of course, contradictory. For a novel dedicated entirely to beauty in every sense, it manages to punish all worshippers of beauty. Lord Henry is spared as he does not worship beauty as much as he acknowledges its power and gives it the respect it deserves.

There is nothing about the novel that is not aesthetically sound. You want to write down every sentence somewhere for fear of it flitting away from your mind. Oscar Wilde does not ask you to devour beauty. With a pace that is slowly deliberate, his exotic knowledge of textures, hues, scents and tastes undresses before your imagination. There is a technique that is unique to him, which humanises even the most stationary beauty. He has brought about a way for the reader to want to stand perfectly still and see the gold in dust and taste the sunlight for themselves.

Despite it being published 120 years ago, the attitude and aura of the book could just as well be used to describe this careless age sans the vulgarity. There is no fanaticism, no gluttony and obsession towards the pleasures of the senses. Instead there is solely devotion, a lifestyle that is ready to adapt to the whims of what beauty desires, parallel almost to the Sufi line of thought. It is the lack of choice in controlling ones mysticism towards all that is sensual. It is a spiritual calling from inside, the core of the novel to see in the monotony of routine a nucleus of splendour which proceeds then, to touch all things and like Midas makes them gorgeous.


The writer is a Multimedia Producer at Pretentious hippie. Panda-phile. Promoter of hobo chic.

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The writer is a Multimedia Producer at Pheminist hippie. Panda-phile. Promoter of hobo chic.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (13) Closed

Krish Chennai Dec 08, 2012 04:42pm
Good review. It's about 25 years since I read this one book of Oscar Wilde, and the only line that remains in memory is " the senses can wash the Soul, just as the Soul can wash the senses ". Wilde, was of course, what was till early last century called "queer" or "gay", and made no bones about it, even in a Victorian society. To compare it to the "Sufi line of thought" is a bit of long shot. Writers like Arthur Koestler and Kurt Vonnegut, who may have scarcely heard the word "Sufi", despite, may have been closer to the mark !
Mohammed Baluch Dec 08, 2012 07:59pm
Mehar's book review on Dorian Gray and the underlying theme of beauty and the power that it can wield is a recurrent theme in history - of course, immortalized by Oscar Wilde. Interestingly, amongst conservative societies, there is an "anti-beauty" movement - and an almost deliberate attempt to veil all that is beautiful to the eyes. Whilst for others, there is beauty in every detail of life - living in such an environment is the ultimate in "hobo chic".
Shehryar Dec 08, 2012 02:56pm
Oh yes! The novel is fantastic. Reminds one of Dr. Faustus though its basic argument is quite antithetical to Faustus. If Faustus wants to sell his soul to the devil to know everything there is to know, Dorian Gray, under the tutelage of Lord Henry Wotton, desires to sacrifice his soul at the altar of Beauty. No wonder Lord Henry describes Beauty as higher than intellect. " And Beauty is a form of Genius - is higher indeed than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon". The novel's 'twisted wit' appeals and appalls the reader at the same time. A very good review too.
atif Dec 09, 2012 04:50am
Good to read a review of 'The Picture...' here. I think you have much more to say about this novel than, perhaps, the space allowed. The grotesqueness of the painting, not discussed here, was not just the result of what the author alludes to as a 'religious' kind of immorality. The decadence of Dorian Gray was much more base and inhuman than that. It is easy to overlook the nature of Dorian's cruelty, and deception laced in Wilde's flowery prose and tend to give a pretty interpretation to Basil's murder. The worship of beauty, idolization, and a quest for sensuality may find parallels in the Sufi way, but not in the sense of Dorian's not-so-selfless behavior. I don't believe the end was contradictory to the themes of the novel - saying that those who suffered or died were punished for a single common act of 'worship of beauty' would be over-simplifying a complicated work of art. Who's to say that Basil, Cybil, Alan or Adrian didn't acknowledge the power of beauty. The difference between Henry and Dorian came down to Dorian's crime-infested life that Henry would consider 'vulgar'.
Taimur A. Khan Dec 08, 2012 02:30pm
The Picture of Dorian Gray has been one of the most extensively reviewed books, steeped in controversy. Vanity that is a natural corollary of beauty, though wide spread in the Victorian Age's un mitigated hypocrisy, was perceived as a dimension of the dogmatic explanation of sensual pleasure mongering, much preached and abhorred from the pulpit. Much has been made of the philosophical out pouring of various characters in the novel , who given their immense wealth, have nothing better than to move from one party to the next, and in a bid to sound highly intellectual, present their half baked postulations on morality and it's various social manifestations. In my humble opinion, all the controversy that has surrounded this immensely well written and pleasurable book over all these years, has been highly unjustified.
Jehanzeb Idrees Dec 09, 2012 11:36am
Very well written indeed! Of course a classic in English literature and remained a personal favourite for quite some time now. The plot that so masterfully conceived by Oscar Wilde and Dorian's toying with pleasure was quite often attributed to his own alleged sexual orientation as he related himself to his character. However I found your analogy with the Sufi line of thought, interesting yet misplaced. While the subtleties of morality and immorality has become quite vague in the past 120 years, the 'devotion to desire' lies more in obscurantism than mysticism. Yet the distinguishing views of this metaphysical character, that may be said somewhat loosely to be physical rather than spiritualistic.
Magister Ludi Dec 11, 2012 08:31pm
A bit over simplification of a vastly complex and sophisticated novel. The theme of beauty is perhaps a subtext compared to one of the major themes of the novel that was untouched in the review is the passage of time and the moral corruption of the upper classes.
nasser yousaf Dec 10, 2012 07:40am
Great, Mehar. Hope to read more such reviews. Bring the poor old Jude out of his obscurity in your next assignment.
theeppendorf Dec 10, 2012 01:45am
Reblogged this on theeppendorf.
imran Dec 09, 2012 11:10pm
This is a novel for the age's. I think i have read this novel atleast a dozen times since i first read it all those years ago. I especially like the dialogue of Lord Henry. What masterful writing indeed. Oscar Wilde is by far one the best literary minds there ever was.
P.R.Koduri Dec 10, 2012 10:41am
Enjoyed immensely the write-up. Great review and the writer has taken on some of the gloss of the subject herself!
Adnan Dec 09, 2012 06:14pm
That's one of the best books reviews I have seen in a Pakistani publication in a long long time.
Kirtimaya Varma Dec 09, 2012 02:46pm
Superbly written on a wonderful novel. I wish I could meet this writer.. Kirtimaya Varma Haridwar Uttarakhand