The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

dorian gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only novel. First published in 1890 in Lippincott Magazine, it was widely criticized by London society for its homo eroticism, so Wilde revised it and published its modified version in 1891. It helped little for what’s coming however, as 5 years after the first publication of Dorian Gray Wilde faced trial for “gross indecency”. He was convicted and went to prison for 2 years of hard labor, was self-exiled to Paris, and died 3 years later in poverty.

I’m a big fan of Oscar Wilde, having read all his short stories and his most well known play The Importance of Being Earnest. But with The Picture of Dorian Gray I felt like I finally tied all the pieces together, as the book I believe (and many people do) to be the closest to the author in terms of ideas and deepest desires. In fact, I faced the challenge of separating one of the characters in the book with Oscar Wilde himself – or what I thought he must be like.

I assume most people know the gist of the plot about a man and his painting who gets old and ugly instead of him. There are 3 major characters: Basil Hallward – the artist who did the painting; Dorian Gray – the man that Basil completely adored to the point of idolatry, hence the painting; and Lord Henry – a friend of them both who makes all these witty, cynical comments, and partly “tainted” Dorian into the road of sins and pleasure. (Before reading the book I had in my head that Dorian painted a self-portrait.)

Lord Henry was the person that I imagined Oscar Wilde to be. In fact, he famously said: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” A bit ironic then, imagining Lord Henry as Wilde was what made parts of the book a bit difficult to swallow for me, for his comments on women like: “Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly.” or “I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated.”

However if you think that this book is really about love, passion, and adoration between men, none of them fancying women much, would you blame such comments?

Prior to reading I didn’t know there are different versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray. And unlike Frankenstein’s two versions that are widely available, the second version of Dorian has been the ultimate and only version that we read until today. The first version that appeared in Lippincott Magazine was never published as a book until recent years, in 2011 by Harvard University Press (link).

The revision of Dorian Gray and Oscar Wilde’s life before and after the publication are the two major themes that were discussed in Edx BerkeleyX Book Club that I followed. And thanks to it I was aware of which chapters were added: 6 chapters, totaling some 28,000 words. Many of which were the expansion of the other characters.

More interestingly perhaps is what was being dropped. An example is this speech by Basil the painter to Dorian: “It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman…. From the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me…. I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly. I was jealous of everyone to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you.”

How radical! I can only imagine how daring you must be to write such thing in mainstream publication in the time where homosexuals were being persecuted.

Prior to reading, I somehow imagine Dorian Gray as a simple morality tale – which it is in a way, but it has so much more. There are a lot of discussions on beauty, aestheticism, art for art’s sake, and hedonism. In many ways it was so modern. And in the style of Oscar Wilde, there are plenty of aphorism (short observation that appears to contain a general truth). The book is full to the brim with them and my highlighter was flying:

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

“I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”

“The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us.”

“Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

“Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed.”

“When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving oneself, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.”

“Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”

And some that are simply funny:

“I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool.”

“I don’t desire to change anything in England except the weather.” (So it has been like that since 1890. England hasn’t changed much.)

I can go on. Oscar Wilde produced more quotes than any other authors I know.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – A fascinating novel that I couldn’t give my full mark, but I highly suspect that the first version would’ve got my full mark. New Yorker article on the revised version: “.. these excursions (the additional chapters) in high and low society feel a bit like staged distractions. There are too many tidy formulations—“It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had prayed for”—positioned to reassure the middle classes. The version that Wilde submitted to Lippincott’s is the better fiction. It has the swift and uncanny rhythm of a modern fairy tale—and “Dorian” is the greatest of Wilde’s fairy tales.” I believe this. The Dorian Gray that we read now felt like the sharp edges have been smoothed out and it sometimes pretends to care about characters and stuffs it doesn’t actually care about. A cut of 28,000 words would also make the work a lot tighter, the pace swifter. Perhaps one day I’ll read the uncensored version. (Though note that the magazine editor had already cut some 500 words before publication without Wilde’s knowledge for fear of “indecency” charges. I guess you can only imagine the *original* original version.)

Trivia:

Do you know that The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four were sparked by the same dinner at Langham hotel in 1889? I coincidentally read The Sign of Four merely months ago and mentioned this in my post, so it’s interesting that this comes up again in the above New Yorker article.

bosie

Lord Alfred Douglas (picture above), nicknamed “Bosie”, is how I imagine Dorian Gray to look like. His youthful beauty is remarkable, honestly looks like something out of a painting. I can absolutely imagine Basil being enamored of this boy. Bosie is Wilde’s latest lover who brought his downfall. However Wilde only met him after the publication of Dorian Gray.

 

The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde

importance of being earnest

Once again I managed to combine reading a play with watching the play performed on stage afterwards (the last one was Death of a Salesman a few months ago). This time it’s the delightful play by my favorite author Oscar Wilde. It is funny, in a very 19th century English way. I enjoyed the way it pokes fun at the class system of the time, courting and marriage.

I listened to the Overdue Podcast (my latest favorite podcast!) about the play just yesterday, and the guys seem to think of the play as being too lighthearted and mainly word play, which I found very interesting, though disagree with. Perhaps you need to be a certain type of person to appreciate Wilde’s style — tackling serious things in life with a healthy dose of humour, as made clear by his very own quote: “We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”

I’m nodding. Yes, yes, YES.

Oscar Wilde is known for his witty quotes that I often found scattered all over the internet, and I was happy to find many familiar lines in this play and got to know them in the context they’re originally from. Some of them in the order of their appearances (and the characters that say them):

“The very essence of romance in uncertainty.” – Algernon

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” – Algernon

“Health is the primary duty of life.” – Lady Bracknell

“A man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing.” – Lady Bracknell

“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” – Algernon

“I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.” – Cecily

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” – Gwendolen

“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” – Gwendolen

The 2015 Play at Vaudeville Theatre, London

The Importance of Being Earnest has 5 major characters: 2 couples and an imposing Aunt figure, as you can see in the poster of the 2015 London play below.

My great surprise was the aunt – Lady Bracknell – was played by a man! (David Suchet) Even more surprised to find that it has happened before in 2011 production with Geoffrey Rush! I would love to see Geoffrey Rush playing Lady Bracknell. Just thinking about already put a smile to my face :)

earnestlondon

The rest of the casts quite fit with how I imagined them to be. Algernon was played by Philip Cumbus, Jack is played by Michael Benz. Gwendolen is played by Emily Barber, and last but not least, probably my favorite actress of the night, was Imogen Doel, playing Cecily (far right in the poster).

The thing with English period play like this is that sometimes it could be challenging to fully catch the speech with thick, sort of old-ish accent — with its high up and down tone (I find modern accent easier), depending on the actor/actress and how far back or high up you sit. Keep in mind too that plays in West End don’t usually use microphones, as the theaters are pretty small. Even if the theatre is quite well built the actors do need to make considerable effort to be audible and comprehensible (you can’t mumble!). So my favorite actress/actor is often the person whose speech is the clearest, and in this case it’s young Cecily :). Every time she entered, the stage felt a bit brighter too. Love.

I feel that the script could be enjoyed by itself — I did. I thought it was funny even without being spoken out loud. But if you have a chance to go see it performed, definitely do.

Mee’s rating (on script): 5/5

 

The Rest of the First Half of 2014

I believe I’m getting my reading groove back. Not to the level of my highest record in 2009 with 57 books (I wasn’t working in the first half of the year then), but hopefully to a decent level, relatively decent, considering my meager record in the past few years.

I also intend to take more time in writing my thoughts again about the books I’ve read. I haven’t been doing very well on this, again in the past few years. I won’t do book-per-book review as religiously as before, but I realized how important it is to step back and formulate my thoughts about what I read, and write at least a little about them. Pause, step back, think, write, instead of reading reading reading like an unstoppable train (!?). No matter how much impression you get out of a book, no matter how you think you’d remember it forever, you do forget. At times I even have a hard time remembering books that I read in the same year.

So I will try to write more when I can, but when I can’t, I’ll have a quick rundown like this post. Here are the books that I’ve read in the first half of the year but have not got the spotlight:

Murder on the Orient Express — Agatha Christie

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-Christie-Agatha-9780062073501

I’m never a fan of detective stories, and I’ve only read 2 Agatha Christie books in the past, way way back in Indonesia, when I was in high school. I remember liking them, but I was just never compelled to read more, even though there were tons of Christie’s books in my library, rows and rows of her black books.

I spotted Murder on the Orient Express on Kindle daily deal, and I was traveling in Turkey at the time, so it was the perfect time to devour this one. As you might know, the Orient Express was a long distance train running from London to Istanbul (discontinued in 2009). I can’t imagine the more perfect timing, reading it in Turkey, and possibly also on my flight back to London. I love how I really got all the geography references in the book (including Syria where the train started).

The story itself was quite enjoyable. There is a murder of course, then the train breaks down, leaving everyone trapped with a murderer. Hercule Poirot is on the case, having to weed the culprit out of the twelve passengers in the carriage. I could not guess the murderer, but I don’t read a lot of detective stories.

This is London — Miroslav Sasek

this-is-london-cover

This picture book by Czech M. Sasek was absolutely delightful. It was first published in 1959, and there’s a whole series done by the same author (This is Britain, This is Paris, This is Rome, This is New York, etc) which I’m keeping my eyes on. I absolutely adore the illustrations. Such a great classic.

Fun Home — Alison Bechdel

Fun home cover

Fun Home is an autobiography in graphic novel format (really, my favorite type of biography, and my favorite type of graphic novel), about how Alison deals with her father’s closeted homosexuality, and eventually her own.

This book is a good example of me forgetting, and it wasn’t even that long ago. I’d been wanting to read Fun Home forever, and finally did. I remember it as being quite dense and complex with lots of literary and philosophy references. I liked it, but wonder now if it’s because I felt like I had to, or because I really did.

Things Fall Apart — Chinua Achebe

things fall apart

I’d also been meaning to read Things Fall Apart for ages, and was glad when I finally got to it. There is always a kind of trepidation when facing a classic giant, as the book is often put forward as the epitome of African writing and colonialism, amongst many others. I was so relieved to find that I absolutely enjoyed it from beginning to end.

The central character of the story is Okonkwo, a revered man in a small village in Nigeria. He has three wives (and many children) living in three separate huts with his hut in the middle, at the entrance to the compound. He is very proud to the fact that he is a “self-made man”, that he gets to where he is by working hard, unlike his father who is poor and therefore he considers weak.

About half of the book tells the day to day life of Okwonko, his family, and the people in his village. There’s a folktale quality to the book, and I felt like I was told a really good tale. You may be ready to judge Okwonko at the beginning (e.g. three wives, tough man persona), but soon you would start to see things from his perspective. By the end of the book, I really felt for him, and I’m not giving anything away, but let’s just say I was deeply, deeply sad and disturbed by the end of the book. The ending was very profound.

Oscar Wilde: The Complete Short Stories — Oscar Wilde

oscar wilde complete short stories

I read the Happy Prince and other stories (e.g. The Nightingale and the Rose, the Selfish Giant, etc) last year, and finally got to finish the entire collection in the book this year. I love them, I love them all. The more I read Oscar Wilde, the more my love is reaffirmed. No matter whether they are detective stories, fairy tales, more adult fairy tales, or a ghost story, I loved them all.

There’s one story titled The Portrait of Mr W. H. about the characters’ obsessive attempt to find out about the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (the Mr W. H.). It was the first time for me to hear about this dedication and I’m not even familiar with Shakespeare in general, and yet I was so engrossed in the story.

Thanks to the Hear, Read This! podcast (a monthly bookclub podcast) that gave me the push to finish this collection. A bit sad that there’s no more short stories of Oscar Wilde for me to read, but I really look forward to getting to Dorian Gray and his plays.

 

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