Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Book Club Meeting and Movie Day

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde, 1890

Hello Lovelies!

I know this Book Club Meeting is LONG overdue (this novel was the SEPTEMBER selection), and while things have been crazy and I'm terribly behind, I couldn't NOT share this fantastic novel and the fabulous Book Club Movie Day that Bridget and I had back in January!  Better late than never, right?  While not done on purpose, this makes me think of one of the characters in the novel, 'He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time.'

If you have not read Oscar Wilde's only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, you will want to remedy that as soon as you are able.  This novel, originally published in the July 1890 edition of the monthly magazine, Lippincott's was considered obscene by the magazine and edited without Wilde's knowledge prior to publication.  Despite these revisions, social outcry and the possibility of being prosecuted on moral grounds forced Wilde to make further revisions for the version published in book form in 1890.  It was not until just recently that the unabridged version was available for purchase.  And purchase it, I did.  For this Book Club selection, I read the original uncensored version.

I read The Picture of Dorian Gray years back and LOVED it!  There was just something about this novel that resonated with me, so I enjoyed the idea of picking it up again...perhaps it's that this is one piece of literature where I cannot decide how I feel about ANY of the characters.  I love them, identify with them, and loathe them all in equal measure.  I'm not sure if that was deliberate, but something tells me that this was all part of Wilde's master plan and not some happy accident!  Wilde famously wrote in a letter that "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I'd like to be - in other ages, perhaps."  Having the three main characters essentially being different versions of himself makes this work even more interesting.  Also, a lifelong friend of mine named his daughter Dorian, which made me look at the main character in a different light.

pick up your copy here
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a beautiful, naiive young man named Dorian Gray who becomes the obsession of a romantic and idealistic painter, Basil Hallward.  While sitting for his portrait, Dorian meets Basil's friend Lord Henry Wotton who dramatically alters his worldview.  While Dorian is depicted as the narcissist of the novel, I would argue that Lord Henry loves himself even more than Dorian.  Under Lord Henry's influence, Dorian becomes obsessed with his own youth and beauty while Lord Henry is obsessed with his own warped ideals and his influence over Dorian.  And while his youth and beauty are a thing of the past, he develops an obsessive way of living vicariously through Dorian.  Many cite narcissism as the theme of this novel, but I believe obsession is the driving force behind it.  

"The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink flowering thorn."  Oscar Wilde was a poet and playwright, not strictly a novelist, a fact that is very apparent with how his words appeal to the senses.  Not only are his descriptions lush, provocative, and suggestive, but those descriptions also apply to the conversations his characters have.  Wilde's style was perfect for the double entendres, sexually charged passages, and sometimes overtly homo-erotic themes, for which he came under fire.

Basil idolizes Dorian, and Lord Henry quickly follows suit.  'No wonder Basil worshipped him. He was made to be worshipped.'  The difference between Basil and Lord Henry is that Basil's infatuation leaves him intimidated and Lord Henry sees Dorian as someone he can intimidate and mold.  Lord Henry is sublimely dissatisfied with his own life and seems to take great pleasure in exerting his influence over Dorian.  During their first meeting, Henry philosophizes about the importance of beauty and youth to Dorian.  '"You have now the most marvelous youth, and youth is the one thing worth having... No, you don't feel it now.  Someday when you are old and wrinkled and ugly, when thought has seared your forehead with its lines, and passion branded your lips with its hideous fires, you will feel it, and you will feel it terribly. Now, where ever you go, you charm the world.  Will it always be so?... Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years to really live. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no more triumphs left for you... Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and roses... Our looks fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we did not dare yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!"'

So when Basil Hallward finishes his portrait of Dorian, the picture's perfection, coupled with Lord Henry's words, stir something inside him.  '...Now, as he stood gazing at the shadow of his own loveliness, the full reality of the description flashed across him. Yes: there would be a day when his face would be wrinkled and wizen, his eyes dim and colourless, the grace of his figure broken and deformed... The life that was to make his soul would mar his body.  He would become ignoble, hideous, and uncouth... As he thought of it, a sharp pang of pain struck like a knife across him... He felt as if a hand of ice had been laid upon his heart... "How sad it is," murmured Dorian Gray, with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. "How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrid, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day in June...If only it was the other way! If it was I who were to be always young, and the portrait were to grow old! For this - for this - I would give everything! Yes there is nothing in the whole world I would not give!"'

It is that thought that lays the groundwork for everything that is to follow.

In the following weeks, Dorian begins dining more frequently with Lord Henry who begins waxing poetic about his views on sin and hedonism '"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it and your soul grows sick of longing for the things that it has forbidden itself , with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful."'  (I believe that these passages about hedonism were the biggest problem that Victorian England had with Wilde and this novel.)  During that time, Dorian stumbles across a theatre and quickly falls in love with its ingenue, Sibyl Vane.  Dorian idolizes Sibyl (not unlike Basil and Lord Henry did with him) for her youth, beauty, and her acting ability.  After he proposes marriage to her, he takes Basil and Lord Henry to see her perform.  And she is terrible.  She tells Dorian that she can no longer act because he has shown her what REAL emotion is.  He is so embarrassed and disgusted by her performance that he cruelly breaks things off with her.  Upon returning home that evening, something interesting happens.  'As he was passing through the library...his eyes fell upon the portrait that Basil Hallward had painted of him. He started back in surprise, and then went over to it and examined it. In the dim arrested light that struggled through the cream-coloured silk blinds, the face seemed to him to be a little changed. The expression looked different. One would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth. It was certainly curious... Suddenly there flashed across his mind what he had said in Basil Hallward's studio the day the picture had been finished... He had uttered a harsh wish that he himself might remain young, and the portrait grow old; that his own beauty might be untarnished, and the face on the canvas bear the burden of his passions and his sins... Surely his prayers had not been answered? Such things were impossible.'

Dorian cannot bear to look upon the painting and locks it up in the attic so that he may keep his secret safe.  As time goes by, the portrait ages and becomes ugly with physical manifestation of Dorian's sins - for which there are many.  Once Dorian realized that he would never lose his youth and beauty, he seemed to feel invincible, like the world was his for the taking.  And with Lord Henry encouraging his hedonism, there was no stopping Dorian.  In the notations of the uncensored version, I learned that the idea of assessing someone's character based on physical qualities was quite common at the time.  When Basil visits Dorian to speak with him, as a friend, to make him aware of the reputation he had received, that is something that he struggles with - reconciling the stories and Dorian's appearance.  "'Mind you, I don't believe these rumors at all. At least, I can't believe them when I see you. Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man's face. It cannot be concealed. People talk of secret vices. There are no such things as secret vices. If a wretched man has a vice, is shows itself in the lines of the mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the  moulding of his hands even."'

Much like the flowers on my table (which were unexpectedly perfect for this post - the one single rose which remains fresh and beautiful while the rest grow old and die), Dorian's painted image becomes old and withered, which leaves him looking as young and beautiful as he did on that day in June.

I won't give anything further away for those of you who have not read this novel, but the concept is absolutely brilliant.  And the ending is something that you will take you completely by surprise.  I also couldn't get into too many aspects of this novel, but the character of Lord Henry goes off on some fantastic tangents - he holds very passionate views which always make for good reading - whether you agree with him or not.  And it wasn't until this second reading of the novel that I realized this is where the very famous (and very true) quote comes from.  Another musing from Lord Henry:

"Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Read this novel.  NOW!  (Yes, I'm kind of yelling at you.)

While Oscar Wilde penned this novel in 1890, the theme of the importance that is placed on youth and beauty is still very prevalent in today's society.  Mainly we see this where women are concerned, so it's refreshing to see it turned around to apply to men.  Unfortunately, this is just as big a problem in the gay community which is really what Wilde was writing about without blatantly saying so.

The story of Oscar Wilde himself is nicely depicted in the film Wilde.  For our Book Club Movie Day, Bridget and I poured a few glasses of bubbly, discussed the novel, and then watched the film.  It was a fabulous day!  There are some really great lines in the movie, but I think my favorite and the most spot-on statement made in the film was by Vanessa Redgrave when she said that Oscar Wilde saw 'beauty as a religion'.  It was not only beauty and youth as is largely discussed in the novel, but also art that Wilde was obsessed with.  And since today that is not as popular a view point as it was in Victorian England, it's kind of refreshing.  If you are in any way interested in the story of Wilde's life, you may want to watch this film.  He is a fascinating literary figure who is brilliantly portrayed by Stephen Fry.  On top of that, this film has a fabulous cast of characters!

watch the trailer
Afterwards, I popped in the 2009 adaption Dorian Gray with Colin Firth and a very attractive Ben Barnes.  This film is absolutely stunning!  While it's very modern in its sensibilities and it is not a literal re-telling, I highly recommend it!

watch the trailer
There have been many film versions released over the years and I was very interested in watching the 1945 version with Angela Lansbury.  So maybe I'll do that sometime in the future.  But not today.  Today I'm going to be satisfied with getting this post put together and finally being able to check this off of my list!

Looking forward to seeing you at our next Book Club Meeting, Lovelies! 

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