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Old 04-20-2014, 12:37 AM   #1
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April 2014 Discussion: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (spoilers)

The time has come to discuss the April 2014 MobileRead Book Club selection, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

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Old 04-20-2014, 02:37 AM   #2
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With some of the things Mr. Wilde was involved in you have to wonder if maybe he didn't use himself as the model for Dorian Gray.
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Old 04-20-2014, 07:30 AM   #3
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OK. I've been meaning to read this for a couple of years now so the book club gave the excuse I needed to jump in.

I found the book much more accessible than I thought it would be, which was a benefit. The dialog and narrative was pretty clear, even if I found Lord Henry often contrary for the sake of being contrary without any particular reason or argument.

There was a particular chapter which described Dorian over the years that was immensely tedious; describing the instruments he had playing in his parlour and the scents he used etc.. I'm sure it was only 10 pages or so, but it felt like 100 pages of lists.

The ending was a bit abrupt and the final chapters didn't quite achieve the tension I was hoping for, such that I was surprised to find that the last page was actually the last page.

I'm glad the uncensored version is out there as there is certainly nothing to shock a modern reader. It made sense to me that someone who had delegated all suffering and sin to an inanimate object should be tempted to lead a debauched life, so the insinuations gave me just enough to imagine the rest. I don't know exactly what was censored from the original as I've never read to compare, but if that had been sanitised in some way, it would have lessened the story in my eyes.

So I liked the writing; clear and satisfying, much more than I was expecting. I liked the aspects of Dorian's life that was hinted at by the narrative. However, the story itself didn't work as well for me as I thought it would. It seemed like a great deal of Lord Henry saying bad is good and good is bad, followed by tedious lists of Dorian's hobbies over the years culminating in an ending I found myself unprepared for.

I would have thought Lord Henry was modeled after Oscar Wilde. I'm only writing that because I remember watching some of the movie Wilde with Stephen Fry and Fry's dialogue reminded me somewhat of Lord Henry's speechifying. Not the most scientific conclusion to draw, but it's just how it came across to me.
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Old 04-20-2014, 06:51 PM   #4
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I loved the Lord Henry character. While his outlook on like was jaded, his ways of expressing himself was nonetheless fresh and entertaining. Too, I suspect that Basil Hallward had him pegged to a large degree when he said, "You are an extraordinary fellow. You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose." He seemed to be one of those characters whose greatest delight in life was in puncturing pomposity wherever he found it, and always delighted when a remark of his discomforted the comfortable. His one liners, whether he actually believed what he was saying or not, were remarkable. "Conscience and cowardice are really the same things, Basil. Conscience is the trade-name of the firm. That is all." You've have to love a guy like that. That he so corrupted Dorian Gray perhaps owes more to Gray's impressionable nature than Lord Wotton's influence. He seemed to take every word that fell from Henry's lips as gospel truth, not to be challenged. To my way of thinking there seems to have been a bit of the true believer in Dorian Gray's makeup that's always dangerous, no matter what the creed or philosophy one places their faith in.
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Old 04-22-2014, 09:57 AM   #5
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I think all three characters represent aspects of Wilde. Lord Henry is the observer/epigrammist, Basil is the artist/creator, and Dorian is sensuality/experience. On the other hand, it can certainly be argued that Lord Henry is creator, in the evil Svengali sense, of Dorian, but the dichotomy works for me, also, seeing the creator as manichean. Interestingly to me, I checked the date on Trilby and the novel was published a few years after Dorian Gray and I wonder if du Maurier's Svengali owes some inspiration to Wilde.

I don't really care for criticism that includes the author's life but it's irresistible in this case. Dorian Gray seems eerily prescient to me. I didn't pick it up on my reading, but I assume Lord Henry is a marquis's younger son and not a duke's. Impossible not to think of Lord Alfred Douglas, also a marquis's younger son, who would be both beautiful love object and agent of destruction to Wilde. I understand that it was Dorian Gray that first attracted Lord Alfred to Wilde. Art imitating life, I suppose, and the unwitting start of a tragic trajectory for Wilde.
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Old 04-22-2014, 10:35 AM   #6
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I wonder if many of Wilde's troubles with the powers-that-were could have had their origin with those who may have felt the book was an attack on religion? For example, after the remarkable passage where he says this of Gray:

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It was rumoured of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic Communion; and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him. The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of its elements, and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolise.
He then proceeds to marginalize religion with this passage:

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But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of a night, or for a few hours of a night in which there are no stars and the moon is in travail.
Indeed, in another passage, Wilde has Lord Henry saying:

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Religion consoles some. Its mysteries have all the charm of a flirtation, a woman once told me; and I can quite understand it. Besides, nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner.
That last line, "nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner," seems a particularly pointed jab at the very heart of the God religions in general and Christianity in particular. It turns the humble confession of being the chief of sinners that the unknown writer of I Timothy attributed to Paul of Tarsus into a proud boast. I can see why the religious of his day would be angry with Wilde for more than just his sexuality.
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Old 04-22-2014, 10:45 AM   #7
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And yet, wasn't Wilde a deathbed convert? Perhaps it was a Pascalian covering of his ass, but it also attests to a continuing fascination and struggle with the issues of religion and belief on his part.
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Old 04-22-2014, 11:05 AM   #8
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By the way, did anyone else manage to get their hands on a copy of the Marvel Illustrated version of The Picture of Dorian Gray? I may have bought the last new copy at Amazon. It appears that all the remaining copies are used. Well, let me tell you, I was blown away by this adaptation by Roy Thomas (author), Sebastian Fiumara (illustrator), and Gerald Parel (cover art). I remember reading Classics Illustrated when I was a kid, and I don't recall any of them being as faithful to the original author's intent as this was to Oscar Wilde's. It was about as close to reading the actual book as you can get without actually reading the book. One line did stand out, however, that wasn't in the original versions. In a crowd scene, one unnamed spectator made the chance remark, "All art is quite useless." Of course, that's from Oscar Wilde's preface to the 1891 version. I guess Roy Thomas couldn't resist inserting that wonderful and somewhat enigmatic remark into the body of the work itself.

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Old 04-22-2014, 11:29 AM   #9
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And yet, wasn't Wilde a deathbed convert? Perhaps it was a Pascalian covering of his ass, but it also attests to a continuing fascination and struggle with the issues of religion and belief on his part.
While I'm generally skeptical of stories of deathbed conversions in general, that one appears to have been genuine. Not only was he baptized into the Catholic faith, but he appears to have received Extreme Unction as well. How much of his conversion was genuine and how much was for motives other than those of genuine religious conviction are matters of which only he knew the truth, but it appears true that he died a convert.
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Old 04-22-2014, 12:08 PM   #10
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A word here on the film adaptations I saw. First up was Dorian Gray, a 2009 film starring Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray and Colin Firth as Lord Henry Wotton. I enjoyed this film, but felt it was a bit removed from the book. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, as the book was written in a time and place where the author was not free to express the full depravity of his creation, but I couldn't help coming away from the film with the notion that perhaps too much had changed. For example, before he takes Lord Henry to see Sibyl Vane for the first time, the movie shows both characters being serviced in a house of ill repute. That hardly seems in keeping with a man who at the time professed himself to be under the spell of love. And, of course, the homosexual element was only hinted at in the book.

Next up was a film for which I had high expectations, having seen it somewhere described as the best and most faithful of all the film adaptations, the 1945 film, The Picture of Dorian Gray starring George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton, Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray, and what got my attention as a 2nd generation Murder She Wrote fan, a young Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vane. Well, I was happy with Lansbury as Sibyl, but not with the transformation of Sibyl Vane from a Shakespearean actor into what amounted to a singer at a local nightclub. There were other things that really bugged me about the film, not the least of which was the slight alteration for the better that the portrait underwent when Gray decided he was going to turn over a new leaf, suggesting there was hope for him after all; a notion never entertained in the words of any version of the book. But perhaps the most irritating aspect of the movie was the addition of Donna Reed as a love interest for Dorian and someone who almost saves him from himself. Her character was even present as a small child at the painting of the portrait, and actually signed the portrait under Basil's signature.

One interesting aspect of the 1945 film was the portrait itself. While the rest of the film was in black and white, several of the scenes where the portrait filled the screen were in Technicolor. Gimmicky, yes, but it wasn't as distracting as the 2009 film that used special effects to have the portrait attempt to leave the canvas to some after Dorian.
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Old 04-22-2014, 02:09 PM   #11
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Realistically, I'll never get to the films as I watch almost nothing these days, so I'm glad to read your précis. Frankly, the Donna Reed aspect seems like a dealbreaker in itself. Hollywood in the 40s! Nothing had changed in 50 years.

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And, of course, the homosexual element was only hinted at in the book.
My own inference was that the three men ran the sexuality gamut. I read Lord Henry as essentially heterosexual, given Basil's comment about his uxoriousness, Basil as homosexual and Dorian omnisexual.
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Old 04-22-2014, 02:25 PM   #12
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One can't help being struck by Dorian's fabulous wealth. He inherited from his uncle, presumably his mother's brother since Dorian didn't inherit the title also. We can assume that his uncle was the end of his noble line, both because estates were entailed to the succeeding peer in those days and because his uncle hated him and presumably only left him his money and property in the absence of other possible heirs. So was Wilde implying an essential sterility to Dorian also, and that his expenditure of his essence and goodness as well as his material wealth was in default of offspring in whom it would naturally be invested?

This is probably a stretch, but I'm reminded of Shakespeare's Sonnet CXXIX, which I'll quote:

Quote:
Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
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Old 04-22-2014, 05:29 PM   #13
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...My own inference was that the three men ran the sexuality gamut. I read Lord Henry as essentially heterosexual, given Basil's comment about his uxoriousness, Basil as homosexual and Dorian omnisexual.
Basil was, for me, the one character in the book truly deserving of sympathy. He seemed to be a genuinely good-hearted and ethical chap who did nothing worthy of his fate. That he fell in love with a pretty face and felt jealous of anyone with whom his object of desire spoke is something that could happen to anyone.
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Old 04-22-2014, 06:31 PM   #14
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Basil was, for me, the one character in the book truly deserving of sympathy. He seemed to be a genuinely good-hearted and ethical chap who did nothing worthy of his fate. That he fell in love with a pretty face and felt jealous of anyone with whom his object of desire spoke is something that could happen to anyone.
I agree about Basil but also think he fell in love with the innocence of Dorian at the beginning of the tale.

Lord Henry was actually the worst of them for me even though, as Basil noted, "You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing." Maybe he didn't physically do the wrong things, but after seeing the hold he had on Dorian, his continuing to influence him in the ways he did certainly wasn't the moral choice. I was really hoping something bad would happen to him and somehow he would realize the damage he had done to Dorian. I wonder what he would have done if Dorian had shown the strains his lifestyle should have produced. (I picture the "faces of meth" campaigns where they show a before and after picture of someone who abuses meth over a short period of time.)
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Old 04-23-2014, 06:28 AM   #15
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I think all three characters represent aspects of Wilde. Lord Henry is the observer/epigrammist, Basil is the artist/creator, and Dorian is sensuality/experience.
I like that.
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