The Picture of Dorian Gray

Rating: +

Oscar Wilde

The one sentence summary of this book that I was given before I read it was that it is about a man who has a portrait painted of him, and rather than him aging, the portrait ages and he stays the same age. This is a simplified version of the story that misses a lot of the interest and depth of the story.

The plot follows the lives of and relationships between a painter, a young man (Dorian Gray) whom the painter becomes enamored of and begins obsessively painting portraits of, and a socialite type of man with questionable morals. At the beginning of the book the young man is entirely innocent and that innocence shows in his appearance and the way he does everything. Both of the other two men are attracted to this: the painter because this young man has inspired him artistically and shows something that the painter is grasping to capture in his paintings and the other man because he is interested by that degree of innocence and how it responds to being exposed to society - and how society responds to that degree of innocence. The painter paints a portrait of the young man and the other man takes the young man into society. And, to return to the sentence summary that I've usually heard given of this book, the portrait obtains the special property that whatever marks life would normally have left on Dorian's body instead appear on his image in the portrait. The result of this is that regardless of what Dorian does and how he lives his life he always appears to be a young and utterly innocent young man. And, of course, over time Dorian stopped actually being young and innocent.

I enjoyed reading this book a lot. I thought that, given the lack of plausibility of such a portrait existing, it was still quite realistic. The question behind the story, or course, was: what people will become when nobody is able to determine what their true nature is. It's a bit like asking "Would you commit crime X if you knew you would never be caught?" but the book considers ethics more than legality.

On top of that, I was also interested in the idea that your life is reflected in your appearance. I'm not sure whether that is something that I have experienced or not. Age, of course, shows up in people's appearances. Stress and lack of sleep do as well. But innocence, or the lack thereof, as a factor in physical appearance is something that I'm still not sure I can grasp, beyond a literary device, or a figure of speech for being able to read someone else's body language and intonations.

Finally, the book was well written and the plot was intriguing. I wasn't sure how the book was going to end and how the characters were going to end up. I was satisfied with how the premise was brought to resolution, though.


Review written July 1999.


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