There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. – Oscar Wilde (Preface, First Edition, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891)
With those opening words I have two comments: This is not meant to be a synopsis of the novel, so I dont discuss the storyline herein. I would however, discuss some of Oscar Wilde’s self commentary about the novel, so if that should spoil your pleasure reading it please refrain from reading further. Second, this post is not meant to be judged morally. The thoughts herein might be well presented or badly presented. That is all.
With regards the kinds of books I like, there are certain qualities that I have a predisposition to. Primary among them being the ability of the book to incite a thought process. A motif that coerces me to cogitate. A self-consistent point of view which enhances the thought-scope. Next, is should posses the art of story telling. The book should be an immersive journey, not just factual statements of the reality created by the author. Finally, although I am not very conscious about the writing style in general, a good word play here and there does definitely add a star to its rating. The Picture of Dorian Gray excels in first and third. Infact it excels in inciting a thought process to a degree that very few others have done to me. And with respect to word play, I can simply say that this is the best book I personally have ever read. It is the kind of book that surely leaves an indelible mark on you. Weather positive or negative is subjective.
The story is simple and simply told. That does not mean its not interesting, only that the plot is not very complex to grasp. What made this exceptional for me is that it questioned several foundations of the society that are dogmatically and axiomatically taken to be true. From morally corrupt to artistically beautiful and from morally beautiful to artistically corrupt, from sickening soul to healing senses and from healing soul to sickening senses, from exuberant youth to morbid old age and only so ;), this book is full of paradoxical adages that are said so subtly yet so simply that one can almost slide over them without ever noticing them. But, if you notice them, which are almost always present in every page, you can not not wonder. Almost all of these pithy statement are rendered by the way of Lord Henry, who is a kind of a person who has “never said anything right, but never done anything wrong“. One will be always fond of Lord Henry because “he represents to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit“. He is “delightfully and dreadfully demoralizing”. The protagonist of the story is Dorian Gray who has all the beauty a man could desire, who “sought to elaborate some scheme of life that would have its reasoned philosophy and its ordered principles, and find in spiritualizing of the senses its highest realization.” who under the influence of Lord Henry creates a new Hedonism, “its aim, indeed, was to be experience itself, and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they might be. Of the asceticism that deadens the senses, as of the vulgar profligacy that dulls them, it was to know nothing“. I would not want to reveal how he does that or if he is successful in doing so, but I definitely was intrigued by the philosophy in choosing to do so.
In Oscars own words – “For if a work of art is rich and vital and complete, those who have artistic instincts will see its beauty, and those to whom ethics appeal more strongly than aesthetics will see its moral lesson. It will fill the cowardly with terror, and the unclean will see in it their own shame. It will be to each man what he is himself. Its the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors”. And the book is laden with sentences of both artistic and moral appeal.
“You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know”,
“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul”,
“To get back one’s youth, one has to merely repeat one’s follies”,
“The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that caprice lasts a little longer”,
“To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable”,
“It is an odd thing, but every one who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world.”
“It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But it is better to be good than to be ugly.”
… and the list is endless.
After reading the novel, I did also read some of the conversations and controversies that surrounded the book when it was published. Several of them judging the book to be immoral, some of them saying that it has no morals an is just a piece of dull art. Oscar Wilde replied on the lack of moral, to the editor of ‘The Daily Chronicle’, “The real moral of the story is that all excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its punishment, and this moral is so far artistically and deliberately suppressed that it does not enunciate its law as a general principle, but realizes itself purely in the lives of individuals, and so becomes simply a dramatic element in a work of art and not the object of the work of art itself”. To another in ‘The Scots Observer’ he wrote, “It was necessary, Sir, for the dramatic development of this story, to surround Dorian Gray with an atmosphere of moral corruption, […] Each man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray. What Dorian Gray’s sins are no one knows. He who finds them has brought them”
Oscar Wilde has used wickedness and virtue as simply the colors on his palette to produce an artistic effect that is both interestingly intriguing to read and invigoratingly involving to mull over. The Picture of Dorian Gray is well written.