Review: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

Spoiler-free zone.

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I’ve been wanting to read Oscar Wilde for some time, and though he’s mostly famous for his plays, I chose to start with his only novel, published in 1891. The premise of The Picture of Dorian Gray intrigued me, especially because its Victorian audience had deemed it immoral, criticizing its decadence and allusions. It didn’t take much to offend such an audience, mind you; the Victorian era was proper in every sense of the word—concerned with ranks and high morals, and above all else, appearances.

This is a story about obsession, orchestrated by art, pleasures, and vanity. Wilde explores society’s obsession with beauty and eternal youth, exposing the ugliness that sprouts within when one is poisoned by ego and influence. A cautionary tale of sorts, it condemns those who over-think and inject meaning into things that just are—as Wilde was a big proponent of the aestheticism movement. The purpose of art is called to question and serves as the book’s main theme.

(I find it ironic that through a work of art—this book—Wilde sought to prove his philosophy that art’s only real purpose is to be beautiful. And even more ironic is that Wilde fell from his post as celebrated writer and playwright—convicted of acts of indecency— not long after this book was published… but I digress.)

“It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a Gothic, psychological thriller set in Victorian London. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?! The grand aristocratic homes, the dimly lit streets peppered with horse carriages, the rain trickling down windows as dinners are enjoyed indoors… all these elements paint the novel’s setting, and Wilde is careful with his details, focusing on the psychological state of the main character, Dorian Gray.

Although the action builds rather slowly, the third-person narrative (sometimes interrupted by the author speaking directly to us) drives the book with full force, culminating with a bold and powerful climax that I must admit, I didn’t see coming.

The pages are filled with rich philosophical debates and witty dialogue, but the moral decline of Dorian Gray, who I only sometimes pitied, remains the central focus, with each exchange and internal monologue reflecting his impressionable character. The story begins with his being a “beautiful”, innocent, oblivious young man, untainted by cynicism. Indeed, ignorance is truly bliss for Dorian Gray in the beginning. Living life in carefree luxury (with way too much time on his hands!), his growing ambitions, vanity, and curiosities gradually tumble him into “grayness” and misery, and I found it interesting that his name is always used in full throughout the book—rarely if ever is he referred to as simply Dorian, or Gray, perhaps to emphasize that his entire being is corrupt, not just his actions.

There were times I did chuckle at the dramatic undertones, especially in relation to the way the characters spoke, but their word choices and phrases only emphasized the time and place of the novel, which I enjoyed thoroughly.

As a writer, one thing I appreciated about this book was the minimal number of characters. I admired how Wilde used each supporting character very specifically to aid in Dorian Gray’s trajectory, thus plunging us head-first into the inner turmoil of his desperate protagonist. It was fun to observe because it reminded me that novels needn’t have numerous characters with long story-lines in order to be interesting, poignant, or complex. (Thanks, Mr. Wilde!) 

And the ending to me was perfect… a true, natural conclusion very much in line with the ominous tone that carries the book, so that we’re finally left with a clear “picture” of Dorian Gray.

So if you’re in the mood for a quick-read classic, pick up this book and indulge yourself. 😉 Or have you read it already? What did you think?

The Plight of the Artist: Inspiration vs. Habit

ImageInspiration is an elusive and mysterious fellow. I imagine him to live in the tree tops where he can observe the comings and goings of mundane routine from a safe distance. (He doesn’t do too well with monotony.) At times he might find a person of interest and decide to perch himself on his or her shoulder, and linger there awhile to the very delight of said person. Other times he might remain far and aloof, on a hiatus of sorts because apparently Inspiration too needs time to rejuvenate.

That said, I don’t trust Inspiration much. I adore his company and would never ever turn him away (obviously), but I have learned to not rely on him, to not wait for him to do my work. Inspiration will always be nearby somewhere, camouflaged in the tree tops, playing outside your window, or anywhere around you really if you would only quiet your mind and pay attention. But he’s fickle. He does not like to make himself readily available. He’s shy, has his insecurities like any artist, and thus seems to reveal himself only when he’s got his best suit on. Which is why, when he does finally arrive — it’s amazing! But frankly, I don’t have time for that.

And so I discovered my sturdy friend, Habit.

Now let me tell you. Habit will get you where you need to go. He will bee-line through any mess and screech to a stop right at your feet just to pick you up. Habit, in short, makes things happen, gets things done. Inspiration lounges, kicks his feet up, stays awhile only when it pleases him. Habit moves, demands attention, calls you to action.

So much for productivity, Inspiration may mumble, a cigarette hanging from the side of his lip as he watches us from a cloud. Habit on the other hand is a bull: fierce and proud and utterly dependable, once you learn how to harness him, of course. You must earn Habit’s trust before he will work with you.

I wasted spent a good many years waiting around on whimsical Inspiration. Declaring that I cannot be creative until I’m in his magical company. But I finally realized, thanks to a professor in one of my writing workshops, that I had it all wrong…

The art of living artfully is a matter of choice, a matter of prioritizing. Not a matter of waiting for the right idea and the perfect moment. We must set up the stage for the right idea and the perfect moment. We must plow through hideous drafts and forgive ourselves instead of punish ourselves when a piece we’re working on refuses to take the shape we want it to.

Inspiration may give us vision, but Habit is what helps us bring that vision to life.

We need Inspiration. His purpose is entwined with ours. And in time, he will come. He always does. Sometimes quietly, sometimes with a bang. He may visit us in our dreams or at the doctor’s office. He lives in a single moment; he’s as essential as a match. But ultimately, forging a strong partnership with Habit is how we can set ourselves up for success.

Habit will keep us moving through the streams of our imaginations even when those streams seem low and almost dry. Habit will keep us disciplined and determined and hopeful. Inspiration is a wonderful visitor. We must cultivate patience and keep an open window in our minds so that we’re always ready to welcome him into our creative process.

Inspiration without Habit often leads to unfinished projects and half-baked ideas. But Habit nurtures Inspiration. Habit keeps the artist going. Habit is the difference between a passive artist and an active one.

Why I write fiction

“Fiction is the art form of human yearning.”- Robert Olen Butler, American author

It wasn’t until I came across the above quote that I realized, yes — that is why I love to read and write fiction. I want to explore the human condition. The yearnings that pull at the human heart. Some yearnings are live wires, bursting, causing trouble or inspiring great change; others are dormant, not yet realized.

At the core of every beating heart is a raw desire, a painful need, a helplessness, a joy, a hope, a love, a passion, a fear, a secret. I’m fascinated by these complexities that make up who we are as human beings. By the eccentricities of our human nature, by the good and evil that battles in our hearts, by the intricate relationships we forge and release in our lives. By the choices we make. By how those choices follow us.

Why do we do the things that we do? What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to be evil? What does it mean to be human? Is there hope for us?

We all have unique stories and truths that shape our lives. Fiction is a reflection of those stories and truths. Sometimes the reflection is bright, sometimes it’s dark, but fiction — good fiction — is always true in that it always seeks to express or reveal what is true. That is why we connect with characters, why they become real to us — because in the characters, in their flaws, strengths, and motivations, we recognize a piece of ourselves or a piece of someone we know.

When I write fiction I get to analyze the various depths of human emotions. I get to be, feel, see anything I choose… I get to dive into the wondrous world of the everyday, seek beauty in the most unlikely of places, find the amazing in the mundane. Writing fiction allows me to step outside of myself, and it helps me find some understanding in a world that is becoming increasingly fearful, cynical, and unfeeling.

When I write fiction I discover. I practice reflection. You must look inwards as much as outwards when writing. You must trust your instincts and draw from what you don’t know as much as from what you do. You must question. You must observe. You must be sincere. I write fiction because I want to explore and bridge perspectives. I want to feel the other side of things. I want to play with the “what ifs”. I want to let others know, as many books have let me know time and time again:

You are not alone in this beautiful mess called the human experience. You are not alone. I too have braved this battle and felt this feeling and found this joy in the nothing.