Man is many things, but he is not rational

The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde

I have had this sat on my shelves for ages because, even though I’ve watched and loved a few of Wilde’s plays and have fond memories of his children’s stories, something in me said this is old and “classic”, therefore it will be hard. It was not a hard read at all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable one.

I would say that everyone already knows the storyline, but I was surprised to discover how vague my understanding of it was before I started reading. So I will summarise. At the start of the novel, Dorian Gray is young, beautiful, charming and innocent, and is serving as a muse to painter Basil Hallward, who is a little obsessed with him and has just painted his masterpiece, a portrait of Dorian. Dorian remarks that he wishes the painting might grow old while he stays young and beautiful and…well, it happens, but more slowly and darkly than I had expected.

“Hour by hour, and week by week, the thing upon the canvas was growing old…The cheeks would become hollow or flaccid. Yellow crow’s feet would creep round the fading eyes and make them horrible. The hair would lose its brightness, the mouth would gape or droop, would be foolish or gross, as the mouths of old men are. There would be the wrinkled throat, the cold, blue-veined hands, the twisted body.”

Dorian, when he realises what is happening, slowly becomes quite bad. Is this the influence of life in general? The circumstance of being able to look fresh and beautiful no matter how guilty he feels? Is it how Dorian’s nature was always fated to develop? Or is it all the influence of Lord Henry Wotton, a friend he was introduced to by Basil on that fateful day when the portrait was finished? Lord Henry is a fun character, talking largely in aphorisms and painting himself as morally repugnant, but the key seems to be that he doesn’t mean half of what he says, whereas Dorian takes it all to heart.

” ‘I adore simple pleasures,’ said Lord Henry. ‘They are the last refuge of the complex. But I don’t like scenes, except on the stage…I wonder who it was defined man as a rational animal. It was the most premature definition ever given. Man is many things, but he is not rational. I am glad he is not, after all.’ “

This book is so very quotable. Even skipping the slightly trite aphoristic preface (which I have seen quoted from many times), the language is full of both delightfully Wildean phrases but also exquisite descriptions:

“There was a silence. The evening darkened in the room. Noiselessly, and with silver feet, the shadows crept in from the garden. The colours faded wearily out of things.”

The characters are interesting. I didn’t feel I ever got to know any of them well, but they are certainly varied and in some cases fascinatingly complex. Even those characters that might have been verging on caricature are described so well it hardly matters.

“The exaggerated folly of the threat, the passionate gesture that accompanied it, the mad melodramatic words, made life seem more vivid to her. She was familiar with the atmosphere. She breathed more freely, and…would have liked to have continued the scene on the same emotional scale, but he cut her short. Trunks had to be carried down, and mufflers looked for. The lodging house drudge bustled in and out. There was the bargaining with the cabman. The moment was lost in vulgar details.”

Nothing is straightforward and not all of the mysteries of the story are resolved. Which was sometimes frustrating – exactly what are the rumours circulating about Dorian? I can imagine, but I want to know! I suppose that’s one of the moments to remember that this was written in the 19th century – it rarely if ever feels that old.

First published in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. Revised and published as a book in 1891 by Ward, Lock and Company.

Source: I have a chunky Complete Works of Oscar Wilde that I have owned for more than 10 years. I think I bought it for myself. Probably.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

2 thoughts on “Man is many things, but he is not rational

  1. Marie January 15, 2013 at 10:57 am

    Ohhh, what a great book – it’s one of my all time favourites. You’ve picked out some wonderful quotes there. I remember when I read it for the first time I started off sticking post-its in the pages to mark quotes I wanted to remember but stopped when I realised I was marking basically every page. Think it might be time for me to re-read this one.

  2. Nose in a book January 16, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    Marie I can definitely see myself re-reading this every few years.

Leave a Reply

Name *
Email *
Website

Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.