I began ‘Dorian Gray’ with no expectations, apart from knowing there was an aging portrait involved. I always think this is the best way to start a novel, because you become a fresh canvas (pardon the pun) for the author, with no outside interference. While I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, I found Wilde’s replacement of action with sensory description hindered my understanding of Dorian’s true character.
The descriptions within the novel are incredibly thematic, and enhance what the novel is all about – the obsession with appearance and vanity versus moral decay. If anything, the imagery served to prove that one cannot be vain and virtuous simultaneously, and pretences can only serve you to a certain extent. However, the move from the innocent Dorian to the corrupt figure haunting the schoolroom was marred by this description, as while I completely understood that his decay was being depicted through the senses, i felt like I needed some sort of substantiation to his apparent immorality. This was why I struggled with the murder chapter – I saw how Dorian was provoked and understood his fear, but I still didn’t feel like Wilde had provided a why to this degradation. Clearly, Lord Henry was the major contributor within this, but the only symbol of his decay was his language – there was no specific example of his corruption, not even an exploration of his wife’s motive in her affair, although I suppose this was intended to follow on from his corrupting influences and them backfiring.
It was only in the subsequent chapters to Basil’s murder that I really felt like I understood Dorian’s decay: his vanity even in an attempt to protect Hetty from himself, his blackmailing Alan Campbell and Campbell’s subsequent suicide…I didn’t even feel cheated by not having Campbell’s suicide explained, as it wasn’t relevant to the plot, what was relevant was Dorian’s ability to manipulate those around him. It was only after the deed was done that I could see Dorian for who he truly was, and in this I feel Wilde is cleverly manipulating the plot by presenting the climax before it is explained. The fact that James Vane died without avenging his sister’s death – without, even, a headstone bearing his name – served perfectly to highlight the injustice in Dorian’s existence while those who seek the truth and love perish around him. It is this that makes me believe ‘Dorian Gray’ needs to be read twice to be fully appreciated, and that maybe the right expectations are needed in order to cultivate the perfect image.
Even if the image does make us question our inner portrait…