So I read Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest back in high school and found it amusing, but it did nothing to prepare me for this. I mean, I knew the premise of the story, of course–that Dorian Gray has a painting of himself that ages while he remains the same age. But what I didn’t realize is that this is a real horror book, with murder and suspense, even a fairly seedy scene in an opium den.
Dorian Gray starts off as a young aristocrat who’s so unusually handsome that everybody is drawn to him. He’s also charming and good-natured, hardly aware of his own beauty, and appears well on his way to a happy, upstanding life. Dorian has a somewhat older painter friend, Basil, who finds inspiration in Dorian’s appearance and is always having him drop by to work on a portrait. In fact, Basil paints the best he ever has when Dorian is sitting for him, feeling himself as a conduit for some sort of primal artistic force. When the portrait is finally complete, he shows it to Dorian, who never realized before quite how good-looking he is. Basil agrees to give the painting to him, and when Dorian hangs it, he gives a sort of prayer asking that such unblemished beauty should never be marred.
Basil introduces Dorian to another friend, Henry, who’s a great cynic. Henry considers himself a student of human psychology, and enjoys manipulating people so he can see how they react in various situations. When he sees how handsome Dorian is, he takes him under his wing, knowing Dorian will provide many opportunities to see the workings of human nature. He encourages Dorian to indulge his senses, and loans him an evil but fascinating book about a Frenchman who dedicated his life to pleasure. (I don’t believe the author is ever specified, but perhaps the implication is that the book was by the Marquis de Sade?)
Under Henry’s tutelage and the influence of the book, Dorian becomes ever more materialistic, interested only in owning beautiful things, having pleasurable experiences, and living as if his life itself were a work of art. At a rundown playhouse in a bad part of London one night, Dorian happens to see an amazing young actress named Sibyl Vane. He goes backstage and woos her after her performances, eventually promising to marry her, although he never tells her his real name. He brings Basil and and Henry to the playhouse to see her, but it turns out that Sibyl’s performances were inspired by her longing for love, and now that she’s found real love in Dorian, she can no longer act.
Dorian, disgusted by Sibyl’s terrible performance and embarrassed in front of his friends, ends their relationship. The distraught Sibyl, who is only seventeen, commits suicide. Dorian finds himself unmoved by her suicide, since she was no longer of any interest to him. He happens to notice that the painting of him has changed–the lines around the mouth appearing crueler, the eyes colder. He realizes that the painting will take all the burden of his sin and aging, while he himself will remain ever youthful.
Thus begins Dorian’s long descent into degradation. I won’t describe how it proceeds any further, other than to say this is a fully satisfying horror tale. As one might expect, Oscar Wilde’s prose is exquisite and the conversations sparkling. I especially liked the lengthy but fun descriptions of all of Dorian’s costly purchases–tapestries and jewels and antiques, all described as vividly as Dorian himself would do.
I’ve decided to credit this book with my No Excuses tag–meaning a short, important book that’s so easy to read that there’s no excuse for never tackling it. I’m not sure what took me so long to get me to this one! It’s fun and goes quickly and is something of a classic. For those who would be interested in an exquisitely written horror novel, I recommend it highly.