I’ll start by stating the obvious: the 21st century encourages vanity. Before there was Instagram, SnapChat filters, and waist training, we had Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray*.
In the book, Dorian Gray goes from an idealistic youth to a ruthless man who will stop at nothing to maintain his boyish beauty. A talented artist, Basil Hallward, paints Dorian at his physical peak. Encouraged by the hedonism of a fellow aristocrat, Lord Henry, Dorian makes a pivotal wish for the face of the portrait to grow old in lieu of his own. His obsession with aesthetics spurs a moral decline that destroys himself and his companions.
The structure is simple: portrait ages, person does not; however, Wilde animates the plot with lively dialogue and complex characters. Lord Henry isn’t supposed to be a good guy worth emulating, but I found him hilarious and poetic. Here are some words of wisdom from the Lord:
- Lord Henry on aging: “We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to.” (Wilde, 23)
- Lord Henry on being virtuous and faithful: “…the people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either their lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination.” (Wilde, 45)
- Lord Henry on rewinding time: “To get back my youth, I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be responsible.” (Wilde, 186).
See! He’s such a glamorous, self-indulgent nut-job. I can just picture him lounging on a fainting chair, sipping champagne, and telling his friends how he hates their skincare regime.
Wilde’s book is a timeless, foreboding reminder of what we’re capable of when we put pride above all else. As evidenced by the Lord Henry quotes, Wilde is a beautiful writer. His experience as a playwright informs his writing such that I was really able to picture The Picture of Dorian Gray in my head. If you’ve heard of Oscar Wilde but haven’t read any of his stuff, this is your chance! The Picture of Dorian Gray receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.
Side note: the cover photo for my book is titled “Oscar Wilde in a Pensive Mood Sitting on a Divan During His Stay in America”, which is how all photos should be captioned.
*Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Trans. Richard Ellmann. New York: Bantam Classics, Inc., 1982. Print.