A Perilous Look at Dorian Gray

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The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde, 1890

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

Those lines from the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray resonate with me right now. My thoughts on this book are so jumbled and difficult to articulate, which is appropriate. I suppose. Oscar Wilde wants us to be baffled by the paradoxical nature of his writing. I guess I will just start spewing some thoughts at you. . .as if that’s any different from what I normally do.

There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

  • This too is from the preface. It reminds me greatly of Mark Twain’s preface to Huck Finn in which “persons attempting to find a moral [. . .] will be banished.” Both authors command their readers not to look for morals, which is the height of irony given that these books are more explicitly about morality than other Victorian classics. And Victorian novels are generally very concerned with morality. I don’t know who Twain and Wilde thought they were fooling with these “don’t look at the man behind the curtain” exhortations. If you write a book about a character’s ethical rise or fall, be prepared for readers to notice that.
  • Yet, I personally value the book almost exclusively for Oscar’s (we are on a first-name basis) beautiful writing. I don’t care about Dorian all that much. I’m much more interested in the butterflies in Basil Hallward’s garden, because they are so beautifully described. Or the bees. Listen to this: “The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive.” That sentence is so perfect, I want to live inside it. I want to rub my face on it, lovingly. Ok, I just did. Sometimes I’m overcome with affection for a snippet of writing and feel an urge to press the page to my face as if it were a cute kitty.
  • These overwhelmingly beautiful descriptions of sensual experiences persist throughout the novel and they are rather persuasive arguments in favor of the aesthete lifestyle that Oscar himself symbolized. However, the plot overtly condemns a life of pure artistic pleasure. Dorian’s Hedonism destroys many lives, including his own. What a tragic foreshadowing of Oscar’s early death, which was arguably caused by his own unwise decisions. I don’t exactly see it that way, but some of his biographers do. I think I will wait until another post to discuss my deep existential sadness about Oscar Wilde’s life story.

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I have to mention that this is the first time in this literary journey that I have encountered a male character who is anxious about maintaining his youth and beauty. Generally, in literature, men don’t worry about that, because they have other ways of proving their value to the world. Other ways of obtaining their ends. It’s not insignificant that when the male gaze turns on another male, he starts to feel the same anxieties that plague female characters throughout literature.

I worry about the implications of this book as a work of gay literature. Lord Henry’s influence leads to Dorian’s complete moral degradation. The idea of an older man corrupting a beautiful youth is a depiction of homosexual love that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Thank goodness for the counterpoint of Basil’s more enriching love. Still. . .look what happens to Basil. Also, I can’t help but wonder how much Oscar internalized the Victorian attitude toward homosexuality. In many ways, he was an outspoken advocate for the beauty of homosexual love. Yet, Dorian Gray can be interpreted as belying that message. I don’t like to interpret it that way, because I hate to think that Oscar Wilde felt any shame about his gayness, but the possibility of that interpretation is difficult to miss. Of course, it wouldn’t be Oscar Wilde’s life or literature if it wasn’t paradoxical.

On a very different note, this is an excellent horror novel. I don’t know if I have said that about any other book on this blog. Have I? Oh, yeah. Jekyll and Hyde of course. Anyway, my point is that excellent horror novels are rare in the cannon. So, hooray for Dorian Gray. Good job, Oscar.

Final Thoughts: There is so much more that can be said about this book, but others have said it. Really, you should just read it or reread it and think your own thinky thoughts about it. It is a masterpiece.

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A Brief Summary of Henry James’ Long Problems

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Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, 1898

I’m ready. I’m going to blab about everything that is wrong with Henry James. Well, not everything, because I haven’t read all his “major” novels yet. There is nothing major, in the Clueless sense of the word, about any of his novels as far as I can perceive. Have you ever heard anyone say “Henry James is my favorite author!” I haven’t. He is remembered for being experimental and an influence for the Modernists, but his own work is, frankly, atrocious. I mean it. I worry about the Modern Era in literature that looms before me. If those goobers read Henry James and thought “Yes! This! The world needs more of this,” I worry about their judgment. The Turn of the Screw is perhaps a perfect microcosm of James’ flaws. Taking this novella as an exemplar, let’s get into the problem with Henry James. Have I typed those last five words before? I may have.

Anyway.

  1. Good concept, executed poorly. A young lady takes a job as a governess to two orphans living on their uncle’s remote country estate. The last governess died under mysterious circumstances. Yes! I am ready for these spooky, haunted children. Come to me, spectral governess. I am waiting. . . for nothing. James doesn’t really pull it off. Similarly, What Maisie Knew takes on the concept of divorce, a fascinating topic for the Late Victorian Era, but James does nothing good with it. In a Portrait of a Lady he tries to write about a modern, independent woman and fails spectacularly. It’s as if he thought of and about creative and interesting topics but failed to think up anything worthwhile when he contemplated them.
  2. Turn of the Screw starts out as a frame story. Visitors at a storm bespattered country estate gather around the fireside to share spooky stories. One claims to have the spookiest story of them all, but he must send away for the manuscript. He reads the manuscript. The novella ends. Right there with the last word of the manuscript. Henry James doesn’t close the frame. There is absolutely no value to the introductory portion. The listeners do not comment on the tale after they hear it. They are simply forgotten. He could have simply started with the governess’ narrative. In fact, BBC radio productions and similarly abridged versions do just that, recognizing that the James’ “frame” is unnecessary and pointless. Come at me. I will fight you on this. Oh wait, no one out there actually cares about Henry James enough to defend him, because he just isn’t good enough to deserve that level of devotion.
  3. He circles meaning like a turkey vulture, not daring to descend and eat until…I don’t know what he’s waiting for, really. Conversations drag on in a way that frustrates rather than builds tension. The governess sees ghosts and wants to know if her charges see them too. Rather than ask them, she talks around the topic page after page until you want to shake her and query the children on her behalf “hey, have you been hanging out with your dead governess?” Similarly, in P of and L Isabell won’t ask if Madame Merle happens to have been impregnated by her husband. Instead, James talks around that for a few hundred pages. In What Maisie Knew, James takes dragging-out-indelicate-conversations-with-children to the limit. The entire novel consists of interminable conversations between Maisie and adults who won’t come out and say “are you aware that your parents are having affairs with other people and that such behavior is wrong?” Speaking of repetitiveness. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hang fire, is apparently an expression that means “pause” and the preceding interlude represents what it feels like to read James’ dialogue, in which he uses that expression about as often as he changes speakers. Just sloppy and annoying. Weak writing by any acknowledged interpretation of the term.

I don’t have anything else to say about this story. I have two more novels “The Ambassador” and “Wings of the Dove” to drag myself through before I can put James behind me and dive into his hopefully more competent proteges. Gosh, I hope those books are better than what came before. Cuz, yikes.

You might like The Turn of the Screw if:

  • you like Uncle Silas. Yeah, you’d have to be into Victorian horror enough to have read Uncle Silas. You’d have to have a specific thing for Victorian horror, regardless of quality. Honestly, Uncle Silas is better.

You might not like The Turn of the Screw if:

  • You like stories that are well-told.

Final thoughts: Look, I get it. You’ve gotten this far, and you still want to know about the poor vulnerable governess and the spooky, haunted children. Me too. Watch the BBC production with Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from Downton Abbey). It’s not bad.