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December 3, 2014

Let's Get Classic - Post 2


At Teenreads, we love to review the latest and greatest YA books to hit the shelves. However, we recognize that older books --- sometimes much older books --- have plenty of value, too. In this blog series, Teen Board member Alison S. is writing about some of her favorites and how they remain relevant today. Read below for the second one, Oscar Wilde's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, and click here to read her first post on Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN.


This month, I’ve decided to discuss Oscar Wilde’s THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY.. Unlike Frankenstein (from November’s post), Dorian Gray has yet to inspire a line of Halloween costumes or neon-pink cereal. So....what’s this book about, exactly?

That’s a hard question to answer, since Oscar Wilde is as concerned with plotting as Oscar Mayer is with nutrition. Rather, the novel is pretty much what its title suggests: a character study of protagonist Dorian Gray. A fairytale-esque account of his lost innocence and 30-year descent into a hypocrisy and corruption. Sounds peppy, right?

It actually was --- for the first 15 pages, at least. On page 16, however, Dorian meets the rakish Lord Henry, and our teenage protagonist’s illusioned worldview begins to unravel. Furthermore, in that very same chapter, Dorian receives the titular “picture of Dorian Gray” --- an enchanted portrait that ages in our protagonist’s place, allowing the 18-year-old to retain his youthful innocence and beauty. While age and sin (cough cough *murder* cough cough) mutilate his portrait, Dorian remains ever “where spring trembles on the verge of summer….Like the gods of the Greeks….strong and fleet and joyous.”

At first glance, this novel struck me as a treatise on the horrors of sin. Then I thought to myself: Would Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest minds of his century, really take 229 pages to say murder is bad?

No, he wouldn’t. Perhaps THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY doesn’t warn against amorality at all. Instead, Wilde may have intended his novel as a criticism of upper-crust hypocrisy. As Lord Henry says, “All influence is immoral….to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul….His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed….The terror of society, which is the basis of morals; the terror of God, which is the secret of religion— these are the two things that govern us.” 

Though the 19th century aristocracy prides itself on virtue, Wilde depicts these “morals” as hollow at best. Sure, the nobles support food banks, homeless shelters and other “fashionable” causes, but this philanthropy stemmed not from a desire to help others, but from the need to enhance one’s own reputation. And Dorian’s crimes? His “sins” may not originate in the morally-questionable acts themselves, but rather in the acts’ motivations.

Take, for example, Dorian’s “murder” of his girlfriend, actress Sybil Vane. When Sybil performs heinously in a play, Dorian breaks her heart, lamenting, “You have killed my love….I would have made you famous….The world would have worshipped you, and you would have borne my name.”

Sybil bursts into tears, then kills herself two hours later.

See? I told you this book was peppy.

Now, what “sin” is Oscar Wilde condemning? Of course, you shouldn’t scream at people whenever their acting falls flat. But maybe that’s not the point. Instead, I think Oscar Wilde is warning readers not to repress their own desires for the sake of remaining “fashionable”; Dorian worships Sybil, yet he breaks her heart. Why? Because he’s concerned that, unless Sybil ascends to international renown, the relationship won’t benefit him socially. After all, it’s fashionable to marry a great actress, but a mediocre one? Not so much. Way to go, Dorian. Sacrificing your first love for fashion.

So what does this mean for you, exactly? Live according to your own desires. Don’t sacrifice love or happiness or meaning because of society’s rules --- which, for the most part, strike me as pretty arbitrary.

As Lord Henry used to say, “....if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream….the world would gain….a fresh impulse of joy.”

Aliison S. is a Teen Board member.