There are books you like. There are books you enjoy. There are books you admire. And then there are books that go off in your head like a bomb. Or, rather, fireworks. Bombs can only destroy. Fireworks illuminate. And I haven’t felt this illuminated by a book since I listened to Michal York reading Brave New World—a work that pales in comparison.
Like many people, I used to docket Oscar Wilde as a mere maker of glittering, memorable aphorisms and observations. And, indeed, his conversational flourishes can tickle us with their humorous dexterity:
“My dear fellow, she tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant”.
Or titillate us with their utter cynicism:
"Young people, nowadays, imagine that money is everything."
"Yes," murmured Lord Henry, settling his button-hole in his coat; "and when they grow older they know it.”
Or simply stop us in our tracks with a subtle distinction that has never occurred to us before:
"I didn't say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference."
"Ah, you have discovered that?" murmured Lord Henry.
We laugh at Wilde’s humor, admire his penetration or relish his audacity—and we take a moment to try to commit what we have just read to memory. But Lord Henry Wotton coins so many aphorisms that, early on, I began to tire of them—the excess of brilliance and scandal, the detonation of so many conversational hand grenades in my ears, made me wonder if Wilde were nothing more than what he seemed in his photographs: a gifted dandy, the petted aesthete who lived on the surface of life, a committed spectator, much like his creation, Lord Henry.
And when, in the book’s preface, Wilde asserts that, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” I assumed he was setting forth a principle that would inform the book I was about to hear. That I was entering a world where Art was never good or evil but just well- or ill-wrought—a world were, as Lord Henry says, only ugliness is a sin. Like many other readers before me, I assumed wrong.
The more I listened the more Wilde’s assertion in his preface perplexed me. From the evidence of the story it is absurd: one of the major influences that corrupts Dorian Grey (and this story is all about the power of influences) is a book, lent to him by (who else?) Lord Henry. As the story unfolds it becomes abundantly clear that, for all Lord Henry’s wicked witticisms, the real sin is the studied avoidance of ugliness.
In fact, it was the sheer weight of Lord Henry’s endless aphorisms and sophisticated cynicism, at first so charming, that gives us the first indication that our trio of friends (Lord Henry, Basil Hallwood and Dorian) have the wrong end of the stick. Though amusing, Lord Henry’s dicta are unworkable; though others refer to it as a, “philosophy” it fails to hang together in any coherent way. As the book progresses, Basil Hallward and even by Dorian himself tire of the endless, empty effusions; they grate on their nerves as much as they grated on mine. (What an artist Wilde is—to create in the reader the same visceral frisson of annoyance his characters are feeling.) Predictably, Lord Henry, like so many destructive thinkers before and after him, dresses up his point of view as courageous: “The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly--that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays.” The real danger, of course, is that he is half-right. We really are here to realize our true nature. But that realization can only be achieved by serving others, not by primping and pampering ourselves. So when Dorian adopts Lord Henry’s empty tenants (“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul”) the consequence of trying to live out his unworkable ideas is a life that is unlivable.
Yes, Wilde was a flamboyant aesthete, a bad boy who made his reputation saying what we all think but never dare to say—and saying it far better than we would ever be able to. But he also died a Catholic convert, received into the faith he had felt drawn to since his undergraduate days. Yes, some books are neither moral nor immoral. But The Picture of Dorian Grey is not one of them.
I’m not going to spoil your chance to experience the arc of this story firsthand. It is a masterly performance throughout, both by the writer and the reader—Simon Vance was the perfect choice, from the timbre of his voice to his ability to read Wilde’s words as familiarly as if he had written them himself. He reinforces the power of the work he is reading. And there is power here—enough to change your life; or at least make you take a good long look at it. A book about a portrait that reflect the moral corruption of it's subject becomes a mirror for us.
And, now that it’s all over, I think I may have a line on the reason Wilde wrote what he did in his preface. After its publication he spilled much ink defending his book from those who thought it was immoral. But rather than reiterate the audacious ideas in his preface this self-declared aesthete, who had often borne the banner of art-for-art’s-sake in the public square, offered instead something very different:
“Yes; there is a terrible moral in Dorian Grey—a moral which the prurient will not be able to find in it, but which will be revealed to all whose minds are healthy. Is this an artistic error? I fear it is. It is the only error in the book.”
While writing Dorian Grey, Wilde confessed, “I felt that, from an aesthetic point of view, it would be difficult to keep the moral in its proper secondary place; and now I do not feel quite sure that I have been able to do so. I think the moral too apparent.”
In his preface Wilde could very easily have been playing a part—at one point in the novel Dorian observes that we are never more at our ease than when playing a part. But there is another possibility. Fearing that his moral was too apparent and that his art had been compromised, he may have been simply trying to throw his readers off the scent.
He needn’t have worried. There is great art and great truth in this book, which will be evident, as Wilde said, to healthy minds. In fact, he blended art and truth so well that perhaps this book might even heal unhealthy ones. As he once observed, “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”
I'm a mom. I have drama in my life. I don't want books with the F-bomb, nor graphic violence. I read for fun and to bring my family together. I read for reducing stress levels. We have never had a television in our home and our children are now mid twenties to 19. We listen together and look for belly-wrenching laughter. So what is it like to live without a TV? Awesomely educational and inspirational. Each new book is a marvel.
I have not read this book before, I have not had to read Cliff's Notes and report on this, nor have I seen a movie based on this book. I did not expect this ending and I was kept captivated by the reader Simon Vance. I would recommend this book to others and certainly would look for other books narrated by Simon. WOW!
My interests run to psychology, popular science, history, world literature, and occasionally something fun like Jasper Fforde. It seems like the only free time I have for reading these days is when I'm in the car so I am extremely grateful for audio books. I started off reading just the contemporary stuff that I was determined not to clutter up my already stuffed bookcases with. And now audio is probably 90% of my "reading" matter.
There is a passage early on where Lord Henry Wotton, the Mephistopheles character in this little morality play, offers a definition of the word 'influence' that encapsulates the central issue of the book. The word 'influence' is repeated often enough in this short book that I think Wilde must have intended that significance. It's something I overlooked the first time I read this book 40 years ago. I must have overlooked a lot because the book has improved a great deal in that time. It helps to have more context about Wilde and his times. And it helps too to know how much the extravagant descriptive passages owe to Wilde's French inspiration, À Rebours, a book sadly not available on audio.
Watching Dorian deteriorate under the influence of Lord Henry, while the positive friend, Basil Hallward, refuses to influence him at all, it strikes me that Wilde is making a rather strong case for morality in contradiction to the usual libertine motives ascribed to him. One thing that I think is often overlooked about Dorian is that he is described by Basil at the beginning as having some kind of special unique personality. Who he would have become if left uninfluenced is one of the mysteries that makes the story poignant.
One wishes Wilde had explored that possibility. One wishes that Dorian, as he ages, would become a person with a more defined persona. But he remains a rather unformed cipher right up to the end. That is yet another mystery Wilde left unexplored. What was it about Dorian that kept him from becoming "the hero of his own life" as Dickens phrased it?
Still, the questions Wilde chose to explore have managed to produce one of the iconic books of the Victorian Age. One might ask what it was about the puritanical moralistic Victorians that has left us with such a collection of horrific Gothic legacy: Dorian Gray, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, etc.
The painting itself plays such a small part in the book, one is tempted to wonder if the title is actually referring to the painting or not. I am inclined to believe the title really refers to the book itself (i.e., a narrative picture rather than a visual one).
I wanted to read some of the classics, but I have a hard time staying interested when they're slow-moving. Dorian Gray is a really great book, but I honestly think the credit goes to Simon Vance for making it come alive. There is a HUGE difference when actors narrate books, and this book is a perfect example of that. If you're trying to differentiate between the 15 different versions of Dorian Grey on Audible, get this one.
I decided to listen to the original story since the outline is very well known and has even been immortalised in Jasper Fforde's 'Thursday Next' Series. Alas, my fears about reading styles of yesteryear were realised. The story is slow and extremely philosophical.
Simon Vance's performance is fitting to the writing style but that makes it less accessible to the modern mind. I gave up listening to it about 1/3 of the way in. I might try again in a year or two.
It's known to be a classic and regarded very highly but a bit too high-brow for my current frame of mind.
My little sister who never got into reading actively started a discussion about this book when she was reading it in school, for which I'm grateful. An interesting novella, especially when paired with The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As both struggle with the inner vs the outer person. Though very different takes on it.
Dorian Grey is a young beautiful man who poses for a painting. When it is finished he wishes that the he will always stay that beautiful and that the painting would take all the marks of his living. This comes to pass, but the consequences spiral out of control. The painting becomes a reflection of Dorian's very soul baring the stains of his sins.
I can't say anymore without giving things away, so listen to it.
I just really like this story a lot!
Wonderful reader easy to understand.
It was a sad tale.
While Oscar Wilde is indeed a great writer, and this book is read beautifully by Simon Vance, the weakness is that key plot elements in The Picture of Dorian Gray have not aged well.
First, one has to suspend disbelief about how a painting of the protagonist magically ages while the protagonist stays young looking.
Second, one has to believe this staying young looking causes the protagonist to become evil, yet, the reader gets relatively little insight into what evil that the protagonist has done. Further, much of the supposed wrong doing Dorian supposedly engages in is by Victorian standards, not modern ones. Through the magical painting Dorian Gray manages to stay looking like he was 20 until he is 38, whereas the painting of him turns into an ugly, aged, satyr. These days with 40 year old movie stars still looking like they're 20 makes it hard to swallow how staying young looking would cause Dorian to become evil.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a morality play, with a message. But the Victorian plot devices Wilde uses have not aged well, making the story all too incredible for some readers to enjoy, which somehow seems oddly fitting about a story of a many who does not age appropriately and who is obsessed with pleasure.
yes, the flamboyant fraternal comradeship of the protagonist was a bit off putting in and distracted from the text, i think a reread will allow me to get a better understanding
the introduction of sir henry
the introduction of sir henry
Yes. The narration of this classic story is excellent. The Picture of Dorian Gray has a lesson to be learned. We are what we do.
Yes. Since first hearing Simon Vance's voice, I've added him to my list of Favorite Narrators. His diction is excellent and each character's voice is distinctive and clear. He brings the books he narrates alive.
Absolutely. I could listen to Simon Vance all day, every day.