Off The Bookshelf: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Last year, I reached my first-ever Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of ten books, most of which were historical fiction. I’ve already covered Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen in my Off the Bookshelf segment, so today I’m switching over to another author whose novel I really enjoyed: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde!

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

Summary

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel written by Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. First published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in July 1890, the novel exists in three versions: the censored 13-chapter edition published in the magazine in 1890, the revised 20-chapter book edition published in 1891, and the uncensored 13-chapter edition submitted to the magazine with all of Wilde’s original material intact. The story follows the moral corruption and downfall of Dorian Gray, a handsome yet narcissistic young man whose vanity leads him to wish that a painting of himself will age in his stead. After his wish comes true, Dorian succumbs to a hedonistic lifestyle of vice and sin from which his insatiable desire for pleasure leaves him little chance to escape.

Review

If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that! – Dorian Gray

A brief disclaimer: Because Wilde’s novel exists in three different forms, each one differs slightly from the others, in some cases affecting the plot. The version I read is the 1891 20-chapter book, so this is the edition that will be referenced throughout this review.

Movie poster for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

The Picture of Dorian Gray has often been compared to the Faust story, in which a dissatisfied scholar sells his soul to the Devil for unlimited knowledge and pleasure. Similarly, in a moment of weakness and newfound vanity, Dorian offers up his soul for the chance to remain young and handsome forever. In response to this wish, the painting becomes a mirror of Dorian’s soul and begins reflecting the effects of his actions that his body will now be spared. This inciting incident plays into the themes of valuing youth and beauty above all else and the consequences of choosing pleasure over virtue.

One of the most prominent themes in the book is the conflict between morality and pleasure. Although Dorian initially struggles with his new philosophy, his selfish desires ultimately overpower his guilt: after his romance with the young actress Sibyl Vane ends tragically, the subtle change in his portrait’s face proves his actions will have no visible consequence, as the painting will bear all the marks of his sins for him. After accepting Sibyl’s death as an artistic personification of tragedy, Dorian is free to pursue pleasure without risk and spends the next several years of his life indulging in various forms of gratification. Only in the final chapters of the story does he come to question if perpetual youth was worth the price of his soul.

Indeed, the fact that his artistic lifestyle costs him his soul is what makes Dorian Gray such an enigmatic character. Having given up his emotional depth, the protagonist’s true personality remains a mystery to the reader throughout the story. One detail of the novel that makes this evident is the heavy color motif. So many descriptions in the novel involve color in some way, and while at first I dismissed these vivid descriptions as the flowery writing of a poet, I later recognized their allusion to the main character’s internal conflict. The paradox of The Picture of Dorian Gray is that by giving up his soul for the pursuit of pleasure and the perpetuation of beauty, Dorian is no longer able to appreciate either—that is, in a world full of color and beauty, Dorian’s soulless existence is perpetually gray. Thus, Wilde’s novel—at least the revised version—supports the idea that art alone cannot bring happiness; one must have emotional depth in order to appreciate it.

From left to right: Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward (Dorian Gray, 2009)

Aside from Dorian, the story features two other important characters: Basil Hallward, the painter of the infamous picture, and Lord Henry Wotton, a witty aristocrat who advocates “New Hedonism”. Both are equally fascinated by Dorian’s beauty but stand at opposite ends of his moral spectrum: Basil represents conformity to moral standards while Lord Henry represents the temptation of sin. In this way, these two gentlemen play the roles of Dorian’s “shoulder angel and devil”, respectively, and personify the novel’s overarching conflict between virtue and hedonism: Basil sees only beauty in Dorian and encourages him to remain virtuous, while Lord Henry lauds his youth and persuades him to live for pleasure above all else. And although Dorian never escapes from the guilt the painter evokes in him, the fact that the story plays out far worse for Basil than for Lord Henry further supports the novel’s theme of beauty’s superiority over virtue.

Interestingly, The Picture of Dorian Gray presents an unusual example of an unscrupulous protagonist who repeatedly dodges moral justice. While Dorian influences several people to unfortunate ends throughout his life, he himself doesn’t get what he deserves for almost the entirety of the novel. While this may be an allusion to Wilde’s aesthetic beliefs, it’s more frequently interpreted as a comment on society’s superficiality and hypocrisy; although several rumors emerge about Dorian’s immoral exploits over the years, his peers nonetheless continue to accept him because he’s beautiful and, by all appearances, innocent. Yet as with any Faustian story, sin is ultimately punished in the end, thus completing the theme of eternal pleasure coming at an exceedingly high cost.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an intriguing novel, a mix of Gothic horror with social and artistic commentary that never seems to settle on a single form. Even the moral of the story is not so black and white as its similarity to the Faust fable would suggest, as the main character doesn’t suffer the consequences of his actions until the very end, and even then justice is brought about by his own hands. Yet by all accounts, with its enigmatic themes, poetic motifs, and structure of an unusual moral fable, Wilde has created nothing less than an outstanding and fascinating work of art.

Inspiration

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

In a strange meta twist, the most fascinating aspect of The Picture of Dorian Gray may actually be the author’s preface in the book edition. When Oscar Wilde first submitted his manuscript for publication, the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine censored the story, removing roughly 500 words without the author’s knowledge. Nevertheless, the novel was widely decried as a violation of public morality. A year later, upon publishing the revised book version, Wilde issued a preface to address these criticisms and defend his work, claiming in this artistic manifesto that the only point of art is to be beautiful, not to serve a moral purpose.

Dorian’s painting, before and after
(Image source: TV Tropes)

Yet in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the eponymous painting itself serves a moral purpose by shedding light on the high price of vanity. Despite the author’s advocacy of aestheticism, his novel suggests that art always contains some degree of meaning: though Dorian constantly tries to immerse himself in a purely artistic lifestyle, he can never escape the haunting lesson in the portrait that bares his corrupted soul. Thus, while he may not have written a truly aesthetic piece, Wilde has nonetheless created a stunning work of art that inspires a poetic theme: art and morality are perpetually intertwined.

As far as artistic inspiration, this novel certainly has its fair share of philosophy. One of the most intriguing aspects of the story is Lord Henry’s powerful influence over the naïve young Dorian. Although Lord Henry’s beliefs contrast heavily with the standards of his time, he speaks with such wit and persuasive language that one can’t help but be drawn to his ideas, however misguided they are. Indeed, the only character immune to these ideas is Basil, whose conventional mindset keeps him morally grounded but makes him utterly boring in the eyes of his impressionable muse. Reading Lord Henry’s speeches, I could easily understand how any weak-minded individual would embrace his poisonous philosophy, which thankfully is revealed to be shallow and impractical by the second half of the story. If anything, the novel is a cautionary tale about the consequences of trying to live such a hedonistic life: the pursuit of pleasure may satisfy the senses with each experience, but it still isn’t worth giving up one’s soul.

Overall, I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be an enjoyable and intriguing read. Its themes of morality, superficiality, and artistic living make it a notable addition to literature’s vast collection of moral fables. Yet the fact that Wilde was such a strong proponent of aestheticism raises the ultimate question: if his philosophy was to create “art for art’s sake”, should we really put so much weight on the moral themes of his only novel, or take a step back to simply glimpse these undertones while admiring the beauty of his work?

Word of the Week: Ineluctable

Word: ineluctable

Pronunciation: in-ə-LƏK-tə-b(ə)l

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: unable to be resisted or avoided; inescapable

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Today’s Word of the Week was suggested by Judith from I Choose How I Will Spend the Rest of My Life. She actually provided several words, all of which I found interesting, so expect to see at least one more of them appear in my vocabulary segment. When I think about it, it’s funny how well today’s word describes my approach to vocabulary; for me, the lure of an interesting new word is simply “ineluctable”!

“Ineluctable” describes something that can’t be avoided, resisted, or escaped. The word arose in the early 17th century and comes from the Latin adjective ineluctabilis, meaning “from which there is no escape”. This adjective comprises the prefix in- “not” and the verb eluctari “to struggle out.”

Though I’d never heard the word “ineluctable” before Judith suggested it for this segment, I’m sure it could easily be used as a substitute for such synonyms as “inevitable”, “irresistible”, and “inescapable”. If you want to broaden the word’s use in your writing, you can also use its derivative forms: the noun “ineluctability” and the adverb “ineluctably”. If your characters often run into situations they simply cannot avoid or resist, you may have fun writing about their “ineluctable” predicaments!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

What If? Writing Prompts: History VII

This past week saw yet another anniversary of the September 11 attacks as well as the destruction left in the wake of a record-breaking hurricane sweeping the Atlantic, the second to hit the U.S. in less than two weeks. Remembering watching the news in school 16 years ago and wondering how much more devastating the effects of climate change can become have gotten me thinking a lot about the past and future of our world, so this week I was inspired to share another set of “What If?” Writing Prompts in the theme of history. What sorts of stories about historical events can you create from these ideas? Good luck!

What if… global political leaders had started working to address climate change decades sooner?

What if… the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had never happened?

What if… America had never started the Iraq War?

What if… Europe hadn’t begun to form what would eventually become the European Union after World War II?

What if… the Founding Fathers had established America as a direct democracy instead of an electoral college?

Enjoy writing more stories about history!

If you have any “What If?” writing prompt suggestions (for any theme), please feel free to share them in the comments below. Ideas I like may be featured in future “What If?” posts, with full credit and a link to your blog (if you have one)! Also, if you’ve written a piece based on an idea you’ve found here, be sure to link back to the respective “What If?” post. I would love to see what you’ve done with the prompt! Thank you!

Word of the Week: Hegemony

Word: hegemony

Pronunciation: hə-JE-mə-nee / HE-jə-moh-nee

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


So funny story: the other day I stumbled upon a reminder to write a Word of the Week entry for today’s vocabulary word, but I neglected to add a note about where I first learned it. I want to say it’s another word I picked up from a game in the Elevate – Brain Training app, but it could just as easily have come from a recent political article. In any case, if it isn’t the latter, it very well could be soon; I wouldn’t be surprised if shifting perceptions of “hegemony” became the next hot topic of debate!

“Hegemony” is a form of dominance or leadership, typically of a state or social group over others. The word arose in the mid 16th century and comes from the Greek noun hēgemonía, meaning “leadership”. This noun stems from the noun hēgemṓn “leader”, which in turn derives from the verb hēgéomai “to lead”.

While “hegemony” refers specifically to political states or groups in formal contexts, it can just as frequently refer to the dominance of a certain social group over another, though it’s worth noting that this form of rule stipulates a level of consent from the subordinate group as opposed to dominance by pure force. If you want to expand this word’s use, you can also use the related noun “hegemon”, meaning “a supreme leader”. If your characters are divided into dominant and submissive groups on any scale, “hegemony” may be a good word to use in your stories!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

The Perks of Being a Fiction Writer

Remember that post I shared last week about the hard truths of being a writer? Well, fear not; I promise you that was only half of the big picture. After all, why would anyone choose to write if it only ever brought misery? Being a writer can be just as rewarding as it is frustrating, and if you can power through its challenges, you’ll find an incredibly adventurous and fulfilling path ahead.

So for those of you who choose to follow this path, here are six perks of being a fiction writer that you can look forward to. Happy writing!

perks of being a fiction writer

Writing Perk #1: You have the power to create anything.

perks of being a fiction writer creativityIn a way, fiction writers make up their own class of superheroes. Some people have super strength, others are incredibly smart, and still others excel at almost everything they try. But writers? We have the ultimate gift: the power of creation.

While I envy visual artists for their ability to draw, I’d still favor being a writer any day. The ability to paint vivid images with language is a special form of art with its own challenges, and when done right, it can be even more effective. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but imagery through words alone is an exercise for the imagination.

Anyone who’s ever tried writing a novel—especially a fantasy or science fiction novel—is familiar with the concept of “world building”. There’s much more to storytelling than conflict; you must create characters and settings to bring that conflict to life. And in my experience, there’s nothing quite as thrilling as the power to create an entire universe and direct the fates of its inhabitants any way you want. Besides, at what other job can you openly say you kill people for a living? Writing may not be the highest paying job in the world, but it certainly has benefits you can’t get anywhere else!

Writing Perk #2: You regularly exercise your mind and imagination.

perks of being a fiction writer imaginationThere’s nothing like writing a story to get those creative juices flowing. It’s no secret that writing has several psychological benefits such as catharsis and improved learning, and writing fiction has the added benefit of exercising the imagination. Creativity is always a useful skill, so you can never have too much of it!

By regularly creating characters, settings, and plots, you exercise the ability to see situations from various perspectives and open your mind to all sorts of possibilities, as much in fiction as in real life. Practice with conflict resolution in fiction can also be surprisingly helpful when it comes to real-world problem-solving, as you’ll likely be able to foresee problems more easily and find better solutions. And if not, at least you’ll have another story to tell when everything’s said and done. Writing fiction provides plenty of benefits for your mind and spirit. Don’t let them go to waste!

Writing Perk #3: You have the best emotional release in the world.

perks of being a fiction writer emotional releaseThere’s a saying that goes, “Never wrong a writer. They get their revenge in print.” There’s another saying that goes, “If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die.” What do these sayings have in common? They prove that writers have the most powerful emotions in the world.

Being a writer, especially a fiction writer, takes a generous amount of vulnerability to pull off. Good fiction demands a fair share of emotion to resonate with the audience, and that means the writer must be an emotional being. We bleed our feelings onto the page and carefully craft our stories to evoke the empathy of our readers, and such an art form takes inspiration from real-life emotions. Fortunately, life provides emotional inspiration in spades.

As a writer, you should never be afraid to use your emotions in your work. When you’re happy, write motivational pieces with positive takeaways. If you fall in love, draw romantic stories or poetry from personal experience. Use a broken heart as the foundation of tragedies, and when someone infuriates you, adapt them into an expendable character and kill them off in the most satisfyingly painful way. In how many other jobs can you say your emotions are your most powerful tools? Use them to your advantage!

Writing Perk #4: You learn new things all the time.

perks of being a fiction writer learningThink of the last time you wrote a story about something you’ve never done before. Chances are you had to do a fair amount of research to get it right, and you probably learned something unexpected while you did. This is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing fiction: you learn something new every day!

Whether you write fantasy/sci-fi novels, historical fiction, or anything in between, at some point during writing, you’ll run into a detail that you’ll have to look up. While research can be tedious sometimes, you can also see it as an opportunity to learn something you never would have otherwise. From ancient mythology to medieval weaponry to space technology, the world is full of fascinating information just waiting to be turned into stories. With all the research it takes to be a fiction writer, we probably learn more doing what we do than all the other professionals out there combined!

Writing Perk #5: You get rewarded for being yourself.

perks of being a fiction writer being yourselfLet’s be honest: the absolute best writing always comes from the heart, and the only way to write from the heart is to be yourself. Hiding behind a mask of civility may get you ahead in the corporate world, but when it comes to writing fiction, imperfection is your greatest asset. No matter what genre you write in, it’s your original voice that will make it unique. You don’t have to be completely crazy (though eccentricity is definitely a plus); you just have to be relatable. And if you’re flawed—or in other words, human—you’ve already got that covered.

One of the most famous writing tips out there is “write what you know”, so when drawing inspiration from people for characters, the best person to start with is yourself. You know your own strengths and weaknesses, so you already have what it takes to create a well-rounded character. From there, work your way up to using other real people as inspiration for characters, and before you know it, you’ll be writing dozens of stories that readers will easily relate to.

Basically, if you’re only writing perfect characters who never deal with conflict in any way, you’re doing fiction wrong. Everyone has their flaws and problems, and if you can be open about yours, you can create meaningful and inspiring works of art, just by being yourself. How is that not the greatest job in the world?

Writing Perk #6: You can make a difference in the world.

perks of being a fiction writer make a differenceThere are few forms of writing that make an impact quite the way storytelling does. While nonfiction generally focuses on logic and rational thought, stories have the power to mix truth with emotion in a unique style that appeals to a reader’s entire character, thus making for much more influential writing.

By becoming a writer, you’ve already taken a major step toward making a difference in the world. You don’t even have to change the entire world; the chance to influence even one person’s life is already worth the effort. You may not realize it yet, but you have the power to make a real difference. So share your stories and show people they’re not alone. Inspire those around you and use your words to make life better for everyone. The world could always use more stories, so keep on writing!

Can you attest to any of these perks of being a fiction writer? What other benefits of writing fiction would you add to this list?

Word of the Week: Parsimony

Word: parsimony

Pronunciation: PAHR-sə-moh-nee

Part of Speech: noun

Definition:

  1. extreme unwillingness to spend money or use resources
  2. the scientific principle that things are usually connected or behave in the simplest or most economical way

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Fun fact: today’s Word of the Week features another word I learned through its secondary meaning in science. While studying phylogenetics in grad school, I learned about different approaches to building and analyzing evolutionary trees, one of which involves inferring the fewest possible changes in a species’ history. It’s easy to see why this scientific criterion is so popular; when it comes to tracing evolution, you can hardly get any simpler than “parsimony”!

“Parsimony” is an extreme unwillingness to use resources or spend money. In science, it refers to the principle that things are connected or behave in the simplest way. The word arose in late Middle English and comes from the Latin noun parsimonia, meaning “frugality”. This noun stems from the verb parcere, which means “to spare”.

When working this word into your fiction, note that its primary definition is synonymous with “cheapness” and “penny-pinching”, while its second definition is often used interchangeably with “Occam’s razor“, a similar principle which states that “in explaining a thing, no more assumptions should be made than are necessary”. If you’re looking for an adjective to describe people guilty of “parsimony”, you can also use “parsimonious” alongside such words as “miserly” and “selfish”. If your characters are extremely stingy (or happen to be evolutionary biologists), “parsimony” may be an excellent word to add to your stories!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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