THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY / Oscar Wilde. 1891 (244 pgs)
First Sentence: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” (Preface)
“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” (Chapter One)
Prevailing Narrative Voice: Distant third party (not even person) narrator who only has observational power. The narrator is a traffic director (stage manager might be closer to the point) who makes occasional descriptive observations about scenery, costume, facial expression and movements within the room, but has no relationship to any of the interacting characters. The characters within the story speak the narrative to each other, as it is told entirely in dialogue, eg: “You don’t understand me, Harry,” answered the artist, “of course I am not like him.” It is so much like a play that it is difficult not to imagine a boxed drawing room set on a proscenium stage.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: As at the beginning of a stage play, the first few paragraphs describe the artist’s studio and the two men who are in it. We are in London with the sounds of birds mixing with distant traffic sounds. And there is an artist’s easel in the center of the room with a picture of a captivatingly handsome young man. What the reader learns in the first ten pages: The painter, Basil Hallward, is in the midst of an existential crisis over the discovery of his muse, a young man named Dorian Gray. Basil’s close friend questions him about the young man, the portrait, his mood and simultaneously the reader is given a great deal of background information. On the surface, Lord Henry is trying to understand the reasoning that Basil won’t display his most recent paintings to society. Basil responds that it would violate the delicate relationship between artist and muse, and more to the point, he is afraid that if he displays his paintings the socialites might see something in his work that he has not been able to articulate to Dorian Gray. It is a bit melodramatic and very “the love that dare not speak its name”.
The preface is unusual in that it is series of paired statements, the first states a position, the second modifies or promotes the first: for example: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. / Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.”
Character: Lord Henry Wotton…Basil Hallward…the butler’s name is Parker. The names sound like the character list off an English Drawing Room Drama program. What is awkward to a contemporary reader is how absolutely fey the men sound. If Basil didn’t mention to Lord Henry what a good and devoted husband and father he was I would have thought that Lord Henry was making some serious moves on Basil. Basil continually waxes over Dorian’s characteristics, which are all couched in the metaphor of the artist’s relationship to his muse.
Setting: It seems very important to the author that the reader is oriented in place through out the character’s speeches. The narrator does not spend any time in the thoughts of the various characters; instead the author uses the narrator and the characters to paint a picture of their locations through brief narration and dialogue, relying on certain stereotypes of what a “drawing room” or “a park” would look like to a Victorian reader. It is interesting that with the first two words, Wilde points out the place where the title object has been created: “The studio…”. It is also interesting that the room is “filled with the rich odour of roses” as the rose was the sacred flower of Aphrodite the great Olympian goddess of pleasure, joy, beauty, love and procreation. It is also emblematic that the secondary fragrance is the delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” Even with knowing the briefest outline of what happens to Dorian Gray, the fact that the narrator is calling our attention back to the rose bush’s floral and thorny combination has particular meaning when one thinks about the fair young man who stays lovely as a flower, while his picture more closely resembles the rose’s stem.
Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: Duh. An aging portrait in the attic. Aside from the little I know about THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, the first ten pages have prepared me for how dialogue heavy this story is going to be. Dialogue gives a feeling of slowness, for one can only forward the plot as fast as one can speak. With narrative, an author can skip over the mundane bits and streamline a scene of two men talking in real time. On the other hand it heightens the suspense for the reader to glean the general direction of their discourse as it’s revealed. I suspect that if Dorian Gray is going to stay young while his portrait ages, the action of the story will be somewhat episodic so that we can cover many decades.
Random Comments: The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared in 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and is often mistakenly referred to as The Portrait of Dorian Gray.