On Thursday, December 12th, the Fixed on Fiction group met to discuss Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Below are some of the comments made during our meeting.
Statistically speaking, Dorian Gray seemed to be a so-so read among our group. Out of our seven participants, one person disliked this title, two loved it, and four liked (not loved) it. Additionally, three of our group members had read Wilde before while this was a first read for the remaining four readers. One of our members, who loved this selection, found that reading classics can either be a really boring or really great experience, and she thought Dorian Gray was the latter in that it was very accessible and readable.
Given the fact that Dorian Gray was first published in 1890, our group spent some time discussing the novel’s historical context. We talked about the aestheticism movement very briefly, but spent a great deal of time describing Wilde’s descriptions of social class. One reader mentioned that the snobby attitudes of the upper class was too foreign a concept, making it difficult for her to really enjoy the book. Another member suggested that the upper class society in Dorian Gray actually have terrible lives that are unfulfilled. The life of the rich is so boring that they seek out scandal and manufacture horror simply because it’s interesting. We also discussed the political statement Wilde was making in his descriptions of how the scandalous/immoral Dorian Gray was still accepted into high society because he was good looking and interesting.
In response to the above reader comment that the division of social classes made her feel isolated from the story, group members were asked if the themes found in Dorian Gray are still relevant today. One reader pointed out that she found that Wilde’s descriptions of the obsession of youth and beauty to be very similar to the current boom in plastic surgery. We also discussed some well known actresses in their forties and fifties who seem to be almost fanatical about maintaining their youth.
Additionally, we also discussed the fact that if Dorian Gray was written today, it would be much more explicit; however, most group members found Wilde’s subtlety to be very powerful. For instance, in the scene where Dorian blackmails Alan Campbell he simply writes some sort of threat down on a piece of paper and slides it across the table to his former friend. We the readers have no idea what secret is written on the paper, yet we know Alan Campbell must find the prospect of it being publicized so horrible that he is willing to commit a grotesque crime for Dorian. Our group mentioned that if Dorian Gray was written in present day, the threat would have been simply stated out loud and lost some of its shock value as a result. But the mere implication of a scandalous secret heightened our intrigue and curiosity. Similarly, we also discussed the subtlety of Dorian’s wish to remain forever young. Once again we wondered if this scene would have been more explicitly written had this novel been published today. Dorian’s wish to exchange places with his portrait was such a minute part of the text that many readers had to go back and re-read the section which serves as a major turning point in the text. Had this been a current novel, most of us agreed that readers would have been given a more detailed explanation of Dorian’s Faustian exchange. Again, the majority of group members were happier with Wilde’s version, in which Dorian’s bargain is not described in great detail but rather is presented briefly in Dorian’s conversations with Henry and Basil.
Our group probably got the most animated once we started discussing Henry Wotton. Some group members enjoyed Henry and appreciated the comedic relief he brought to the story, occasionally laughing out loud at some of his one liners. Other readers argued that Henry was pure evil, making an interesting contrast to Basil who always seemed to argue for morality. When asked who was responsible for Dorian’s downfall, almost all readers agreed Dorian was responsible for his own fate; however, some members argued that Henry played a significant part in Dorian’s destruction. Others found that Henry was simply an excellent observer of people, but he didn’t really goad Dorian in any way. Dorian was simply too impressionable and weak-willed to separate himself from Henry and his aphorisms. The group’s divided stance on Henry and whether or not he was evil made for a great reminder that we all read a different book. What appears as a plain truth to one reader could be interpreted in a completely different manner by another. Ultimately, this made for a very lively discussion of one of our “classics” picks for 2013.