To quote the key-word of the novel; reading it was a pleasure and not only an intellectual but a sensuous one, that is probably why I feel unable to write a coherent review. Instead, I will try to record some of my rather intricate thoughts.
Dorian Gray's story has become such a cliché by now that I won't bother summing it up here. What surprised me, though, is that the story unfolds very slowly, with hardly anything dramatic happening during the first half of the book at all. In fact I got the impression that the plot was nothing but a frame for Wilde's study of his century and his society's moralites with a lot of attention dedicated to chracter development.
A very big subject of the book are sins - after all the infamous name of Dorian Gray has almost become a synonym for a careless and sinful way of living, but the extraordinary thing is that the vast majority of the sins he commits are never really mentioned in the book. As a reader you of course notice that his character is quickly becoming shallowly self-obsessed and ruthless because Dorian starts to choose "beautiful" actions which bring him pleasure over right or kind ones, which is very noticeable in his changing behaviour towards Basil Hallward and Sibyl Vane, but most of his actual sins are never revealed. Basil Hallward lectures Dorian on how immoral he has become and delivers a whole list of people, including Lord Henry's sister, who have come to ruin (several even committing suicide) because of his influence, but what exactly happened to them is never explained. In the afterword of my edition is mentioned that Oscar Wilde once said that "every man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray".
Wilde's language is a subject all of its own. In dialogue he is extremely witty, apparently never serious and immensely elaborate; in fact his phrasing becomes the more sophisticated the more trivial its subjects are. The conversation scenes reminded me a lot of The Importance of Being Earnest, especially Lord Henry's parts, but Wilde's prose is very different from that. The descriptions and the general style of writing are something to get lost in: they are very visual and again I felt as if they touched me on a deeper level than a merely intellectual one. It is curious, somehow this whole book has evoked in me a bunch of very vague but exciting ideas about what life and what literature should be like. I'm sorry that I'm expressing this so nebulously, but I hardly know myself what I'm meaning! That is also the reason why it took me so long to finally write this post, I already finished The Picture of Dorian Gray a week ago.
L'Art pour l'art: Aestheticism
However, something I do know is that I find the concept of Aestheticism, of which I was completely unaware until now, a fascinating way of thinking. The idea that sheer beauty is more important than morality, truth, honesty, love, friendship and everything else a society like the Victorian could possible stand for is a daring, but spellbinding one. Despite the fact that I don't regard The Picture of Dorian Gray as an immoral book at all, I can certainly understand why its publication caused such a scandal.
Although I could never imagine to live on the principles of the Aesthetic movement (and I don't really think that anyone completely could) I find it an intriguing gedankenexperiment. I'd love to read more on this subject and would be grateful for recommendations!
The main characters in Wilde's novel seem to regard their lives as works of art and all of their actions simply as small contributions to their grand magnum opus. They themselves become the artists and the objects of art alike, which forces them to centre all their thoughts on beauty and pleasure, a way of thinking that consequently eats away at their humanity. How far this goes is quite shocking, after Sibyl Vane's death Lord Henry states for example that:
“It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such
an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their
absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack
of style. They affect us just as vulgarity affects us. They give us
an impression of sheer brute force, and we revolt against that.
Sometimes, however, a tragedy that possesses artistic elements of
beauty crosses our lives. If these elements of beauty are real, the
whole thing simply appeals to our sense of dramatic effect. Suddenly
we find that we are no longer the actors, but the spectators of the
play. Or rather we are both. We watch ourselves, and the mere wonder
of the spectacle enthralls us.”
Ironically the one character in the whole novel to whom this rule does not apply is the only one who creates real art: Basil Hallward. He is an artist and a good person. Somehow I knew from the very beginning that the story could not end well for him. But on the other hand, it does not end well for Dorian either, obviously it does not pay to choose beauty over conscience after all. Although I find it easy to imagine how shocked Victorian society must have been by this "poisonous" novel, I believe that the key to understanding Oscar Wilde at least partly lies in this definition of Lord Henry by Basil Hallward in the first chapter: "You are an extraordinary fellow! You never say a moral thing and you never do a wrong thing."