There are classics we have all heard of, but have never read. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was one of those. In spite of being familiar with the story of the beautiful young man who never ages, I’d never read the actual novel. I think deep down, I always knew I would read it one day, it was as if it was just simply a matter of time…
Time made itself known, not too long ago, when I walked past a stall selling used books. A small paperback caught my eye, the cover captured the essence of the story, there was something about the expression on the face of that young man that drew me, so I bought the paperback, for only £1.70. Money well spent considering the fact it’s deeply affected me as a writer.
In the novel, Basil Hallward, a painter, shows his friend Lord Henry, a painting he’s working on. The extraordinary beauty of the model, makes an impression on Lord Henry. Basil, tells him the young man’s name is Dorian Gray and speaks very highly of him, even to the point of telling Lord Henry that ‘He (Dorian) is all my art to me now.’
Whilst the men are gathered in Basil’s studio, Dorian stops by, to sit for Basil. Lord Henry wants to meet him, but Basil begs him not to: ‘Don’t spoil him’, ‘Don’t try to influence him’ but it is too late. One gets the feeling Basil somehow senses how bad this meeting will be for Dorian, little does he know, Dorian won’t be the only one affected. Even Dorian himself, appears to sense something when meeting Lord Henry as he replies ‘Yes, I am glad now, I wonder shall I always be glad?’ (in response to Lord Henry’s comment of: ‘You are glad to have met me.’)
It is during this fateful meeting, that Lord Henry begins to do exactly what Basil has begged him not to. Henry’s thoughts about ageing, and the power of youth, have a powerful effect on Dorian. We the readers, are witness to an inner change in him, and it is a disturbing one. What Dorian feels when looking at the finished painting, is not awe or happiness but pure horror as he is struck by the profound realisation his beauty will not only fade away but will also be forever captured in Basil’s painting to mock him in later years. It is during this moment of truth, that he utters words that change his destiny and that of others.
As the novel progresses, Dorian is further corrupted by a book Lord Henry lends him. Later in the story, Dorian says to him: ‘You poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to anyone. It does harm.’
Can a novel poison? Maybe, but the one thing I am certain of, is that a book can have a profound effect on a reader affecting them deeply. The Picture of Dorian Gray has done that. After just one reading, it became my favourite novel of all time, surpassing even Dracula. I’ve always been fascinated by duality, and inner conflict, something that is deeply embedded in my own novel. Dorian Gray is the perfect embodiment of that inner conflict. I have a soft spot for beautiful bad boys, there’s just something about them. As charming as Count Dracula can be is, pretty to look at he sure isn’t. However, it’s not only Dorian’s beauty that captivates me, it is his inner struggle and the realisation he’s gone too far. You feel for him, in spite of it all.
Oscar Wilde’s only novel is filled with great images, actually, it is one of the most visual novels I’ve ever read. Wilde describes a London that no longer exists, and through his words, that London comes alive in paragraphs like these:
Where he went to he hardly knew. He remembered wandering through dimly lit streets, past gaunt, black-shadowed archways and evil-looking houses. Women with hoarse voices and harsh laughter had called after him. Drunkards had reeled by, cursing and chattering to themselves like monstrous apes. He had seen grotesque children huddled upon door-steps, and heard shrieks and oaths from gloomy courts.
As the dawn was just breaking, he found himself close to Covent Garden. The darkness lifted, and, flushed with faint fires, the sky hollowed itself into a perfect pearl. Huge carts filled with nodding lilies rumbled slowly down the polished empty street.
Wilde said of the novel: ‘Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry what the world thinks of me; Dorian what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.’ (Oscar Wilde to Ralph Payne, 12 February 1894)
I recently made a wonderful discovery when I realised Wilde was the author of the one and only children’s story to make an impression on me as a child: The Selfish Giant, so it is rather fitting that a story of his, was the first one to make an impression and that his one and only novel, changed me as a writer. Me thinks I need to drink up a Guinness or two to toast his name.
What about you? Are there any novels that have made a huge impression on you, either as a reader or writer?