For my first storytelling review on YouTube I decided to choose The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. It’s a great classic for a reason. Wilde’s poetic writing, his plot twists and Dorian Gray’s character arc mold the story of the narcissistic Dorian Gray. Warning: spoilers ahead!
Summary of The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is about a man named Dorian Gray and his journey through life. In the opening scene, a painting is made of him by Basil Hallward. Lord Henry joins the session and is introduced to Dorian. Turns out, Mr Henry: not such a great guy. His vision on life is peculiar to say the least (definitely made my feminist bones quiver).
Lord Henry’s view on life reflects on Dorian and he makes some bad, BAD decisions. At the same time, the portrait that was made of him ages and shows his inner soul, while Dorian retains his young appearance.
Without a doubt the characters have a distinct voice. Most memorable is Lord Henry. He talks in what is known as the Wildean epigram.
- ‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.’
- ‘Men marry because they are tired. Women, because they are curious. Both are disappointed.’
Now these remarks may not seem like such a big deal to some, but during the 19th century, being outright like this really wasn’t that common at all. Life revolved around dignity and maintaining the peace in many social contexts. And so in many ways Wilde was ahead of his time, breaking the taboo with these epigrams.
Lord Henry is very much the archetype of a villain in this story. A nickname for Henry at the time was Harry, which is used in the story as well. An interesting side note here is that Old Harry is a synonym for the devil in English. So Lord Henry’s name in itself tells something about his character.
Dorian Gray’s character arc
Let’s take a look at Dorian’s character arc. Dorian starts out as an innocent boy, his entire life ahead of him. His actions become dark, his mind polluted by Lord Henry and the portrait growing ever more horrid. The tipping point is Sibyl Vane’s death. He wishes to redeem himself and fails. It breaks something inside him. This is beautifully written by Wilde. There is this specific event that leads to many actions on the end of Dorian. The portrait itself has an important part here too as he sees how his soul is changing.
We skip ahead in time and many years later he has become a man despised by many. Basil Hallward comes to confront him and Dorian’s second pivotal moment arrives: he kills the man that brought him so much despair by creating his portrait. His focus still very much on himself, he tries to survive. At the very end, Dorian is seeking some retribution and wishes to better himself. But too late. He stabs the picture which leads to his very own death.
His journey then is a story of disaster. He goes from bad to worse and comes to ruin even when he tries to drag himself away from his past and be better, which makes for an inevitable, but bitter ending.
The character arc falls neatly in line with different plot points. But there’s another specific plot element that is interesting to dig into. In The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde lets the readers in on how the story might turn out. We as readers believe this is going to happen. Then he writes in a plot twist.
The best example is James Vane and his vengeance. James Vane is to kill Dorian Gray. This is foreshadowed at the very beginning of the story when James hasn’t left for Australia yet. He’s vowed to kill Dorian if his sister comes to harm, which happens. As readers we’re ahead. We feel like we know what is going to happen. James Vane will kill Dorian and that will be the end of him. But then Wilde takes the story into a completely different direction, surprising the reader. Dorian Gray doesn’t get killed, rather James Vane himself does.
Wilde has some extraordinary description in The Picture of Dorian Gray and adds unique details. More specifically, Wilde uses setting to describe what Dorian feels. One example is when Dorian rejects Sibyl Vane’s love after she acts horribly. He leaves and passes ‘dimly lit streets’, ‘gaunt black-shadowed archways’, ‘evil-looking houses’. All a reflection on how Dorian handled the situation. Another few examples after Dorian kills Basil:
- ‘The sky was like a monstrous peacock’s tail, starred with myriads of golden eyes.’
- ‘The crimson spot of a prowling hansom’.
He feels like he’s being watched by these golden eyes and the crimson spot is a reference to the blood left behind by ‘the thing on the table’ (Basil Hallward), which in itself is another description that reveals Dorian’s wish to not be confronted by the crime he committed.
These descriptions immediately give something away about Oscar Wilde’s style. That guy for one thing knows how to write. A sky like a monstrous peacock’s tail. It works and paints a picture that we can envision (for me The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh popped into my mind).
Oscar Wilde has a very poetic writing style. He uses alliteration beautifully. One example is: “metaphors as monstrous as orchids, and as subtle in colour.” There’s a focus on the or/our, the m and the s.
As a final note, when we talk about style we cannot ignore one specific piece of dialogue, namely the conversation between the Duchess and Lord Henry. It’s very snappy and uses a lot of metaphors and poetic language, which again is Oscar Wilde at his finest. Some examples:
- ‘You gallop with a loose rein.’
- ‘Pace gives life’
- ‘I am not even singed. My wings are untouched.’
Do you have any notes on storytelling in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Note them down in a comment or contact me on social media. I’m always eager to discuss books and storytelling techniques.