Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a beautiful work of art, and it tells us—according to the book’s epigram and preface—that “all art is quite useless.” Therefore, I shall try not to dig far into the meaning, but rather, present some of the most funny and quotable material from the book.
The following passage comes from the very beginning of the book, where the painter Basil Hallward refuses to send his portrait of Dorian Gray anywhere. Lord Henry Wotton is of the opposite opinion:
“Not send it anywhere! My dear fellow, why? Have you any reason? What odd chaps you painters are! You do anything in the world to gain a reputation. As soon as you have one, you seem to want to throw it away. It is silly of you, for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. A portrait like this would set you far above all the young men in England, and make the old men quite jealous, if old men are ever capable of emotion.” (page 4)
Basil is an eccentric artist in other respects as well, for example, on secrecy:
“Dorian Gray? Is that his name?” asked Lord Henry, walking across the studio toward Basil Hallward.
“Yes, that is his name. I didn’t intend to tell it to you.”
“But why not?”
“Oh, I can’t explain. When I like people immensely I never tell their names to any one. It is like surrendering a part of them. I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it. When I leave town now I never tell my people where I am going. If I did, I would lose all my pleasure. IT is a silly habit, I dare say, but somehow it seems to bring a great deal of romance into one’s life. I suppose you think me awfully foolish about it?” (page 6)
This starts a chain of witty remarks:
“Not at all,” answered Lord Henry, “not at all, my dear Basil.” You seem to forget that I am married, and the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties. I never know where my wife is, and my wife never knows what I am doing. When we meet—we do meet occasionally, when we dine out together, or go down to the Duke’s—we tell each other the most absurd stories with the most serious faces. My wife is very good at it—much better, in fact, than I am. She never gets confused over her dates, and I always do. But when she does find me out, she makes no row at all. I sometimes wish she would; but she merely laughs at me.”
“I hate the way you talk about your married life, Harry,” said Basil Hallward, strolling toward the door that led into the garden. “I believe that you are really a very good husband, but that you are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. You are an extraordinary fellow. You never say a moral thing, and you never to a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose.”
“Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know,” cried Lord Henry, laughing. (page 6)
Some more amusing lines:
The whole thing was a fiasco. The last act was played to almost empty benches. The curtain went down on a titter, and some groans.
As soon as it was over, Dorian Gray rushed behind the scenes into the greenroom. The girl was standing there alone, with a look of triumph on her face. Her eyes were lit with an exquisite fire. There was a radiance about her. Her parted lips were smiling over some secret of their own.
When he entered she looked at him, and an expression of infinite joy came over her. “How badly I acted to-night, Dorian!” she cried.
“Horribly!” he answered, gazing at her in amazement—”horribly! It was dreadful. Are you ill? You have no idea what it was. You have no idea what I suffered!” (page 89)
“I should think it was, Harry. But according to your category I must be merely an acquaintance.”
“My dear old Basil, you are much more than an acquaintance.”
“And much less than a friend. A sort of brother, I suppose?”
“Oh, brothers! I don’t care for brothers. My elder brother won’t die, and my younger brothers seem never to do anything else.” (page 10)
“To be good is to be in harmony with one’s self,” he replied, touching the thin stem of his glass with his pale, fine pointed fingers. “Discord is to be forced to be in harmony with others. One’s own life—that is the most important thing. As for the lives of one’s neighbors, if one wishes to be a prig or a Puritan, one can flaunt one’s moral views about them, but they are not one’s concern. Besides, Individualism has really the higher aim. Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.”
“But, surely, if one lives merely for one’s self, Harry, one pays a terribly price for doing so?” suggested the painter.
“Yes, we are overcharged for everything nowadays. I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.” (page 82)
Anyway, the novel was quite unlike anything I had ever read. I’m not exactly sure I liked it, but it is certainly an amusing read.