I remember many years ago, before I had truly delved into classic literature, my view of it – I believed that it was all kind of the same, and that together it formed this kind of wall of intelligent writing and thinking which I figured people either break through or they don’t. Of course, now a bit older and wiser, I know this is a load of nonsense, but I think what has really made reading some of the classics a joy over the last few years is just how much each of them vary, and just how timeless many of these stories really are.
There is one classic though that has really captured my imagination more than the rest, and has also managed to inspire my writing in different ways. The Picture of Dorian Gray, the only novel ever published by Oscar Wilde, caught me off guard when I first picked it up, not entirely sure what to expect – it was my first exposure to Wilde at the time. Written in the late nineteenth century, this novel cleverly examines the concept of hedonism, as Dorian Gray sells his soul so that a beautiful portrait of him ages rather than he himself. Encouraged by Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of the artist who painted Dorian’s picture, he begins to plunge into various acts of debauchery, with total disregard for the morality or immorality of each act, and slowly, over the years, the portrait becomes ugly and disfigured, almost unrecognisable as Dorian, while he doesn’t age a day.
Apart from the story itself, what I love about this novel is the writing – playful, witty and intelligent – and many famous quotes from Oscar Wilde come from this novel, such as “I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world,” and “To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.” Much of the story is witty banter, particularly between Dorian and Lord Henry, and while at first glance the pomposity of it can be distracting, after a short while it becomes quite charming, and as a reader it is this charm that is one of the traits of this book that will drive you forward and leave you unable to put the book down until its stunning conclusion.
If you’ve never read this book, even if you are not a fan of classic literature, I urge you to give The Picture of Dorian Gray a try. Oscar Wilde was one of the most enjoyable writers who ever lived, and it is a shame that he only ever had this one novel published (though he at least had a number of plays and other pieces of writing in which we can indulge). Not only that, but this is writing that has influenced many writers in the century since this was written.
What is your favourite classic book? Is it harder to pick one than you thought, once you start thinking about it?