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'The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.' When Dorian Gray has his portrait painted, he is captivated by his own beauty. Tempted by his world-weary, decadent friend Lord Henry Wotton, he wishes to stay forever young, and pledges his very soul to keep his good looks. Set in fin-de-siécle London, the novel traces a path from the studio of painter Basil Hallward to the opium dens of the East End. As Dorian's slide into crime and cruelty progresses he stays magically youthful, while his beautiful portrait changes, revealing the hideous corruption of moral decay. Ever since its first publication in 1890 Wilde's only novel has remained the subject of critical controversy. Acclaimed by some as an instructive moral tale, it has been denounced by others for its implicit immorality. Combining elements of the supernatural, aestheticism, and the Gothic, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an unclassifiable and uniquely unsettling work of fiction.
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A lush, cautionary tale of a life of vileness and deception or a loving portrait of the aesthetic impulse run rampant? Why not both? After Basil Hallward paints a beautiful, young man's portrait, his subject's frivolous wish that the picture change and he remain the same comes true. Dorian Gray's picture grows aged and corrupt while he continues to appear fresh and innocent. After he kills a young woman, "as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife", Dorian Gray is surprised to find no difference in his vision or surroundings. "The roses are not less lovely for all that. The birds sing just as happily in my garden."
As Hallward tries to make sense of his creation, his epigram-happy friend Lord Henry Wotton encourages Dorian in his sensual quest with any number of Wildean paradoxes, including the delightful "When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy." But despite its many languorous pleasures, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an imperfect work. Compared to the two (voyeuristic) older men, Dorian is a bore, and his search for ever new sensations far less fun than the novel's drawing-room discussions. Even more oddly, the moral message of the novel contradicts many of Wilde's supposed aims, not least "no artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style." Nonetheless, the glamour boy gets his just deserts. And Wilde, defending Dorian Gray, had it both ways: "All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment."Review:
It seemed to be an impossible task to outdo the former edition of 'Dorian Gray' in the World's Classics series, but Bristow has achieved his goal. The quality of the explanatory notes is, simply, superb, and the introduction is succint but informative,
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