Thursday, March 01, 2012
First sentences: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.
A decadent sentence in full bloom, overwhelmingly sensory and lush.
It's unusual for a writer to focus so heavily on smells, especially on attractive ones; Swift may have made a name by writing of stenches and slime, but Wilde - as John Sutherland points out in Is Heathcliff a Murderer? - overloads us with scents, summer roses blooming together with spring lilacs and May thorns in crowded, dreamlike profusion. This is Wilde's world of artifice: the realities of natural seasons are excluded from the outset. Nothing will be 'natural' - Dorian's extended lifetime, for one thing, but also, of course, the vexed question of sexuality, hinted at in hushes, never to speak its name.
The flowers occupy a space of deep ambiguity. For all the glitter and cynicism of Dorian Gray's world, kindness remains a real virtue: vice may be attractive (and, indeed, written about in elliptical hints), but the genuine cruelties such as Dorian's treatment of Sybil Vane remain memorable and strongly felt. Flowers are innocent, soft-petalled and naive, and there is a sense of tenderness for this fragile element.
But these are innocents that can cut: the roses and thorns are not to be handled carelessly. And there's also the fact that flowers are frequently symbolic - Victorian Wilde, in fact, lived in the era where the 'language of flowers' was a popular theme, and one which the gay underworld of London was quick to play on with their green carnations, to the point where four years after Dorian Gray's publication, a scandalous novel containing a thinly-veiled portrait of Wilde was published with The Green Carnation as its title. (Disastrously so, as it turned out: it was used against Wilde at his trial.) The roses - for love, passion and desire - mingle with the lilacs' image of youth and innocence, or, if they're purple, the first emotion of love. (According to Wikipedia, anyway.) The roses, the first scent we inhale, are the most 'speaking' of all blossoms, the most redolent with meaning; crowded together, we are almost choked with the implications of youth and sexuality. These elements contradict each other in a sensory Wildean paradox.
It's interesting, too, that the adjectives are equally contradictory. The roses smell 'rich'; the wind is 'light' (stirring 'amidst' the trees, almost like a living thing); the lilacs, symbolic of youth, smell 'heavy'; the thorn, with its Christian martyrdom overtones, smells 'delicate'. The pairings of adjective and noun are not where we expect them to be. We are out of kilter with the book before we can even get to the end of the first sentence.
In terms of structure, this is a curiously repetitive sentence for so accomplished a stylist as Wilde: four subclauses separated by commas, each alluding to something 'of' something else. (I hear Wilde wincing in his grave at the inelegant phrasing! Grammar is so hard to describe beautifully.) Each punctuation mark is preceded by a genitive: 'of roses', 'of the garden', 'of the lilac', 'of the pink-flowering thorn'. The effect is marked, and it's hard to believe it's accidental: 'of the garden' isn't necessary except to make it clear that this is a scene of nature as a possession rather than a natural phenomenon (which is to say that it's thematically necessary, but not grammatically), and there's a rhythm to how they build. Each phrase is longer and longer, until 'the pink-flowering thorn', a beautifully rhythmical cadenza. We're seeing not just a jumble, but an accumulation: clutter arranged with unseasonal care.
In terms of ostensible content, it's a sentence that tells us little at first glance except that we are in comparatively luxurious surroundings - a garden planted with trees and roses is hardly the possession of a poor man, and while Basil, the artist whose garden this is, may not be as rich as some characters he is definitely no pauper. But the luxury is expressed as excess: many flowers, many scents, light and heavy, too much at once. Dorian's life of debauchery begins here where his portrait stands: the flowers may do him no harm, and Basil has the good taste to limit his excesses to such such mild intoxicants, but Dorian has no such instinct for where to stop.
But his fall is almost inevitable right from the beginning. Surrounded by such sensory temptations and disordered delights, what is an impressionable young boy to do?
Commas, is it?
Have you ever read Le Fanu's Guy Deverell? Here's its first sentence:
"The pretty little posting station, known as the Plough Inn, on the Old London Road, where the Sterndale Road crosses it, was in a state of fuss and awe, at about five o'clock on a fine sharp October evening, for Sir Jekyl Marlowe, a man of many thousand acres, and M.P. for the county, was standing with his back to the fire, in the parlour, whose bow-window looks out on the ancient thoroughfare I have mentioned, over the row of scarlet geraniums which beautify the window-stone."
Now there's an accumulation for you; in fact, an accumulation of fuss. And soon Sir Jekyl is going to be in a state of much worse fuss, directly related to his manner of accumulating all those acres and honors.
In the language of flowers, the red or scarlet geranium may signify "gentility" or "melancholy" or "folly," depending on which guide you're using. But all of them apply (this is fun, isn't it?)
It's a long time since I've read Dorian Grey, and I confess I don't remember much about it. But "out of kilter" fits my half-remembered impressions. I always felt off-balance in that book.
Great review you have shared in here. I love Dorian Grey too. :)
I was so excited when I saw you'd done Dorian Gray on your blog! I am writing about this on my blog currently, and reading your thoughts on the novel was cool! I'm posting my thoughts as I read, chapter by chapter. If you have time, I'd love it if you checked it out. I also did Jekyll and Hyde before Dorian Gray, and I plan to continue this. It's my way of making myself understand better what I read, and I think it's really working. I'll hopefully improve as I go, and I hope to be able to read into the stories as much as you did in your post!
This story tells around a wonderful young fellow named Dorian Gray who was painted by a craftsman named Basil Hallward, he painted it with adoration and he thought if a craftsman felt unequivocally around a picture, it turned into a representation of himself and it demonstrated his own particular feeling. Basil's companion, Lord Henry Wotton proposed him to display Dorian's representation, however he would not like to on the grounds that he was apprehensive it demonstrated the mystery of his heart. Wilde's GrayPost a comment
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