Why I’m reading ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ this Christmas Eve

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When night-time’s darkness starts to set in outside, the windows rattling, rain temporarily scarring the glass, there is something incredibly comforting, warm, about curling up by the fireplace and reading a book as deliciously disturbing as The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It might seem unconventional to read such an unsettling book at the happiest time of the year, but then, very little of the book, or indeed the author, Oscar Wilde, fit into the bracket of convention.  

It might seem unconventional to read such an unsettling book at the happiest time of the year

What is considered Wilde’s only full-length novel tells the story of Dorian Gray, who has his portrait painted by the artist, Basil Hallward.  Dorian becomes fixated by the concept of beauty, to the extent that he wishes that the portrait would display the signs of ageing, so that he might permanently retain his youthful handsome appearance.  However, the evil and ugliness of his soul and actions begin to physically manifest themselves in the painting – a haunting reminder of his lasting guilt, dominating Dorian’s life and driving the perturbing force behind the book and his increasingly horrifying actions.

The novel is gripping in spite of, or most likely, because of its disturbing nature, as readers allow themselves to be transported to the darker, more sinister and extremely enticing elements of nineteenth-century London.  When better to immerse yourself in this chilling setting than whilst remaining tucked in the safety of an armchair, under the lights of the Christmas tree, before the chaotic thrill of Christmas Day arrives?

The Picture of Dorian Gray blurs the lines between art and life both in its plot, and as a work of art itself, as it was used as evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality in the court trials leading to his imprisonment; this shows how this novel in particular transcends the traditional separation of fiction from reality.  This surreal mixture of fantasy and real life is shared between both the novel, and Christmas itself, though in contrasting ways.

This surreal mixture of fantasy and real life is shared between both the novel, and Christmas itself

Wilde’s novel focuses on a pessimistic and unsettling view of the significance of art, fantasy, and fiction on life, where memory becomes drenched in guilt; Christmas brings with it the fusion of belief in the fantastical Father Christmas, the happiness of being with your family, a sense of joy permeated by the comforting nostalgia and excitement of previous years.  These two things seem at odds with each other, but it is this difference that balances them out, that renders The Picture of Dorian Gray strangely comforting, and keeps the Christmas Eve anticipation from becoming too cloying.  

As a child, Christmas is not only full of happiness and delight, but mystery and uncertainty of when Father Christmas will arrive at your house, but, when you get older, this edge, the fantasy begins to diminish.  The wonder of reading A Visit from St. Nicholas (usually referred to by its opening line ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’) with your family before going to bed has been replaced with nostalgia. 

Reading Wilde’s mysterious and ominous The Picture of Dorian Gray on Christmas Eve offers a way of reintroducing the sense of intrigue, the thrill that you felt as a child, of bringing back the less remembered but secretly enjoyed emotions from your childhood, and of getting into the Christmas spirit in a typically unconventional Wilde way. 

Photograph Sincerely Media via Unsplash

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