Analyse the language style in The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

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The language style in the novel is often quite florid, sensuous and dreamy, in keeping with Wilde’s aesthetic sensibilities, and at other times epigrammatic, reflecting his celebrated wit. These two styles are exemplified in the character of Lord Henry, who is given to ironic utterances on the conventions and foibles of society, as well as being prone to musings on beauty and art, most notably addressed to Dorian.

Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets. (chapter 19)

Lord Henry’s surroundings in the very first chapter are described in terms at once languorous and vivid.

 From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ. (chapter 1)

This description, particularly the long meandering first sentence, is calculated to overwhelm the senses, after the usual fashion of the aesthetic literary movement, for which Wilde came to be regarded as the standard-bearer. The heady sensibility of such a passage as this can also turn quickly to melodramatic excess as the book’s gothic and sensationalist plot unfolds, for example when Dorian recalls murdering Basil:

Each hideous detail came back to him with added horror. Out of the black cave of Time, terrible and swathed in scarlet, rose the image of his sin. (chapter 18)

At the other end of the scale we have conventional social scenes of dinner parties at which Lord Henry flaunts his caustic wit, for instance the observation about one lady acquaintance on the death of her third husband that ‘her hair turned quite gold from grief’ (chapter 15). This comic, ironic and more compact strain serves to somewhat undercut the melodramatic and expansive language style of other sections of the novel.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray

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