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The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde
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What are epigrams? Give 3 examples of epigrams within the novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde.

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Epigrams are witty, succinct, and often surprising sayings that are often expressed with economy of language, parallel structure, or unique vocabulary. Oscar Wilde is known as a master of the epigram. If you were to go epigram hunting in The Picture of Dorian Gray , you'd have a basketful...

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Epigrams are witty, succinct, and often surprising sayings that are often expressed with economy of language, parallel structure, or unique vocabulary. Oscar Wilde is known as a master of the epigram. If you were to go epigram hunting in The Picture of Dorian Gray, you'd have a basketful of them before you finished chapter 2. Here are a few:

  • “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
  • “Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know.”
  • “I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects.”
  • “The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.”

Let's examine why these work as epigrams. First, each contains an element of surprise, contradiction, or counter-intuitiveness. If being talked about is so bad that there is only one thing worse, then it's ironic that not being talked about is even worse. Second, each contains an element of truth. We probably all know people who take "being natural" to such an extreme that it's irritating. Third, one often must pause and consider whether the seemingly outrageous statement should be accepted, and to what degree. How can a "lifelong passion" be more short-lived than a caprice? The statement suggests that many who claim something to be a "lifelong passion" tend to abandon that passion in short order.

Finally, the elegance of each statement's construction elevates it to the status of epigram. No extra words are included in the statement, so the saying lands with appropriate force. Repetition of key words in key places in the sentence solidifies the saying. The statement is formulated with complete confidence as if it were an undeniable fact; no qualifiers muddy the meaning.

Oscar Wilde is famous for his use of epigrams; nobody does it better. Certainly Lord Henry is Wilde's alter ego in this talent, as we see from this description: "And Lord Henry struck a light on a dainty silver case and began to smoke a cigarette with a self-conscious and satisfied air, as if he had summed up the world in a phrase." That is what epigrams do: sum up the world (or an important part of it) in a phrase.

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Epigrams are short, witty or clever statements expressed in one or two sentences. They are almost like proverbs or maxims. Epigrams are memorable because they often point out one of mankind's foibles or one of mankind's truths. For example, "Little strokes fell great oaks" (Ben Franklin). This means that something small can often have great power. When you come across an epigram while reading fiction, your attention is often captured because you read the words and you think to yourself, "Wow! That is profound!" Sometimes you underline the quote so that you will remember it later.

Oscar Wilde was a great one at writing epigrams. Three that I found from The Picture of Dorian Gray are:

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

Find more information about the novel here on eNotes.

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