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The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

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Examples of epigrams in "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

Summary:

Examples of epigrams in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" include: "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it," and "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." These witty, paradoxical statements reflect Oscar Wilde's style and the novel's themes of hedonism and superficiality.

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What are some epigrams in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Oscar Wilde was known in British society for his wit. He was a coveted dinner guest sought after by London society hostesses, as he could be relied upon to saying shocking, memorable, and entertaining things that would be much discussed over breakfast tables the next morning. It's not at all surprising, therefore, that his novel is filled with the kind of epigrams he was wont to spout off in real life.

Lord Henry, the figure of decadence in the novel, says the following, as he argues to himself that people don't actually learn from their errors but simply repeat them:

Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.

Later, Lord Henry utters another witticism that directly contradicts the sentiment above. This shows that this corrupted man will twist any idea to serve his own desires:

The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.

Here is Lord Henry again, very early in the novel expressing his shock that a painter does not want to reveal a masterwork to the public. It is also a very typical Wilde-ism:

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

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What are some epigrams in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray is rife with epigrams and paradoxes. This is because the novel was written during the late 1880's, a time period in Wilde's life reportedly known as his most introspective; these were times where most of his wit was taking the shape of the famous paradoxes, axioms, maxims, and epigrams that distinguish Wilde as a writer and genius. However, after its initial publication in Lippincot's magazine in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray became one of the most talked about pieces of literature in Victorian England, and was deemed as "scandalous", even "criminal", "dirty", and "perverse" by a hypocritically prudish press.

It is said that what generated the most criticism was not only the subtle homoerotic themes that permeate the novel, but the fact that Wilde ingeniously infused this theme with quick, witty, and ironic social comments that stung the Victorian mentality right at its core. This resulted, as many publications admitted at the time, in many readers actually feeling insulted by Wilde, not just morally, but mostly intellectually; for Wilde basically called them "dimwits" right to their faces.

Using Lord Henry as his mouthpiece, Wilde outdid himself in penning down each and every word of what later became known as Oscariana; a compilation of witticisms put together by his wife, Constance. This compilation was never published as intended, but it can be found in many other forms of publications of the same kind.  Some of the most universal epigrams used "the three M's" of Oscariana: marriage, money, and morality, as topics.

Marriage: Lord Henry Wotton, to Basil Hallward, chapter 1

The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties.

Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed, ch. 4

Money: Lord Henry, ch 4

Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Morality: Lord Henry, ch. 2

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.

Hence, it is no surprise that some of this social commentary caused the revolt that it did during a time period in which everything had to be said and done in utmost discretion as to not alter the "peace and dignity" of the kingdom. Wilde revolutionized the thinking processes of his peers and, as any other social revolutionary, paid for it in the most unfair and horrid way until his death.

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What are epigrams? Provide three examples from "The Picture of Dorian Gray".

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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What are epigrams? Provide three examples from "The Picture of Dorian Gray".

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.

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