The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890) is one of my favourite all-time books and I've just finished re-reading it. One (of many!) reasons why I love it so much is the opening two paragraphs, which I do believe are sublime:
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.
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.
For me, this was the reason to go on reading the rest of the novel! It's a great one and embodies so much I love about Victorian literature: it has the humour and decadence of the 1890s and the melodrama I would usually associate with the mid-19th Century (Wilkie Collins, for example): Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray is his imperfect perfect self.
It tells the story of Dorian Gray, a young and beautiful man who we first meet having had his portrait painted by Basil Hallward who has become obsessed with Gray for his beauty and charm. Hallward is disappointed with the painting, fearing he has shown too much of his self in it, but his friend, the hedonist Lord Henry Wotton believes it to be Hallward's finest work. When Gray arrives, Hallward reluctantly introduces him to Lord Wotton, and there begins Gray's spiral downwards. Wotton, an aesthetic on top of the hedonism, extravagantly praises Gray's youth and handsome good looks, sparking anxiety in Gray, who makes a wish that will destroy him and others: he looks at the portrait and says,
"How sad it is!" murmured Dorian Gray with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. "How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June.... If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!"
And it is done: Dorian Gray from that moment forward never ages, his appearance never changes - it is the portrait that will grow old.
It is at once a exquisite and terrifying book. Gray, influenced heavily by Huysmans' Against Nature (1884), continues his life without fear of ageing and becomes morally corrupt and debauched, as well as highly dangerous in his decent into total narcissism. Wilde explores the ideas of youth and beauty, the fear of age and mortality, the soul and the body, and the philosophies of hedonism and aestheticism as well as art. The preface for The Picture of Dorian Gray in which Wilde rebels against the idea that art and literature should be instructive is quite famous. Here it is in full:
I may not entirely agree with it, but nonetheless it is very thought-provoking. The novel, as I said, isn't perfect, and one can really see Oscar Wilde the playwright in it, but it is wholly enjoyable and captivating. It's one of the greatest novels of its era.