Background Reading for My Novel: “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde


Attempting to review a novel as legendary as The Picture of Dorian Gray is challenging to say the least but I will do my best to do just that. Noted more for his plays and poems, this work by Oscar Wilde was his only novel. When first published in 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, the story sent shock waves through the literary world and was viciously attacked as immoral most notably for its homoerotic and hedonistic themes. Wilde attempted to quiet the attacks by substantially revising the story and adding more background, expanding the original work from thirteen to twenty chapters before its 1891 book publication. The revisions did little though to quiet the outrage. The edition I read was the one published in 1891 which is the most widely read version.

The general storyline of course is well-known. It follows the life of a handsome young man who has his Faustian wish fulfilled that a recent painting of him will age while he himself remains physically young and attractive. As Gray’s life slides further and further into debauchery and crime, the portrait becomes increasingly grotesque while he remains eternally beautiful. It does not take much imagination to realize that the artist Basil Hallward is clearly infatuated with Dorian although there is no sexual contact between the two in the novel. It is through Basil that Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton who advocates a hedonistic lifestyle to Dorian, suggesting to the impressionable young man that beauty and satisfying one’s desires are the only things really worth pursuing in life. This is the trigger that changes Dorian’s attitude and behavior. The two become close friends and remain so throughout the story.

Wilde once commented that the novel’s three main characters contain much of himself: Basil is the person Wilde perceived himself to be, Lord Henry represents the public view of him and “Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” The story itself is incredibly fascinating and Wilde does a superb job playing with the age-old fantasy of eternal youth. Some of the best lines in the book are the pithy, cynical reflections of Lord Henry. Two excellent examples: “Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.” Also: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

The one criticism I have of the book is that at times I found the prose to be a bit too flowery but in part I am sure that is a reflection of the writing style of the era. Chapter 11 for example is almost entirely a long, drawn-out recounting of all the excesses to which Dorian indulges himself describing endlessly the colors and textures of the objects with which he surrounds himself. Eventually I found myself simply skimming through this chapter because I started thinking “OK Oscar, I get the picture. Can we now get on with the story?” My guess is that this was a part of expanded background Wilde felt necessary to add to the 1891 publication to quiet his critics. It has been suggested by scholars that Wilde would probably want us to read the work as it was originally written since we are in a more permissive forward-looking time than the repressive Victorian world in which he himself lived. Since the original unedited version is now available I may do just that.

Eventually of course Wilde was subjected to a very public trial for his immoral homosexual lifestyle and sentenced to two years’ hard labor for his “crimes”, a sentence that would break him physically and emotionally and contribute to his early death. This is an important novel and one very well-written. It is a classic example of Gothic fiction, much as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the works of Edgar Allan Poe are. Thank you Oscar for this work. I am so sorry I did not get to stop by and pay my respects to you during my recent visit to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.