Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
What it’s about: London, the 1890s. The artist Basil Hallward completes a portrait of Dorian Gray a beautiful young man with whom he has become infatuated. Through Basil, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a witty and cynical aristocrat who warns Dorian that beauty is fleeting and encourages him to surrender to temptation and embrace a life of hedonism. Seduced by Lord Henry’s subversive views, Dorian swears that he will give up his soul to remain young and beautiful. He asks Basil to gift him the portrait, which he stores in the attic room of his family home. He embarks on a life of sensory pleasure, taking and abandoning lovers (including Sibyl Vane, a young actress who kills herself after Dorian rejects her), accumulates expensive antiques, clothing and jewellery, and visits opium dens. As his behaviour and reputation grows more notorious, his portrait becomes old and ugly, while he remains young and beautiful. Years later, Dorian is visited by Basil, who reports of Dorian’s appalling reputation in London society. Dorian admits that all the rumours about his life are true, and shows Basil the portrait, by now a twisted and grimacing monster. Basil condemns Dorian for his shocking behaviour; in response, Dorian impulsively stabs him to death, and blackmails a chemist friend to dispose of Basil’s body. He visits an opium den in the East End, where he is nearly murdered by Sibyl’s brother, who is seeking revenge for his sister’s death. Dorian meets Lord Henry again at a grand society dinner, where Dorian realises that Lord Henry’s hedonistic attitudes are merely a pose, and never meant to be taken seriously. Wracked with guilt at his crimes, Dorian confronts the painting and picks up his knife. The next morning, the servants find an aged and withered corpse collapsed in front of the portrait, which has been restored to its youthful loveliness.
Why it’s a classic: Early on in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the artist Basil Hallward exclaims angrily, “[a]n artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty.” It’s an impressive and elegant quote, but also so clearly the manifesto of its author that it rather undoes its own logic, bringing us closer to rather than separating us from Wilde’s life. Though Wilde attempted to advocate “Art for Art’s Sake” in his writing and dismissed autobiographical readings of his work, Dorian Gray is, for better or for worse, intimately entwined with his life story. Wilde submitted a shorter early version to Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. His editors, fearing a prosecution for indecency, excised some of the text before its publication, and Wilde himself diluted Basil’s declarations of love to Dorian when revising and expanding the story for publication in book form. Despite these edits, the story’s atmosphere of moral decay and homoerotic longing caused an immediate scandal, and launched his reputation as a literary provocateur – a reputation that ameliorated only when he focused on lighter material and produced a string of highly successful comic plays. Privately, he admitted that the story’s three protagonists were refracted versions of himself: Basil Hallward, the artist striving for a Platonic ideal of male beauty and sublimating his desires into art; Lord Henry, the debonair man-about-time with a razor-sharp epigram for every occasion; and Dorian, the immaculately presented gentleman with a secret and sexually transgressive double life.
The autobiographical implications of Dorian Gray came back to haunt Wilde in 1895, when he unwisely sued the Marquis of Queensbury for libel. Wilde’s suit rested on his denial that he was, as Queensbury had charged, a sodomite. In his cross-examination of Wilde, the barrister Edward Carson quoted from the story, lingering on Basil’s declarations of longing for Dorian and asking Wilde bluntly if he had ever had similar feelings for young men. Wilde attempted to deflect the insinuation, but lost the suit when Carson produced evidence of his relationships with rent boys. He was later tried and found guilty of “gross indecency”, and imprisoned for two years. Like Dorian, Wilde attempted to separate his life from his art, but failed, paying for his mistake with his life. Dorian Gray reads as an eerily prophetic text, in which Wilde seems to have scripted the narrative of his own downfall.
For generations of gay readers, Dorian Gray has retained a queasy fascination as an early example of homoerotic literature. Dorian’s story has its roots in the Faust and Don Juan myths, in which a man sells his soul to the devil for a life of pleasure, and in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, a story of demonic split identity that was a massive success in Victorian society just a few years before. Within this well-trodden territory, Wilde overlaid his uniquely queer sensibility. Male desire is expressed with relative openness and becomes the story’s motivating force, from Basil’s passionate if chaste adoration of his muse, to Dorian’s life of debauchery that prompts several young men (as well as Sibyl) to commit suicide. In Dorian, we have a Victorian-era template for closeted gay existence – a man living a secret life of hedonism, obsessed with his own appearance and fearful of his own ageing – an archetype that still resonates through much of contemporary gay culture.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A single green carnation rather than a full bouquet. I’ve been a fan of Wilde since my teens, but somehow had never quite gotten around to reading The Picture of Dorian Gray. Like many of the classics I’m reviewing in this blog, Dorian’s story casts a very long shadow over the culture, and the image of the decaying portrait in the attic has entered the cultural consciousness, giving a weird sense of familiarity to my first reading. It’s a short if not exactly an easy read – the melodramatic machinery of the plot creaks a bit, and the characters’ psychologies aren’t particularly well developed. Dorian isn’t an especially likeable or absorbing protagonist, and most of the interest around him comes from Wilde’s veiled, teasing allusions to Dorian’s many crimes. Wilde’s rendering of the story often feels perfunctory and flat: Dorian’s murder of Basil, which should be a dramatic high-point, is rendered rather clinically, perhaps reflecting Wilde’s distaste for the pulpier aspects of the melodrama genre he adopted. Sibyl is also thinly sketched, and she’s treated as badly by Wilde as by Dorian, existing only to provide a veneer of heterosexual respectability over what’s really a story of homosexual desire. Wilde is less interested in his characters as people and more as mouthpieces for his own ideas, which is why Lord Henry leaps so delightfully off the page, rolling epigrams off his tongue with an elegant style. (I was pleasantly surprised to find many of Wilde’s most famous quotations on display, including “[T]here is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” and “Everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco“).
Otherwise, Wilde’s attempt to insert high aesthetic consciousness into a seamy melodramatic format stumbles more than it succeeds. He has a maddening tendency to stop the plot mid-intrigue and spend entire chapters giving ornately detailed descriptions of Dorian’s collection of antiques. Though beautifully written and tonally on-point with Wilde’s interest in physical versus moral beauty, these sections weigh down the dramatic tension, and never quite justify their presence in the story. By the novel’s conclusion, he manages to harness his indirect style to strong dramatic effect, by not showing us Dorian’s suicide after the fact, leaving us with the extraordinary final image of the “withered, wrinkled and loathsome” corpse with a knife in his heart, lying in front of the portrait of Gray “in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty.”
Quotable Quotes: Too many to mention, but here are three of the best not already mentioned above:
“I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”
“Ugliness that had once been hateful to him because it made things real, became dear to him now for that very reason. Ugliness was the one reality. The coarse brawl, the loathsome den, the crude violence of disordered life, the very vileness of thief and outcast, were more vivid, in their intense actuality of impression, than all the gracious shapes of Art, the dreamy shadows of Song.”
“One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner.”