A cautionary tale of depravity and sham.
What’s the price of eternal youth?
Handsome Dorian Gray has found the secret of eternal youth. As those around him age, Gray remains young and beautiful. Knowing his actions have no consequences he lives a wild life of pleasure, breaking heart after heart – including that of a young actress called Sybil Vane. Gray treats her so badly that she kills herself.
But Gray has another secret – in his attic he hides a portrait of himself. While his own body remains fit and healthy, the image in the portrait becomes older and more disfigured with each debauched act he commits. When the portraits creator, Basil Hallward, discovers the horrific truth, Gray kills him in a fit of rage.
While Hallward may no longer be a concern, Gray’s own life may be in danger from Sybil’s brother, James Vane, who still blames him for his sister’s suicide and begins vengefully stalking the young pleasure-seeker.
Terrified that his life is spiralling out of control, Gray vows to give up his wanton ways, and especially not to mistreat his latest conquest, innocent Hetty Merton. As his behaviour improves Gray expects the painting to begin returning to its original state – so is horrified to find it even more grotesque. Can Gray find any way out of his nightmare?
A key example of Gothic horror fiction, The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only novel and a classic of modern literature. It was originally published in a shorter version in Lippinscott’s Monthly Magazine, an American literary journal, in 1890, then revised and published in book form in 1891. Upon publication, its portrayal of moral decadence and its strong homoerotic undertones caused controversy and ensured that the book was poorly received by readers at the time.
Nevertheless, Wilde went on to find great fame and success as a playwright and much-quoted wit with Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).
Both a cautionary tale of depravity and sham, and a tender portrait of the aesthetic urge unbridled and spinning out of control, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is his only novel, but it has arguably enjoyed almost as wide an impact as his drama. In fact, only The Importance of Being Ernest can rival its claim to be Wilde’s best-known work.
A dark, supernatural affair, its sparkling wit never completely conceals a Gothic layer that would have done justice to Edgar Allan Poe at his best. It’s probably this winning combination which continues to excite the many contemporary novelists who still draw inspiration from this book. It very directly impacted on my own novel, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, while Will Self’s Dorian: An Imitation, is an updated version of Wilde’s tale, set in early eighties Britain where the AIDS epidemic was quietly incubating. And it’s not only novelists who have fallen under his spell; it’s hard to imagine a range of British artists from Joe Orton to Morrisey and the Smiths without Wilde’s precedent. The book has also made it onto the big screen, most famously in 1945 when, despite the Technicolor available to him, it was shot in black and white by director Albert Lewin. It proved a good judgement call: the film ironically won a cinematography ‘Oscar’. With the current vogue for remaking old movies, an updated version surely seems inevitable*.
As a writer Oscar Wilde has never gone out of fashion and, indeed, is probably now as popular as ever. His devastating wit, his sense of the artist as an aesthete and his personal life as an unlikely martyr for sexual liberation; they all serve to keep him at the front of our collective consciousness in a way that very few authors have matched. Like fellow Irishman Jonathan Swift before him, Oscar Wilde was often paradoxically regarded as an archetypical English writer. But then, the best satirical writers in England have generally possessed a quality that marked them as outsiders to the WASPish paradigm; even Evelyn Waugh had his devout Catholicism.
It may have been his only novel, but Dorian Gray’s excellence is hard to dispute, with the playful and the sinister shadow-boxing throughout its pages. Instructively, Wilde was an admirer of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. The compelling literary device of duality, realised in extremis in Stevenson’s book, is handled more deftly here in order to highlight one of Wilde’s key concerns: the theme of aestheticism and corruption, with the aesthetic and criminal combining in one person.
The narrative is relatively straightforward. Artist Basil Hallward paints the portrait of a ‘beautiful’ young man. (Rather than a merely ‘handsome’ one. Wilde also makes Dorian roughly the same age as the author himself when he was reputed to have commenced engaging on homosexual activity.) The artist becomes enchanted with his subject, who in turn entertains the narcissistic wish that it would be the lovingly produced painting that would grow old, why he himself retained his youth. This aspiration is realised as the figure in the portrait sinisterly ages; growing more debased in concert with the protagonist’s moral decline, even as Gray himself continues to appear unsullied and innocent.
Dorian Gray is certainly no Raskolnikov figure. Unburdened by conscience, his killing of a young woman, ‘as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife,’ only surprises him in that there is no sea-change in his viewpoint or in how he perceives his broader environment. ‘The roses are not less lovely for all that. The birds sing just as happily in my garden.’ Like Dr Frankenstein, the cerebral Hallward tries to make sense of what he comes to perceive as his creation, while his friend Lord Henry Wotton is more content with spouting axioms and encouraging Dorian in his sensual adventures.
Despite the absence of overt homosexual acts within its pages (although Dorian’s ruination of young men is alluded to), the book is highly homoerotic, both in its almost fetishised descriptions of Gray as an Adonis figure, and in the competition between Basil and Lord Henry, who vie for his attention. ‘Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus, and you – well, of course you have an intellectual expression, and all that. But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face.’ This mirrored Wilde’s own homoerotic idealisation of youth, and his valuation of beauty above intellect. This would prove to be a costly voce, setting him on a journey that would, via his attraction for Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, take him to the courtroom, then a charge of homosexual misconduct and a sentence of two years of hard labour in prison. Originally charged as a sodomite by Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, on 2 March 1895 (a charge which was obviously almost impossible to substantiate), the victorious Wilde then made what was to prove a disastrous error of judgement in intimating a suit of criminal libel against Queensberry. When his suit failed in April, counter-charges by the Marquess followed. After a spectacular court action, Wilde was convicted and sentenced. He would follow his prison ordeal, broken in spirits and health and but spent as a creative force, in a self-imposed Parisian exile until his death three years later.
What became known as ‘the love that dares not speak its name’ is very much in evidence in The Picture of Dorian Gray, as both older men make repeated comments in praise of Dorian’s good looks and youthful demeanour. Basil Hallward goes as far as to state: ‘As long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me.’ In a sense this is a somewhat curious claim, as Dorian is himself a shallow creation and his depraved quest for new experiences far less entertaining than the drawing-room debates and speculations of Hallward and Lord Henry. This fact of the voyeurs being more interesting than the actor also helps explain some of the novel’s uniqueness as a work of fiction.
For Wilde, who emphatically asserted the basic amorality of art and the artist, The Picture of Dorian Gray paradoxically has a very conventional moral message. The inevitability of the handsome but empty Dorian’s eventual come-uppance seems to contradict Wilde’s statement that ‘No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.’
Wilde’s espoused valuation of style before traditional morality made him many enemies in Victorian England. Yet The Picture of Dorian Gray contains the same ‘unpardonable mannerism’ suggesting that this advocacy was itself an affectation, a stylish tick if you will. In more recent times the novel has inspired different moral objections. The least sympathetic character (apart, perhaps, for Dorian Gray himself) is Mr Isaacs, the manager at the theatre where Sybil Vane performs. Dorian refers to Isaacs as a ‘hideous Jew’ and a ‘monster’. Some critics suggested that Wilde might have been guilty of playing to the populist gallery of the Victorian age’s anti-Semitism, but I believe that this flies in the face of his natural subversive tendencies. In his art and his life, he took great delight in swimming against the tide and revelled in disdaining and ridiculing popular prejudices. As there is no real trace of anti-Semitism in his other works I am inclined to see the scorn of Isaacs instead as a device to highlight Dorian’s crassness and superficiality.
Oscar Wilde was far more that the nihilistic dandy and persecuted homosexual of enduring popular imagination. For writers, and aspiring writers in particular, his wit raised the bar, to the extent that many feel it almost obligatory to adopt some of his poses: as essential to the trade as a pen and paper. It’s also difficult to imagine gay culture without Wilde – where would our homosexuals be without at least pretension towards that trademark caustic humour?
The quintessential Wilde experience is probably sitting in a traditional gold-leaf and red-velvet theatre, enjoying a quality production of The Importance of Being Ernest. It was this play that gave English drama its now defining tradition of satire, irony and wordplay – arguably in the process casting a stylistic shadow it has since struggled to emerge from. However the nature of this truly great and essential novel means that The Picture of Dorian Gray is, and will continue to be, Oscar Wilde’s most accessible work, and the perfect introduction to this marvellous writer.
Irvine Welsh, 2007
* Prophetic words: 2009 saw a remake entitled Dorian Gray, starring Colin Firth and Ben Barnes.
Review by Floresiensis
2 positive reader review(s) for The Picture of Dorian Gray
Shell from Winchester
The change of style from aesthetic decadence to gothic horror supports this archtypal tale of the uncanny. Wilde's observations on the human condition glaringly honest and perceptive as always.
Allan from Bridgend
Have not read this for a few years but it is book I will always treasure!!
9.5/10 from 3 reviews