The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of those stories that everyone knows even if they’ve never read the book. The idea of having a portrait somewhere that reflects your true self, while you remain beautiful, is almost a ubiquitous pop culture reference. I heard one most recently on a TV show called Episodes (a surprisingly funny new show). One of the characters is a gorgeous woman who is rumored to be far older than she looks, so another character says “somewhere there’s a portrait of that woman…”
I’m glad I read the book, if only to further understand the story and what Oscar Wilde was getting at. For such a strange, eerie story, the themes of this book are universal: whether appearance reflects personality, whether aging is ugly, and what’s the right balance of pleasure and morality. Wilde also speaks to how friends, books and art influence our views, and whether books and art should be moral or whether morality is all in the interpretation. So this is a short novel with very weighty themes.
Wilde is also a fascinating literary figure. He was a poet, magazine editor, and playwright. The Picture of Dorian Gray was his only novel. It was first published in an American magazine in 1890, to a storm of critical protest for its decadence and implied homosexuality. Defiantly, Wilde responded to the criticism by expanding the story and had it published in book form in 1891. He takes the position in the book, and publicly, that a work of art cannot be immoral. “If a work of art is rich and vital and complete, those who have artistic instincts will see its beauty and those to whom ethics appeal more strongly will see its moral lesson.”
In April 1895, Wilde tried and convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labor. Parts of The Picture of Dorian Gray were used as evidence to convict Wilde (seemingly for both his views and his lifestyle). He was released in 1897 but never regained his health and died of cerebral meningitis in 1900.
The Picture of Dorian Gray begins with the friendship of three men. Basil Hallward is an artist, painting Dorian Gray’s portrait. Basil is obsessed with Dorian, a handsome but innocent young man, whom he sees as his muse. He introduces Dorian to his friend Sir Henry Wotton, a man of strong opinions who believes that beauty, youth, and pleasure are the only things that matter.
Wotton influences Dorian in another way, which is to convince him that there is no purpose in morality. To oversimplify a bit, Wotton believes that morality is unnatural, that people must behave in a manner that is true to themselves regardless of society’s views of morality.
To realize one’s nature perfectly — that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. … The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion — these are the two things that govern us. … We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us. .. 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 forgiven itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.
Under Wotton’s influence, Dorian becomes so afraid of losing his youth and beauty, that when he sees his finished portrait, he cries out that he would give his soul if only the painting could grow older and he stay the same.
Dorian returns to his life of wealth and privilege until he falls in love with an actress, Miss Sibyl Vane. He goes to the theater and is so struck by her beauty and talent that he must see her in every play, every night. The theater owner introduces them and they plan to be married. Unfortunately, Sibyl is so distracted by her love for Dorian that she performs the part of Juliet very badly and Dorian is mortified. All along he has really been in love with her portrayal of tragic heroines, not (of course) her true character. When she tells him she can no longer act because of her love for him because all love stories now have become meaningless to her, he brutally casts her off.
Back at home, Dorian sees his portrait and realizes it now has a slightly more cruel facial expression. That night, he realizes he has a choice. If he continues to live as he is, the portrait will grow uglier. But if he strives for a moral life, he can keep his portrait as a pure reflection of his soul, as an inspiration for him to do good. Unfortunately, he then realizes that even if he lives a good life, his portrait will still reflect the ugliness of age.
Ironically, Dorian’s been given what he wanted – a life of eternal beauty – but now he’s trapped by the need to keep others from discovering his secret.
Throughout the book, Wilde contrasts these ideas of age, physical beauty, wealth, pleasure, art and morality. Which of these things are essential to living a happy life? Wotton convinces Dorian that youth is the most important, therefore setting Dorian up to live his life unhappily because youth is the one thing we all have to give up. Dorian in fact has everything but he feels he has nothing simply because he will have to grow older. In his mind he grossly exaggerates the horrible effects of aging. Wotton himself doesn’t seem particularly bothered with his own age or appearance, he is simply manipulating Dorian.
There are many conflicting ideas in this book. For example, is corruption inevitably reflected in one’s appearance? Yes and no. Dorian is beautiful but not necessarily a good person – yet people look at him and think he must be good. Appearance is both a fluke of nature, and an undeniable advantage in influencing others. On the other hand, corruption does take a toll on appearance. As the people who are influenced by Dorian fall under his influence, they wither and age – not only from the natural process of aging, but from drug use and despair.
Another is the idea of morality itself. The book is a reflection of its time, the end of the Victorian period, and the beginning of freer thinking about science and spirituality. While the book may have been decried as immoral, and Wilde himself said that art shouldn’t be about morality, it left me with the profound sense that a life well-lived must include living by a code of ethics. Dorian Gray has physical perfection but lives a life of fear and unhappiness.
In the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded. Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak. That was all. … And yet, if it had been merely an illusion, how terrible it was to think that conscience could raise such fearful phantoms! What sort of life would his be if, day and night, shadows of his crime were to peer at him from silent corners, to mock him from secret places, to whisper in his ear as he sat at the feast, to wake him with icy fingers as he lay asleep!
The writing in the book isn’t perfect, and you can see in this book how Wilde will become a much stronger playwright than novelist. The beginning gets off to a slow start; his characters’ long speeches about life and philosophy dragged on much too long for my taste. Then there’s a long part in the middle where Dorian is using his newfound immortality to collect jewels and tapestry, which just goes on and on.
What is powerful about this book is the clever dialogue and the vivid way Wilde describes his settings. We go from witty parlor-room banter to seamy back-street brothels and opium dens. For example:
Dorian started and peered round. “This will do,” he answered, and having got out hastily and given the driver the extra fare he had promised him, he walked quickly in the direction of the quay. Here and there a lantern gleamed at the stern of some huge merchantman. The light shook and splintered in the puddles. A red glare came from an outward-bound steamer that was coaling. The slimy pavement looked like a wet mackintosh.
At the end of the hall hung a tattered green curtain that swayed and shook in the gusty wind which had followed him in from the street. He dragged it aside and entered a long low room which looked as if it had once been a third-rate dancing-saloon. Shrill flaring gas-jets, dulled and distorted in the fly-blown mirrors that faced them, were ranged round the walls. Greasy reflectors of ribbed tin backed them, making quivering disks of light. The floor was covered with ochre-coloured sawdust, trampled here and there into mud, and stained with dark rings of spilled liquor.
This book was eerie and thought-provoking at the same time, and made me want to know a lot more about Oscar Wilde. You may be interested in a recent movie version, starring Colin Firth as Wotton and Ben Barnes as Dorian.