Last year, I reached my first-ever Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of ten books, most of which were historical fiction. I’ve already covered Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen in my Off the Bookshelf segment, so today I’m switching over to another author whose novel I really enjoyed: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde!
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel written by Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. First published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in July 1890, the novel exists in three versions: the censored 13-chapter edition published in the magazine in 1890, the revised 20-chapter book edition published in 1891, and the uncensored 13-chapter edition submitted to the magazine with all of Wilde’s original material intact. The story follows the moral corruption and downfall of Dorian Gray, a handsome yet narcissistic young man whose vanity leads him to wish that a painting of himself will age in his stead. After his wish comes true, Dorian succumbs to a hedonistic lifestyle of vice and sin from which his insatiable desire for pleasure leaves him little chance to escape.
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! – Dorian Gray
A brief disclaimer: Because Wilde’s novel exists in three different forms, each one differs slightly from the others, in some cases affecting the plot. The version I read is the 1891 20-chapter book, so this is the edition that will be referenced throughout this review.
The Picture of Dorian Gray has often been compared to the Faust story, in which a dissatisfied scholar sells his soul to the Devil for unlimited knowledge and pleasure. Similarly, in a moment of weakness and newfound vanity, Dorian offers up his soul for the chance to remain young and handsome forever. In response to this wish, the painting becomes a mirror of Dorian’s soul and begins reflecting the effects of his actions that his body will now be spared. This inciting incident plays into the themes of valuing youth and beauty above all else and the consequences of choosing pleasure over virtue.
One of the most prominent themes in the book is the conflict between morality and pleasure. Although Dorian initially struggles with his new philosophy, his selfish desires ultimately overpower his guilt: after his romance with the young actress Sibyl Vane ends tragically, the subtle change in his portrait’s face proves his actions will have no visible consequence, as the painting will bear all the marks of his sins for him. After accepting Sibyl’s death as an artistic personification of tragedy, Dorian is free to pursue pleasure without risk and spends the next several years of his life indulging in various forms of gratification. Only in the final chapters of the story does he come to question if perpetual youth was worth the price of his soul.
Indeed, the fact that his artistic lifestyle costs him his soul is what makes Dorian Gray such an enigmatic character. Having given up his emotional depth, the protagonist’s true personality remains a mystery to the reader throughout the story. One detail of the novel that makes this evident is the heavy color motif. So many descriptions in the novel involve color in some way, and while at first I dismissed these vivid descriptions as the flowery writing of a poet, I later recognized their allusion to the main character’s internal conflict. The paradox of The Picture of Dorian Gray is that by giving up his soul for the pursuit of pleasure and the perpetuation of beauty, Dorian is no longer able to appreciate either—that is, in a world full of color and beauty, Dorian’s soulless existence is perpetually gray. Thus, Wilde’s novel—at least the revised version—supports the idea that art alone cannot bring happiness; one must have emotional depth in order to appreciate it.
Aside from Dorian, the story features two other important characters: Basil Hallward, the painter of the infamous picture, and Lord Henry Wotton, a witty aristocrat who advocates “New Hedonism”. Both are equally fascinated by Dorian’s beauty but stand at opposite ends of his moral spectrum: Basil represents conformity to moral standards while Lord Henry represents the temptation of sin. In this way, these two gentlemen play the roles of Dorian’s “shoulder angel and devil”, respectively, and personify the novel’s overarching conflict between virtue and hedonism: Basil sees only beauty in Dorian and encourages him to remain virtuous, while Lord Henry lauds his youth and persuades him to live for pleasure above all else. And although Dorian never escapes from the guilt the painter evokes in him, the fact that the story plays out far worse for Basil than for Lord Henry further supports the novel’s theme of beauty’s superiority over virtue.
Interestingly, The Picture of Dorian Gray presents an unusual example of an unscrupulous protagonist who repeatedly dodges moral justice. While Dorian influences several people to unfortunate ends throughout his life, he himself doesn’t get what he deserves for almost the entirety of the novel. While this may be an allusion to Wilde’s aesthetic beliefs, it’s more frequently interpreted as a comment on society’s superficiality and hypocrisy; although several rumors emerge about Dorian’s immoral exploits over the years, his peers nonetheless continue to accept him because he’s beautiful and, by all appearances, innocent. Yet as with any Faustian story, sin is ultimately punished in the end, thus completing the theme of eternal pleasure coming at an exceedingly high cost.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is an intriguing novel, a mix of Gothic horror with social and artistic commentary that never seems to settle on a single form. Even the moral of the story is not so black and white as its similarity to the Faust fable would suggest, as the main character doesn’t suffer the consequences of his actions until the very end, and even then justice is brought about by his own hands. Yet by all accounts, with its enigmatic themes, poetic motifs, and structure of an unusual moral fable, Wilde has created nothing less than an outstanding and fascinating work of art.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. – Oscar Wilde
In a strange meta twist, the most fascinating aspect of The Picture of Dorian Gray may actually be the author’s preface in the book edition. When Oscar Wilde first submitted his manuscript for publication, the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine censored the story, removing roughly 500 words without the author’s knowledge. Nevertheless, the novel was widely decried as a violation of public morality. A year later, upon publishing the revised book version, Wilde issued a preface to address these criticisms and defend his work, claiming in this artistic manifesto that the only point of art is to be beautiful, not to serve a moral purpose.
Yet in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the eponymous painting itself serves a moral purpose by shedding light on the high price of vanity. Despite the author’s advocacy of aestheticism, his novel suggests that art always contains some degree of meaning: though Dorian constantly tries to immerse himself in a purely artistic lifestyle, he can never escape the haunting lesson in the portrait that bares his corrupted soul. Thus, while he may not have written a truly aesthetic piece, Wilde has nonetheless created a stunning work of art that inspires a poetic theme: art and morality are perpetually intertwined.
As far as artistic inspiration, this novel certainly has its fair share of philosophy. One of the most intriguing aspects of the story is Lord Henry’s powerful influence over the naïve young Dorian. Although Lord Henry’s beliefs contrast heavily with the standards of his time, he speaks with such wit and persuasive language that one can’t help but be drawn to his ideas, however misguided they are. Indeed, the only character immune to these ideas is Basil, whose conventional mindset keeps him morally grounded but makes him utterly boring in the eyes of his impressionable muse. Reading Lord Henry’s speeches, I could easily understand how any weak-minded individual would embrace his poisonous philosophy, which thankfully is revealed to be shallow and impractical by the second half of the story. If anything, the novel is a cautionary tale about the consequences of trying to live such a hedonistic life: the pursuit of pleasure may satisfy the senses with each experience, but it still isn’t worth giving up one’s soul.
Overall, I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be an enjoyable and intriguing read. Its themes of morality, superficiality, and artistic living make it a notable addition to literature’s vast collection of moral fables. Yet the fact that Wilde was such a strong proponent of aestheticism raises the ultimate question: if his philosophy was to create “art for art’s sake”, should we really put so much weight on the moral themes of his only novel, or take a step back to simply glimpse these undertones while admiring the beauty of his work?