The Picture of Dorian Gray, serialised in 1890 and published in 1891, was Oscar Wilde’s only published novel – and boy was it a good one! All of Wilde’s literary talents can be found in this wonderfully descriptive and psychological novel. The reader is drawn in by the beauty of the language, tickled by Wilde’s wit, shocked or moved by the moral issues explored, and morbidly fascinated by the novel’s supernatural elements. There is something for everyone, making it a widely-accessible and hugely enjoyable novel.
Generally considered a work of classic gothic horror, The Picture of Dorian Gray also contains elements of Das Unheimliche – the uncanny – as pioneered by Poe with his tales of mystery and the macabre in the middle of the 19th century. James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), another ‘uncanny’ story, also makes a useful comparison: the protagonist in this novel is a Calvinist, and believes he will go to heaven when he dies, no matter what sins he commits during his lifetime. He does not connect himself with his sins, seeing the evil-doer as a separate entity, in the same way that Dorian is detached from his by his portrait. Another parallel is R.L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) in which the main character’s personality is split, one half being purely evil. Jekyll denies that this other half is part of himself and does not want to accept the consequences. Dorian is able to ignore the consequences of his sins and the guilt, as long as he does not look at his portrait.
The main theme of the novel is art and aesthetics in contrast with life. This theme can be found throughout Wilde’s work, as he was a member of the Aesthetic Movement, which promoted ideas such as making an art out of life. The preface to the novel, which Wilde added after the story’s serialisation, is a collection of statements about the role of the artist, art itself, and the value of beauty. One could read from Wilde’s novel the message that society is shallow and sets unrealistic expectations, prioritising youth and beauty. (Some things never change!) Society is represented by Lord Henry, who leads Dorian astray. To reach such hedonist ideals, something must take the brunt of the consequences for Dorian: the portrait. This also suggests a theme of duplicity, since Dorian’s face remains youthful and innocent-looking, masking his true nature. The reality of age and his sins can be seen in the portrait, whilst the undying beauty of art is shown on his face.
Wilde himself lead a double-life and is guilty, just as Basil is, of putting ‘too much’ of himself ‘into’ his work. There is danger in doing this in art, as critics can use it against the artist. For example, Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’), the object of Wilde’s love (a love which landed him in prison and caused his downfall in society), may have been the model for Dorian. Wilde wrote the preface to defend the novel’s reputation and address the criticism it had received. Some may feel uncomfortable with the novel's homoerotic elements, and others may find its arty and poetic style pretentious. But many more readers will find the novel charming for Wilde’s presence in it, and masterful for (at least) the reasons mentioned in this review.
'melodramatic, the novel grips hard, sustaining a genuinely disturbing atmosphere of gothic suspense... Wilde stands nakedly revealed in The Picture of Dorian Gray.' - Simon Callow, The Guardian, 2009
'Written in Wilde's characteristically dazzling manner, full of stinging epigrams and shrewd observations' - synopsis on the Random House website.
The Picture of Dorian Gray has been chosen as Book of 2010 for Dublin City's 'One City, One Book' Festival. Events related to the book and Oscar Wilde will be hosted in Dublin during April 2010. See the festival's website for more details.