“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde

Title: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Author: Oscar Wilde
ISBN: 9780199535989
Pages: 229
Release date: June 20, 1890 (the expanded version was published by Ward, Lock, and Company in April 1891)
Publisher: Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine
Genre: Classical fiction
Formats: Audiobook/e-book
Sources: Lit2Go/Project Gutenberg
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Basil Hallward, an artist, is in love with his latest painting–and his subject, Dorian Gray. In fact, Hallward firmly believes that Gray’s indisputable beauty and charm have taken his art to an entirely new level, to the point that all who gaze upon his image are compelled to fall in love.

Hallward’s theory seems to hold up against the first viewing of the painting by his friend, Lord Henry Wotton. But in this case, Wotton’s interest in Dorian Gray is returned by the young man, who delights in the lord’s cynical hedonism.

Lord Henry is bursting with delightful aphorisms, like “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” and “There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating–people who know absolutely everything and people who know absolutely nothing.”

Dorian takes to heart Henry’s suggestion that life is only worth living for beauty and sensory satisfaction, and, as he faces the portrait of himself in full bloom of youth and grace, he wishes the portrait would age rather than himself. He even decides he would trade his soul for it–what does a pretty man need a soul for, anyway?

Dorian clearly never heard the phrase “Be careful what you wish for.” As he descends into ever more unmentionable (and mostly unmentioned) sins, his countenance never changes. His portrait, on the other hand, becomes one of a hideously evil man. The more debauched his actions, the more disfigured his painted image becomes.

Dorian, for some reason, decides it’s not ready for primetime and hides the painting in a locked room of his house, only looking at it after his worst acts with a kind of brutal curiosity–like a kid poking a dead cat.

He becomes a man reviled in even the most disgusting and horrifying places, but his enduring good looks and charm keep him from being discovered for years. Sooner or later, though, debauchery catches up with everyone, and Dorian’s very visible secret can’t stay hidden forever.

In his only published novel, Wilde combines two themes seemingly at odds with each other–Victorian morality and magical realism–to great effect. Classical themes abound in the book. GLBTQ, an online encyclopedia of queer literature, observes that

Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890) pivots on a gothic plot device by which a narcissistic young man makes a Faustian bargain to preserve his youthful beauty.

Moreover, it was refreshing to detect clear homosexual themes in a Victorian novel without enduring endless moralizing. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a seminal work of queer literature.

Wilde’s elaborately wrought prose was difficult to get into as a book; its opulent and flowery opening–as well as passages interspersed with fantastic but sometimes overwrought descriptions–was a bit of a tough sell to my undergraduate self. However, the passion of the one of the audiobook narrators brought the story to life, and I highly recommend the audiobook.

4 replies »

  1. Hey! You posted this on my birthday! Random, but I just noticed that. However, I actually came over here to say that I have always been intrigued by The Picture of Dorian Gray. After reading this and that link about homosexuality in the text, I may actually read the book. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    Like

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