The Picture of Dorian Gray had a notorious reputation even before it was used against its author, Oscar Wilde, at his trial for gross indecency. Where it may lack originality in its premise, it more than makes up for it in the evocation of the contrasts and contradictions of high and low 19th century London society.
Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton manage to maintain a friendship despite being very different men. Hallward, a painter, is a man of strong moral convictions but, he fears, weak character. Situations that may lead him astray cause him great anxiety and will usually result in him seeking an escape. Wotton, an aristocrat and a dandy, in contrast, revels in his repute for being a hedonist and a libertine. In fact, Wotton is quite mischievous. Despite the reputation he cultivates, he does not act on his supposed principles. Rather, he enjoys the effect his scandalous remarks have on those around him and prefers to influence others to indulge themselves while he observes the results. Naturally, Hallward finds Wotton antagonising.
‘You are an extraordinary fellow. You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is merely a pose.’
Wotton senses a new opportunity for mischief when he visits Hallward to see his latest work – a full-length portrait of a young man of exceptional personal beauty. Initially, Hallward refuses to reveal the subject’s identity, before telling Wotton about his first encounter with Dorian Gray. Hallward certainly does not want Wotton to meet this man who has affected him so profoundly. It is at that moment that Gray’s arrival is announced.
Lord Henry looked at him. Yes, he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world. No wonder Basil Hallward worshipped him.
After being introduced to Gray, Wotton wastes no time to set in motion his usual tricks. Wotton immediately launches into delivering a sermon to the young man all about influences and impulses; sin and temptation; fear, courage and submission.
‘I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream – I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of [medievalism], and return to the Hellenic ideal – to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be. […] The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. 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 forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.’
[…] ‘Stop!’, faltered Gray, ‘stop! You bewilder me. I don’t know what to say. There is some answer to you, but I cannot find it.’
Gray, young, somewhat innocent and not very introspective, is impressed by Wotton’s ideas, especially when Wotton warns Gray that his beauty will inevitably fade. When Hallward shows Gray his portrait, Gray is initially joyful at the representation of his beauty, but, remembering what Wotton said, grows resentful. He is even jealous that, while his looks will fade, the painting will remain beautiful and mock him. He wishes their places could be reversed – that his likeness in the painting would age while he remained youthful.
‘How sad it is!’ murmured Dorian Gray, with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. ‘How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. It will never be older than this particular day of June…. If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the painting 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!’
Under Wotton’s influence, Gray begins taking tentative steps outside his comfort zone and the walls of respectable society. When he cruelly breaks a young woman’s heart, he discovers that his wish has become true – his portrait bears the mark of his cruelty and he does not. Though he is briefly remorseful, Wotton counsels Gray out of his conscience. Gray now feels an unprecedented freedom to follow his desires, to succumb to temptations of sin.
Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins – he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame: that was all.
The Picture of Dorian Gray gets off to a great start. The descriptions of the characters and the locations, which come together in their social gatherings, immerses the reader with its impression of a privileged, elite, social class inhabiting London society of the late nineteenth century. Add to that the endlessly quotable witticisms of Wotton and the morality tale of Gray’s pursuit of vice without consequence, and the reader can be swiftly seduced into this world.
If you were already aware of the outline of the plot, you might assume that it is a fairly straightforward tale but in fact the novel has more complexity and thoughtfulness to it. In particular, I enjoyed some of the contrasts between the characters, major and minor, and how their aspects conflict and conspire. I thought the evolution of Gray’s character was well-worked and thought out. When we first meet Gray, he is very innocent and vulnerable. Once Gray begins his journey from innocence and vulnerability to self-corruption, he grows in confidence and self-assurance and knows his own mind well enough to be outspoken in disagreement. And, original or not, I thought the use of the transforming painting made an interesting literary device.
His unreal and selfish love would yield to some higher influence, would be transformed to some nobler passion, and the portrait that Basil Hallward had painted of him would be a guide to him through life, would be to him what holiness is to some, and conscience to others, and the fear of God to us all. There were opiates for remorse, drugs that could kill the moral sense to sleep. But here was a visible symbol of the degradation of sin. Here was an ever-present sign of the ruin men brought upon their souls.
Though direct, I enjoyed a lot of the narration and some scenes were wonderfully dramatic and will be quite memorable.
Several interesting themes are explored in the novel. There is the superficiality in culture, especially amongst the social elites, and the premium it places on appearances, youthfulness and beauty. Wotton’s hedonistic philosophy, which he contemplates and observes rather than indulges in, is taken to its extremes by Gray who experiences its moral implications. Taken together, these combine to show the reader the error of mistaking appearance for reality, especially when making assumptions of good moral character on members of high society and the good looking.
Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices. There are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even.
There are questions about the role and purpose of art versus the aesthetic ideal. Heredity as destiny is explored as some characters embrace the legacy of the forebears while others seek to escape it. There is also the conflict between the public and private selves and the fantasy of living a double life.
There were a few things I did not enjoy in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wotton speaks mostly in epigrams which, at first, can be deliciously witty. There are, in fact, far too many clever lines to quote. But I felt that this can soon become tedious and Wotton tiresome.
‘A woman will flirt with anybody in the world as long as other people are looking on.’
‘How fond you are of saying dangerous things, Harry! […] You are talking scandal Harry, and there is never any basis for scandal.’
‘The basis of every scandal is an immoral certainty,’ said Lord Henry, lighting a cigarette.
‘You would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram.’
Knowing that The Picture of Dorian Gray was Oscar Wilde’s only novel and that it was used as evidence against him at his trial, I had mistakenly assumed that it was written late in his career. In fact, it was published before his major plays, such as Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, which recycled some of the lines from The Picture of Dorian Gray. The early parts of the novel read a bit like a novel written by a playwright. By that I mean it can be a bit dialogue-heavy and that dialogue is very direct and unsubtle. The reader can effortlessly imagine the scenes taking place on stage. Elsewhere, the novel could have used less subtlety – there are some key exclusions at important plot points.
One of the advantages of reading this Penguin Classics edition is that it includes an appendix of contemporary reviews of The Picture of Dorian Gray which give an impression of the novel’s reception and which I enjoyed reading. Most of the reviews were at least a little negative, some very. Some simply found the story and the writing to be not very good – stupid, vulgar, dull, boring and silly were some of the adjectives of one. But most critique the book for its ‘moral’. Some say the story does have a moral but it is an ‘evil’ one, some say it does not do enough to show a moral preference. Some reinforce their argument by saying that Wilde’s defence of the story’s moral is contrived and inconsistent while others contradict this by saying Wilde dismissed any moral interpretation of the story which they found untenable.
These seem a little exaggerated and unfair. I don’t think works of fiction necessarily need to show moral preference in their telling. Otherwise tragedy has little room to work with. Empathy and judgement of the characters and their actions can be left for the reader to interpret. One wonders if Edgar Allan Poe or Robert Louis Stevenson were similarly critiqued. On the other hand, since critiquing the idea that art should have some moral value or purpose, as opposed to the aesthetic ideal of ‘art for art’s sake’, is one of the points of the novel, such a reaction is probably fitting.
Some included in the selection were a bit more positive though not necessarily for flattering reasons. A review from the Christian Leader enjoyed the unfavourable portrayal of the ‘gilded paganism’ of the era which it likened to the worst excesses of Rome! It also enjoyed the fact that Gray is shown to have been led astray in part by reading a dangerous book.
This edition also contained the Introduction by Peter Ackroyd from an earlier Penguin Classics edition. My main takeaway from this introduction was Ackroyd’s point that London, like Gray, has a double life in the novel; the decadence of London’s exclusive clubs contrasted with its opium dens.
English readers were not accustomed to such a forceful characterisation of their civilisation, and Wilde went even further than this; he mocked both the artistic pretensions and the social morality of the English, and some of the most powerful passages in the novel disclose the grinding poverty and hopelessness against which ‘Society’ turned its face. Wilde, an Irishman, was putting a mirror up to his oppressors – and their shocked reactions would eventually encircle him when he stood in the dock at the Old Bailey.
My main takeaway from reading the new Introduction by Robert Mighall was the message in the novel of a mutual influence between culture and corruption – a point which immediately brought to my mind a modern double life immorality tale – American Psycho. Mighall seems sceptical of how much originality can be attributed to The Picture of Dorian Gray with reason. Tales of double lives, of fatal deals for eternal youth and magical paintings have a long history in ancient mythology and medieval legend – Faust and Narcissus being two that immediately come to mind.
Perhaps if I had kept some of these antecedents in mind while reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, I might have enjoyed it less. But maybe not. I think Wilde does enough to complicate the story with incidents, characters and themes outside of, and diverting to, the main story. If some elements are unoriginal, this is offset by the context of the period setting where the issues of the day are inserted into the story, giving it a point of difference to other iterations. It does have a complicated history, though, with controversy and multiple revisions that can confuse and irritate attempts at a consistent interpretation. For me, The Picture of Dorian Gray joins a very large pile of books that I did enjoy but not tremendously.