THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY

Author: Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)
Publisher: Penguin Books (2010 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Bought: Penguin sale 2012 Singapore

Introduction

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish journalist, poet, playwright and author. He was born in Dublin and read Classics in Trinity College, Dublin (1871 – 1874) and Magdalen College, Oxford (1874 – 1878). In university, Wilde became a strong follower of Aestheticism and he had Walter Pater, a leading figure of the movement, as a tutor in Oxford. Aestheticism started among artists and designers in the 1860s and expanded to include architects, poets, writers and philosophers. The movement argued that the arts (literature, visual art, music etc) should be enjoyed for its beauty alone and did not have any moral, social or didactic purposes. For some, the aesthetic ideal even became a way of life, manifested in hedonism and homosexuality. Aestheticism was a response to the morality and values of the middle class, the emerging mainstream of the Victorian Age.

Oscar Wilde had written a number of short stories (including The Happy Prince which was included in a collection published in 1888) and essays before The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only full length novel. It was first published in a July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. The magazine’s editors, concerned about the homoerotic and decadent tone of the story, censored it without Oscar Wilde’s knowledge. The censored version was still savaged by the critics. Wilde heavily edited the story and added a preface for a revised edition published in 1891. Wilde then turned his talents to the theater and wrote a number of plays, the most famous being The Importance of Being Earnest which opened triumphantly in London’s West End in 1895.

In the same year, Oscar Wilde (somewhat foolishly, with hindsight) sued the Marquess of Queensbury for libel. He lost the case and his liability for the Marquess’ legal cost bankrupted him. Worse, the trial uncovered evidence of his sexual relationships with the Marquess’ son and other men. He was tried and convicted for gross indecency for which he was sentenced to two years of hard labor. He was released in 1897, a broken man physically. He left for Paris and died a penniless exile three years later.

What is the story about?

In Victorian London, Basil Hallward was finishing a painting of Dorian Gray, a handsome and naive young man, with whom Basil was clearly infatuated. Basil’s friend Sir Henry (Harry) Wotton asked to be introduced to Dorian. Basil was reluctant to do so because he feared Lord Henry would be a bad influence on Dorian but he relented.

True enough, Harry turned Dorian’s head in their very first meeting:

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 mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal – to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be. But the bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself. The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives. We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us. 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. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.
(Chap II, p 21)

Now, wherever you go, you charm the world. Will it always be so? … You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray. Don’t frown. You have. And beauty is a form of genius is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it. You smile? Ah! when you have lost it you won’t smile… People say sometimes that beauty is only superficial. That may be so, but at least it is not so superficial as thought is. To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible… Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly…. Ah! realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals, of our age. Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing…. A new Hedonism – that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality there is nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season…. The moment I met you I saw that you were quite unconscious of what you really are, of what you really might be. There was so much in you that charmed me that I felt I must tell you something about yourself. I thought how tragic it would be if you were wasted. For there is such a little time that your youth will last – such a little time. The common hill-flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be as yellow next June as it is now. In a month there will be purple stars on the clematis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars. But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!
(Chap II, p 24 – 25)

Dorian immediately became obsessed with Basil’s painting of him:

‘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. But this picture will remain always young. 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 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!’
(Chap II p 28)

Dorian’s wish came true and soon his face in the portrait began to change as a reflection of his actions:

For every sin that he committed, a stain would fleck and wreck its fairness. But he would not sin. The picture, changed or unchanged, would be to him the visible emblem of conscience.
(Chap VII p 90)

Dorian had second thoughts but was not strong enough to resist the temptation to live without consequences:

For a moment, he thought of praying that the horrible sympathy that existed between him and the picture might cease. It had changed in answer to a prayer; perhaps in answer to a prayer it might remain unchanged. And yet, who, that knew anything about life, would surrender the chance of remaining always young, however fantastic that chance might be, or with what fateful consequences it might be fraught? Besides, was it really under his control? Had it indeed been prayer that had produced the substitution? Might there not be some curious scientific reason for it all? If thought could exercise its influence upon a living organism, might not thought exercise an influence upon dead and inorganic things? Nay, without thought or conscious desire, might not things external to ourselves vibrate in unison with our moods and passions, atom calling to atom in secret love or strange affinity? But the reason was of no importance. He would never again tempt by a prayer any terrible power. If the picture was to alter, it was to alter. That was all. Why inquire too closely into it? For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul. And when winter came upon it, he would still be standing where spring trembles on the verge of summer. When the blood crept from its face, and left behind a pallid mask of chalk with leaden eyes, he would keep the glamour of boyhood. Not one blossom of his loveliness would ever fade. Not one pulse of his life would ever weaken. Like the gods of the Greeks, he would be strong, and fleet, and joyous. What did it matter what happened to the coloured image on the canvas? He would be safe. That was everything.
(Chap VIII p 104)

For the next 18 years, Dorian dedicated his life to the pursuit of pleasure without regard to the price – it appeared that he ruined the lives of a number of young men in the process. Eventually, Dorian decided to destroy the painting and with it his conscience. He stabbed it with a knife. Later, his servants looked for him:

When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.
(Chap XX)

Themes

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a version of the Faustian legend with late-Victorian gothic elements.

Oscar Wilde declared that Basil Hallward is “what I think I am,” Lord Henry “what the world thinks me,” and “Dorian what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps”.

How is the book?

This is part of the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions which comes with original cover art. It has deckle-edged pages but there are no introduction or notes.

Finally …

Oscar Wilde wrote some of English literature’s most wonderful phrases. Turn to any page and we will find at least one example. The preface has become famous in its own right. The Picture of Dorian Gray was included in a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time published by the Observer (2003).