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The Picture of Dorian Gray

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The Picture of Dorian Gray first editionFirst edition
By Oscar Wilde
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
1890, novella in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine

First book publication

Literature form

Literary, fantasy, horror, philosophical fiction

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 78,500 words

Taking the pith out of art

Everyone knows the central conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray: a beautiful young man remains unblemished by age, while his painted portrait, hidden from public sight, grows older and corrupted by moral degradation. It's become a common compliment to a friend's continued youthfulness to say "You must have an aging portrait hanging in the attic."

It's a grotesque idea that's become popular, worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe story.

But Dorian Gray is not a Poe story, nor a short story at all. It's a fully fleshed novel with much more to offer than the revelation of a shocking effect.

Part of what fills out this novel, as with most Wilde work, is its great wit. For some readers (and I admit it seemed like this to me my first run through), Dorian Gray is little more than a collection of debauched epigrams held together by the slight horror plot. Many of Wilde's best-known witticisms ("There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about", "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing") are delivered by jaded wag Lord Henry Wotton in this work.

This is how Wilde's talent to entertain is often perceived—as the continual contrivance of pithy lines containing grains of insight.

Watch for the twist

But this can become tiresome. In The Picture of Dorian Gray it threatens to do so. One gets to the point of anticipating the twist that is sure to end every sentence beginning like "There are two kinds of people in the world...." Or it would become tiresome if that were all there is to the novel.

The novel does start as though this is to be the case. First, with the preface that consists of nothing but aphorisms from the art-for-art's-sake school of aesthetics. And then with the early chapters dominated by Lord Henry having his witty way with the serious artist Basil Hallward and more so with the artist's latest model from the nobility, Dorian Gray.

But then the perspective shifts to that of Dorian Gray himself. We follow Gray's internal struggle over his new friend's amoral influence, his first love affair, his disappointments, his helpless hedonism, his increasing corruption and slide into criminality, all while continuing to present a pristine visage to society.

The subplot involving the lower-class, theatrical Vane family shows what a well-constructed novel this really is. It provides the love interest, further opportunities to discuss art without seeming pretentious, and a welcome relief from the rarefied social strata that Gray usually moves in. Yet it never detracts from the main story. The vengeance sworn against Gray by one Vane remains in the background, mainly forgotten but coming to the fore of our protagonist's life in a sudden unexpected way. And, just when you think you can foresee how it's going to work out, it works out in another sudden unexpected way.

The retribution we all know is coming—the picture's revenge, so to speak—is brought about by Dorian Gray's conflicted nature, rather than by any external nemesis.

The real heft of the novel, however, comes from Wilde's own conflicted feelings. It is odd that a piece containing so much wit against morality and convention should in the end appear a desperate plea for conventional morality. It's as if Wilde wants us to laugh at Lord Henry's smugly superficial humour and then go back to question it. As if Wilde is sticking a pin in his own reputation as a purveyor of wickedly witty entertainments.

Psychic battle

These are, no doubt, the sort of observations Wilde warns against in his preamble. The artist disappears from his art. Art is all surface and symbol and "quite useless". And so on. I suspect the author wrote these statements after the novel was completed—to keep people like me from reading too much into it.

But surely The Picture of Dorian Gray belies its preface. Are we really to consider the deterioration of Dorian Gray just an aesthetically pleasing depiction? Are we to admire his victims' anguish and his own horrors as "useless", without import or significance, except as pleasing effects in a work of art? Are we not to go below the symbolic surface to ask what it means that in Dorian Gray a man's conscience is carried by a portrait—that is, by another work of art?

This battle in Wilde's psyche is worked out dialectically, if incompletely, in his only novel. The aesthetic thesis is set up in the preface and early chapters. The real-world antithesis is developed through much of the novel. And the synthesis is left hanging. Does the conclusion disprove the original ideas? Or can we go back to them and reread them differently? Is there room for any progress from the art-for-art's-sake starting point without giving up the aesthetic principles altogether? I'm not sure Wilde sees a way forward either. He's stating this is the problem with his approach to art and life, but there's nothing he can do about it.

The Picture of Dorian Gray has several failings when considered as a literary novel. It may be realistic compared to the works of fantasists, with only one (largely unexplained) magical element among the non-magical world of London society, but it is also more flamboyantly romantic than the works of other writers of the period. Unlike the grittily realistic writing of, say, Thomas Hardy, it contains some of the most superficial elements of sentimental Victorian art, like the stereotyped poor, the ingénue who dies of love, and the money-grubbing Hebrew.

It also never explains, at least to my satisfaction, what is so compelling about Dorian Gray's appearance, especially at the beginning. It is admitted there are many young men of appealing looks, but the artist Hallward sees something more in Dorian, the lad's face encapsulates the idea of a new kind of man for the era, some nobility of spirit that the world needs. For the life of me, I can't see what he could possibly mean, though the eventual destruction of both the artist and his subject must thereby bode ill for the era. Does Wilde know what it is, apart from incredibly appealing, unblemished good looks? Is it a representation of the appearances-are-everything artistic ideal in flesh form?

But to get too hung up on these concerns would be to deny the story its power as a fable. Whatever the causal reality of the characters or the central conceit we're asked to salvage as best we can a position between the surface and the depths.

— Eric


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