The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only novel.
Dorian Gray, a handsome young man, is worshipped by many in society, including the painter Basil Hallward. Hallward takes Gray’s portrait, and introduces him to his friend, Henry Wotton. Wotton has a powerful influence over Gray, and gradually he loses his innocence and virtuous nature. Dorian Gray express the life-changing desire that he would rather his portrait age, than him, allowing him to retain his youthfulness. His wish comes true, and Gray pursues a life of debauchery and stays beautiful, while his portrait warps and ages, recording each of Gray’s transgressions.
It took me a while to engage with The Picture of Dorian Gray; I found the first few chapters highly philosophical and “arty farty”, and so I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to finish it. Nevertheless, I pressed on, and discovered a definite turning point – from intellectual discussions about immorality, to witnessing immoralities such as murder, deceit and cruelty. For me, this is reminiscent of the Gothic genre, although The Picture of Dorian Gray is largely classified primarily as a philosophical novel.
Naturally then, the book raises themes of morality, immorality, art, philosophy, religion, youth, and vanity. I found the theme of vanity interesting, and the book’s meta-literary nature particularly highlights this; Gray seems to be aware his life is its own narrative with its own narrative conventions, and that he is “performing” a role – particularly as nobody can see his real self, which is trapped within the painting, and so his unchanging, youthful face is almost like a costume.
Gray even reads a novel ‘without plot, and with only one character… who spent his life trying to realise in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century but his own.’
This book is also described as:
‘the spiritual ecstasies of some medieval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner’.
This accurately parallels the narrative of Gray’s own life – creating a story within a story – which he later acknowledges: ‘indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life’.
I also thought The Picture of Dorian Gray was particularly thought-provoking – for many readers, I think, Wilde walks a fine line between being inspirational and being offensive. To demonstrate this, here is an extract from Henry Wotton, describing women to Dorian Gray:
‘I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else… They love being dominated.’
I’d love to see what a modern-day feminist makes of this! Thankfully, I’m not the sort of person to be offended by this kind of talk, but I do find it interesting. Does this accurately reflect the thoughts of 19th century men? Does this represent Wilde’s own views? Is it meant to be taken as humour?
Reflecting on The Picture of Dorian Gray, I’m glad I read it, after initially being uncertain. I think it’s a fascinating book and I’d be interested in reading more about its interpretations and messages.