Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

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.

– Judith

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

  1. Thanks for the comment. I had a hard time getting into the book. I love horror books. I am a big fan of them and you would think that Dorian Gray would be a sort of psychological horror type of book, but it isn’t. It really disappointed me. I love to read the classics or attempt to because it is important to, but Dorian Gray was on that I feel I can pass up. Thanks again!

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  2. I read it a few years back so I’m going on memory here, but I did enjoy it apart from the bit where he reads the novel which I found boring so I skipped most of it.

    Oscar Wilde was gay, so there’s quite a bit of homoeroticism in it, particularly the first bit with the painter who obviously had a crush on Dorian. It also examines male beauty, which is rare amongst male writers in particular, whereas female beauty is common. There’s a real power in being young and beautiful, which is usually what we associate with women, but Dorian has this too, and to me Wilde was also pointing out how that kind of power is not meant to last, but that people who have it (mainly women, but occasionally men) are often terrified of losing it, to the point that they are willing to sell their soul in order to keep it. It’s pretty relevant in this day and age with all the beauty products, botox and plastic surgery.

    From what I can remember though, Dorian was a boring character who never needed to develop any real talents (like ability to paint or act) or an interesting personality (like Wotton, who is very charismatic) because people loved him for his looks. It’s an interesting gender flip and the relationship he has with Sibyl Vane highlights it. Dorian falls for her because of her acting ability, he thinks she’s a genius, whereas she loves him almost exclusively for his looks and just projects virtues onto him that he doesn’t have. You tend to find in relationships that it’s almost always the other way round. I’m not saying that women don’t love men for their looks, but it’s much more likely that a woman would fall for a man for some kind of talent he has (like being a good actor, or an athlete, or an artist, or a businessman) than it is for a man to fall in love with a woman for any kind of talent or achievement. Most men fall in love with women for their looks first and foremost and any talents and skills they have are secondary – like a nice bonus. As soon as Sybil loses her acting ability he ruthlessly dumps her, proving that he never really loved her in the first place.

    As for the quote about women liking cruelty and being dominated … well, maybe you should do a review of Fifty Shades of Grey 😉

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    1. What a fantastic response! I had to read your comment twice just to take it all in. I had no idea about Wilde’s sexuality, although I did pick up on the homo-eroticism within the book. I like your point about the reversed gender roles; I think that’s really interesting how relevant issues like gender and sexuality still are, even though Wilde wrote this more than 100 years ago! I don’t think I’ll ever read Fifty Shades – it does pop up in conversation sometimes when I read a particularly explicit Gothic novel (sex & violence always seemed to be paired together) but I’m quite happy not knowing the specifics of what goes on in that book. 😉

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      1. Thanks! I like your new hair, btw. I think the brown suits you better than the um … green? ;D

        You might like Fifty Shades. It can be read as a Christian allegory – which is why he’s called Christian. You’ve got the versions of Heaven (as in the fine living, wining and dining, etc.) and Hell (the red room of pain). There’s a set of rules she has to follow if she wants to avoid punishment, eg. Thou Shalt Not Roll Your Eyes. The guy (Christian) is seemingly omnipresent, or at least he knows where she is at all times (kind of like God), and the girl in the story is a virgin, at least until she meets him.

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        1. Thanks for the hair comment – the green hair was a one off event last year 😀 Also, interesting perspective! I have a few questions though. How does the BDSM tie in to the Christian allegory viewpoint? Also, sex within marriage and virginity are important virtues in Christianity, how do you explain the lack of both virginity + marriage in Fifty Shades?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Well in order for the allegory to work you’ve got to view Christian Grey as both God and the Devil simultaneously. The BDSM is in there because it represents the punishment in Hell – also, the ladies seem to love it . As for sex outside of marriage, well God wasn’t married to Mary when he knocked her up, was he?

            So, as you can see it’s almost an exact retelling of the Bible. I assume you’ll be reading it next then, and I can’t wait to read your review 😉

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I’d disagree that it’s ‘almost an exact retelling of the Bible’ – and Mary never had sex to become pregnant, that’s the point of the whole “born of a Virgin” business. I can see how you might draw out a religiously inspired interpretation from the themes in Fifty Shades but I’m not sure it will ever feature on my blog 😏

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