Written Text: ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’, Oscar Wilde’s only published novel, was first printed as part of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in July 1890, but was considered immoral and subsequently revised and republished as a novel the following year with some added chapters, amendments, and a new preface. I read this novel as an e-book, trying out this form because it was a free download and I was curious to see what it was like reading from my father’s I-Phone (highly inconvenient, actually, although I imagine that with an I-Pad it would be better). It also had the advantage of not having a waiting list, as the book did in the library. Unfortunately, this meant that I could only access the revised version, not the original, and that I didn’t have the preface, which proved to be a highly important part of the novel, as I would later discover, wherein Wilde defended and explained the thoughts and philosophies behind the novel. I have yet to read this preface, and the unaltered version, but hope to acquire it soon.

Another classic, ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’, is a prime example of a Faustian tale, and was written as part of the Victorian revival of the gothic fiction genre, which ‘Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde’ by Robert Stevenson (yet another classic), a book which Wilde admired, was also a member of. ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ follows the journey of Dorian Gray, first seen as a beautiful young man of 17, into moral corruptness as he is influenced by Lord Henry Wotton, one of the story’s protagonists.

Dorian Gray begins the novel as Basil Hallward’s current muse (another pivotal figure in the novel, although he is absent for much of it), and is posing for a portrait when he meets Lord Henry for the first time. They discuss the value of beauty and youth, and on a whim, Dorian Gray wishes that his youth and beauty be retained forever while his portrait ages in his stead. This wish is granted, and throughout the novel, the portrait undergoes a series of changes which Dorian does not. It is a visible representation of Dorian’s soul, showing his ‘true face’, as it were, and reveals the consequences of the hedonistic lifestyle he leads and the crimes he commits. This symbol is used throughout the book to highlight the different changes that Dorian undergoes, from cruelty to old age to murder, clearly displaying them while Dorian himself remains looking pure, young and innocent.  By the end of the book, Dorian, who is 38 and has committed the murder of Basil Hallward,which haunts him as he believes that he will be discovered, decides to repent his crimes so that his portrait once again becomes beautiful. When this does not work, for the portrait has recognised the selfish intents behind the declaration, Dorian flies into a rage and stabs the portrait. However, when the servants of the house arrive at the scene after hearing a scream, they discover the portrait of the young and beautiful Dorian Gray, their master, while on the floor lies a hideous old man with a knife through his heart. This is later identified as the corpse of Dorian Gray through the ring on his finger.

Using the portrait as a symbol for Dorian’s soul was an ingenious idea from Wilde, as it allows readers to see the corruptness of his soul visually and to therefore conveys to them that everything has a consequence, even if it cannot be seen on the surface; Dorian remains as beautiful and pure-looking as ever while the portrait becomes old, withered and displays every small sin that he has ever made. Wilde employs dramatic irony in this sense, as  both Dorian and readers have the knowledge of what Dorian’s soul looks like, while characters throughout the novel exclaim  at Dorian’s pureness. The Lady Narborough says “you are made to be good — you look so good”, very firmly connecting good looks with a good soul, and showing a notion that is often repeated in ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ – that a youthful innocent appearance indicates a similar state of being in the mind and soul. This message is re-iterated by  Basil Hallward, who, after hearing rumours of Dorian’s debauched lifestyle says “Mind you, I don’t believe these rumours at all. At least, I can’t believe them when I see you. 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.” He does not believe that Dorian, who looks so young and naïve still, can possibly have committed the acts with which he has been accused of.

Wilde also uses the portrait to enhance the sense of duplicity maintained throughout the novel, as Dorian does not connect any of his actions to himself but places the blame firmly on other shoulders, thus distancing himself from them. He played at a double life, acting as a gentleman and hosting or attending  grand parties on some days, and travelling to opium dens and other impoverished areas on others. The portrait is linked to Dorian’s dual personality as it distances his soul from himself and so his actions from their consequences, and, as is suggested by Dorian himself, his conscience; “It had brought melancholy across his passions. Its mere memory had marred many moments of joy. It had been like conscience to him. Yes, it had been conscience”. However, at the end of the novel, it is revealed that Dorian’s double life was just a farce, as he and the portrait were intimately linked. This is shown by Dorian’s last act; stabbing his portrait in an attempt to destroy it. The portrait then reverts to its original appearance, while all the changes it has undergone throughout the novel are transferred to Dorian, including the stab wound he has made on the portrait itself, killing him.

Another strong symbol (and motif) in ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ is that of the “poisonous yellow book” which Lord Henry Wotton lends to Dorian; about a young Frenchman who lives a hedonistic, immoral life of sin. The book “fascinates” Dorian, and he becomes obsessed with emulating the Parisian protagonist, following different modes and vices, trying out anything that takes his fancy and collecting objects of beauty such as jewels and intricate tapestries. His experiments lead to rumours of his scandalous life reaching the ears of the artist Basil Hallward, who decides to warn Dorian, and confront him to see if there is any truth in them. The book, of which Dorian amasses a collection in different colours, is never named, although in his trial, Wilde admitted that he had the book ‘À Rebours’ (Against Nature) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, in mind when he was writing about the “yellow book”. Indeed, there are many similarities between the two texts, although any references to specific chapters are deliberately wrong, and Wilde added a section about the protagonist bemoaning his fate to grow old and decay to make the book even more relevant to Dorian himself. The influence of this book is so strong that for over 18 years, Dorian tries to live his own life like the protagonist’s, seeking beauty in all its forms and succumbing to any desire he has. He yields to temptation, as instructed by Lord Wotton, and moves from emotion to emotion as he follows the hedonistic lifestyle laid out before him by the book and Lord Wotton.

While a very interesting read, ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ is not a happy novel, and could almost said to be emulating the “poisonous yellow book” itself – indeed Wilde once wrote that he “had played a ‘fantastic variation’ on À Rebours and must write it down someday”. As shown in the above, Wilde used some strong symbolism to convey his points, and I believe this blatant way to reach to readers and pound messages into them somewhat contradicts the preface, in which Wilde writes that art should be simply about beauty, not written or painted to convey any sort of message across to its audience. As I have not read the preface in full, however, I cannot comment on this fully. It was a truly intriguing read with a well-formed with a well formed, if not positive ending, and though I do not believe in the philosophies that Wilde writes about, they are written in a style which is both engaging and designed for further thought upon finishing the novel.  If you are looking for a unique experience in which imagery and metaphor abound, this novel is for you, but if you are expecting a light read, I would advise you to find another.

As always, I would be extremely eager to hear your views and/or experiences of this book, as I believe that, in particular, this novel is very controversial and has surely caused a myriad of opinions to be formed about it.

Lets call me Lily

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