The story of Oscar Wilde is an intriguing one and much like Thomas Pynchon, there is a lot of mythos surrounding his character and exploits (and we will definitely get to that another day because there is a lot to talk about).
At the moment, however, I thought we would tackle one of his most well-known works because it had a weird impact on me when I first read it (I wasn’t a super fan), but it has grown on me in years and Wilde’s philosophy as it relates to art is really important to my sense of understanding when it comes to interpreting literature (and all other sorts of media as well). So, before we get into Oscar Wilde (whenever that is), let us take a look at one of his most enduring works.
Background of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890 and tells the tale of a “young man who purchases eternal youth at the expense of his soul …” (Britannica). It is a truly strange novel and falls into a few categories, whether that be a cautionary tale or a tale of fear that is synonymous with brooding authors and late-night ventures into haunted mansions.
“… it is as much a philosophical treatise on morality and the meaning of life as a Gothic horror,” states critic Tony Canavan. “In fact there is little horror in the conventional sense—no rampaging monsters, haunted castles and so on. The action is more psychological, as Dorian, aided by Lord Henry and a ‘little yellow book’, is seduced by the license to do anything”(Canavan)
The plot (spoilers)
The story is conversation-heavy and features one Basil Hallward who is enraptured with the devilishly handsome Dorian Gray. The conniving, hedonistic Lord Henry Wotton also pushes the drama. Gray, meanwhile, wishes to be young and to never grow old and also wishes the painting would reflect the oncoming years (and thus his spirit, too), while his body stayed true, young, and unadorned by time’s ravaging hands.
“Dorian’s narcissism had already guaranteed his fall: he ushers up an unholy prayer that the portrait should age and bear the scars of his moral turpitude, while his physical self would forever look young and innocent,” writes author and journalist Darragh McManus for The Guardian. “After he cruelly provokes the suicide of the sweet-natured Sybil, Dorian is fully lost but shows none of it on his angelic face; the picture, meanwhile, ages and degrades and grows rotten in the attic.”
Over the course of the next 18 years, Gray is “drawn to evil” and finds that the portrait of himself that he received from Basil is in fact suffering the effects of his own near-do-well behavior. At the conclusion of the novel, Dorian attempts to do away with the painting (bent on being a better and more moral person) and stabs the portrait with a knife. However, by stabbing the portrait, Gray actually stabs himself, and his servants find the remains of “a loathsome old man dead on the floor with a knife in his chest and a portrait of a beautiful young man” on the wall (Britannica).
Why it has stuck around
I feel as though “art for art’s sake” is truly alive in this book because it tackles heady issues without getting muddled in the boredom of excessive description (though there is a fair amount of description—this is a slim book). It is artistic in the way Wilde sees art—somehow more open and seemingly reflective of one’s true self (literally and figuratively).
The Picture of Dorian Gray also talks about morality in a pretty black and white way (though interpretation could lead you down other routes) and informs us of the perils of narcissism and hedonistic value. As McManus writes, while Dorian Gray is not one of Wilde’s best books—it is certainly unique due to its earnestness.
“For me, Dorian Gray is special – not necessarily Wilde’s best work but unique in his canon – because it’s so sincere: ineffably, inescapably, absolutely,” he writes. “It’s a very good novel anyway: moving, exciting, full of dread, angst, horror, lucidity… and a great love, I think, for mankind and for the artist’s own self.”(McManus)
Canavan, Tony. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Books Ireland, no. 381, 2018, pp. 26–27. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26564228. Accessed 12 Oct. 2020.
McManus, Darragh. “Dorian Gray’s true picture of Oscar Wilde.” The Guardian. April 29, 2010. Web.