The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray Cover

The Picture of Dorian Gray


I've finally got round to reading some Oscar Wilde. I suppose one cannot read this novel without taking into account the author's history. Wilde was a member of 'society' and following suing for libel over accusations of 'sodomy' he in turn was prosecuted and eventually sentenced to four years hard labour for 'indecency'. Homosexual acts in Britain were a criminal offence up until 1967.

I find this quite a problematic novel in some ways. It is clearly autobiographical, there is much of Wilde in this novel and if it wasn't obvious to readers at the time it certainly is through hindsight. This is about love, homoeroticism and taboos. One reading of this novel is treating Grey as a sympathetic creature as we rightly sympathise with Wilde's trial, imprisonment and shame. Another reading of the novel is that Grey is a selfish, misogynist, narcissist with no redeeming features - and that asking for understanding of Grey is giving a despicable creature a free pass because we see the author in him.

In this Victorian novel we are introduced to Dorian as a teenager where he is sitting for a portrait for the artist Basil Hallward. We are also introduced to a friend of Hallward's Lord Henry. The portrait is complete and Dorian wishes that he would stay forever young, rather than the portrait. Dorian becomes friends with Lord Henry and as the years and decades pass becomes more debauched and cruel.

It is clear that Hallward adores and loves Gray. He is painted as a youth and it is evident that the portrait is the epitome of beauty, perhaps of idealised male beauty. Unspoilt, untarnished. I don't think there is any other way to read this other than a man's infatuation with another, younger, beautiful man. I am guessing here Wilde is assuming the role of Hallward and his lover is Gray.

Gray himself is an interesting youth. He has a background of wealth, yet with a his birth has a hint of scandal. He makes friends easily, can converse well, is of course beautiful. He is requested for dinners, for parties, for help with philanthropy. Ladies, both the old married dames and the young debutantes fall over him. Although he displays wit and can hold court at a dinner he is rather shallow and naïve. And this is where Lord Henry comes in....

Lord Henry on the other hand quickly befriends Gray. Henry is an older man, of independent means and of the ruling class (as are most of the characters in the book). He casts aside modern morality and continually questions the rules of society. In effect he seems to me a prototype of a Satanist (as in the Church of Satan rather than a theistic 'Satanist'). The phrase, 'do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law' springs to mind. The pursuit of the pleasure of the self is the only thing that matters to Henry and the impact it has on others is of no consequence. Of course, Henry's espousing on these subjects is largely theoretical - he rarely transgresses himself, and yet he encourages and supports Gray in his increasingly cruel endeavours.

I do wonder if Lord Henry is there to show the reader the hypocrisy of the ruling classes, the representatives of good taste, manners and morals. In the book he is seen as vain, does nothing of value and really is the corrupting influence on a young Gray. However I think he also represents a challenging of societies taboos and it's hypocrisy. Lord Henry would almost certainly approve of the 'love that dare not speak it's name'. Henry's role in the novel, for me, is to say to the world, 'Why?' Why is love a crime? Why are some things taboo and others not? Why is the pleasure of the individual not valued more? He is individualistic. However, I think the reader must beware of eulogising too much on the qualities Wilde bestowed on Henry and this is where the reader through modern lens must be cautious. Although Wilde almost certainly used Henry to push the boundaries, most certainly in view of his own homosexuality and societal hypocrisy it is clear that the logical conclusion of Henry's calls for individual freedom and selfishness above all would tolerate anything, even murder and paedophilia if it made one happy (indeed Henry is almost disappointed at one point in the book that he did not 'know a real murderer').

There are many views as to who Wilde is in the novel. My general thinking is that Wilde is Gray (although it has been suggested his lover is Gray). Hallward represents being good, having a pure love (notably, not acted upon and largely aesthetic). Hallward represents doing the right thing, Gray / Wilde's conscience. Henry represents possibility, doing what you want in spite of what the law says, daring to dream, daring to do different. We'll never know but I assume Hallward and Henry would have been two conflicting parts of Wilde, perhaps an outside and an inside.

Gray himself? Generally this is a tale of descent into increasing levels of debauchery, cruelty and misanthropy. He has no redeeming features, he isn't 'torn'. He is responsible for his choices. He chose the road he walked down. I genuinely struggle to find him likeable, sympathetic or relatable. He is not a 'victim' (of either the painting or the two other men).

In terms of writing, there are quotes from Lord Henry in this book that are truly wonderful. I can only assume that Wilde was a wonderful raconteur at the dinner table. One really has to laugh at times at the verbal jousting and barbs Henry leaves lying around.

Without getting into spoilers the corruption of women is a recurring theme and indeed this novel is quite misogynistic throughout. However it is important to note that it is not only women who are left in the gutter - none are safe from Gray's influence.

So, this is a novel to think about, to question. The dialogue is typically witty, often funny and thought provoking. The rest of the prose, less so. At times the novel says six words when one would be enough. Gray is a horrible human being, and overall this novel is one of vanity and selfishness. Of course the homosexual subtext is there, and whilst I think the novel is important in the context of the author's life it is nevertheless not a great novel, just an interesting one.