The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only published novel by Oscar Wilde, appearing as the lead story in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine on 20 June 1890, printed as the July 1890 issue of this magazine. The magazine's editors feared the story was indecent as submitted, so they censored roughly 500 words, without Wilde's knowledge, before publication. But even with that, the story was still greeted with outrage by British reviewers, some of whom suggested that Wilde should be prosecuted on moral grounds, leading Wilde to defend the novel aggressively in letters to the British press. Wilde later revised the story for book publication, making substantial alterations, deleting controversial passages, adding new chapters and including an aphoristic Preface which has since become famous in its own right. The amended version was published by Ward, Lock and Company in April 1891. Some scholars believe that Wilde would today have wanted us to read the version he originally submitted to Lippincott's.
The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian's beauty and becomes infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art. Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil's, and becomes enthralled by Lord Henry's world view. Espousing a new hedonism, Lord Henry suggests the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfilment of the senses. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian (whimsically) expresses a desire to sell his soul to ensure the portrait Basil has painted would age rather than he. Dorian's wish is fulfilled, and when he subsequently pursues a life of debauchery, the portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of ageing.
- 2 Characters
- 3 Themes
- 4 Allusions to other works
- 5 Literary significance
- 6 Adaptations
- 7 Modern attention
- 8 Editions
- 9 See also
- 10 Footnotes and references
- 11 External links
The novel begins on a beautiful summer day with Lord Henry Wotton, a strongly-opinionated man, observing the sensitive artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of a handsome young man named Dorian Gray, who is Basil's ultimatemuse. After hearing Lord Henry's world view, Dorian begins to think beauty is the only worthwhile aspect of life. He wishes that the portrait Basil painted would grow old in his place. Under the influence of Lord Henry (who relishes the hedonic lifestyle and is a major exponent thereof), Dorian begins to explore his senses. He discovers amazing actress Sibyl Vane, who performs Shakespeare plays in a dingy theatre. Dorian approaches her and soon proposes marriage. Sibyl, who refers to him as "Prince Charming", swoons with happiness, but her protective brother James tells her that if "Prince Charming" harms her, he will certainly kill him.
Dorian invites Basil and Lord Henry to see Sibyl perform in Romeo and Juliet. Sibyl, whose only knowledge of love was love of theatre, casts aside her acting abilities through the experience of true love with Dorian. Disheartened, Dorian rejects her, saying her beauty was in her acting, and he is no longer interested in her. When he returns home, he notices that his portrait has changed. Dorian realises his wish has come true – the portrait now bears a subtle sneer and will age with each sin he commits, while his own appearance remains unchanged.
He decides to reconcile with Sibyl, but Lord Henry later informs him that she has killed herself by swallowing prussic acid. Dorian realises that lust and looks are where his life is headed and he needs nothing else. Over the next 18 years, he experiments with every vice, mostly under the influence of a "poisonous" French decadence novel, a present from Lord Henry. The title is never revealed in the novel, but at Oscar Wilde's trial he admitted that he had 'had in mind' Joris-Karl Huysmans's À Rebours ('Against Nature').Dorian faces his portrait in the 1945 filmThe Picture of Dorian Gray
One night, before he leaves for Paris, Basil arrives to question Dorian about rumours of his indulgences. Dorian does not deny his debauchery. He takes Basil to the portrait, which is as hideous as Dorian's sins. In anger, Dorian blames Basil for his fate and stabs Basil to death. He then blackmails an old friend named Alan Campbell, a chemist, into destroying Basil's body. Wishing to escape the guilt of his crime, Dorian travels to an opium den. James Vane is present there and attempts to shoot Dorian after he hears someone refer to Dorian as "Prince Charming". However, Dorian fools James into thinking he is too young to have been involved with Sibyl 18 years earlier. James releases Dorian but is approached by a woman from the opium den who chastises him for not killing Dorian, revealing Dorian has not aged for 18 years. James attempts to run after him, only to find Dorian long gone.
While at dinner, Dorian sees James stalking the grounds and fears for his life. However, during a game-shooting party a few days later, a lurking James is accidentally shot and killed by one of the hunters. After returning to London, Dorian tells Lord Henry that he will be good from now on, and has started by not breaking the heart of his latest innocent conquest named Hetty Merton. Dorian wonders if the portrait has begun to change back, now that he has given up his immoral ways. He unveils the portrait to find it has become worse. Seeing this, he realises that the motives behind his "self-sacrifice" were merely vanity, curiosity, and the quest for new emotional experiences.
Deciding that only full confession will absolve him, he decides to destroy the last vestige of his conscience. In a rage, he picks up the knife that killed Basil Hallward and plunges it into the painting. His servants wake hearing a cry from inside the locked room, and passers by on the street fetch the police. The servants find Dorian's body, stabbed in the heart and suddenly aged, withered and horrible. It is only through the rings on his hand that the corpse can be identified. Beside him, however, the portrait has reverted to its original form.Basil and Lord Henry survey the portrait of Dorian.
In a letter, Wilde said the main characters were reflections of himself: "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps".
The main characters are:
- Dorian Gray – a handsome and narcissistic young man who becomes enthralled with Lord Henry's idea of a new hedonism. He begins to indulge in every kind of pleasure, moral and immoral, which eventually leads to his own societal demise.
- Basil Hallward – an artist who becomes infatuated with Dorian. Dorian helps Hallward realise his artistic potential, as Basil's portrait of Dorian proves to be his finest work. A deeply moral man, he is later murdered by Gray.
- Lord Henry "Harry" Wotton – an imperious and decadent dandy who is a friend to Basil initially, but later becomes more intrigued with Dorian's beauty. Extremely witty, he is seen as a critique ofVictorian culture at the end of the century, espousing a view of indulgent hedonism. He conveys to Gray his world view, and Dorian becomes corrupted as he attempts to emulate him, though Basil points out to Harry that "You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing."
Other characters include:
- Sibyl Vane – a beautiful and talented, but poor, actress and singer, with whom Dorian falls in love. Her love for him ruins her acting ability, as she no longer finds pleasure in portraying fictional love when she is experiencing love in reality. She commits suicide after learning that Dorian no longer loves her. Lord Henry likens her to Ophelia.
- James Vane – Sibyl's brother, a sailor who leaves for Australia. He is extremely protective of his sister, especially as their mother cares only for Dorian's money. He is hesitant to leave his sister, believing Dorian will harm her and promises to take vengeance if any harm should befall his sister. After Sibyl's death he becomes obsessed with killing Dorian and begins to stalk him. He dies in a hunting accident. His pursuit of revenge against Dorian Gray for the death of his sister emulates the role of Laertes, Ophelia's brother in Hamlet.
- Alan Campbell – a chemist and one-time friend of Dorian; he ended their friendship when Dorian's reputation began to come into question. Dorian blackmails him into disposing of Basil's body; Campbell later commits suicide.
- Lord Fermor – Lord Henry's uncle, who informs his nephew about Dorian Gray's lineage.
- Victoria, Lady Wotton – Lord Henry's wife, who only appears once in the novel. Her husband treats her with disdain; she later divorces him.
Aestheticism is a strong motif and is tied in with the concept of the double life. A major theme is that aestheticism is merely an absurd abstract that only serves to disillusion rather than dignify the concept of beauty. Although Dorian ishedonistic, when Basil accuses him of making Lord Henry's sister's name a "by-word," Dorian replies "Take care, Basil. You go too far", suggesting Dorian still cares about his outward image and standing within Victorian society. Wilde highlights Dorian's pleasure of living a double life. Not only does Dorian enjoy this sensation in private, but he also feels "keenly the terrible pleasure of a double life" when attending a society gathering just 24 hours after committing a murder.
This duplicity and indulgence is most evident in Dorian's visit to the opium dens of London. Wilde conflates the images of the upper class and lower class by having the supposedly upright Dorian visit the impoverished districts of London. Lord Henry asserts that "crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders... I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations", which suggests that Dorian is both the criminal and the aesthete combined in one man. This is perhaps linked to Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which Wilde admired. The division that was witnessed in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although extreme, is evident in Dorian Gray, who attempts to contain the two divergent parts of his personality. This is a recurring theme in many Gothic novels.
Glaucon and Adeimantus present the myth of Gyges' ring, by which Gyges made himself invisible. They ask Socrates, if one came into possession of such a ring, why should he act justly? Socrates replies that even if no one can see one's physical appearance, the soul is disfigured by the evils one commits. This disfigured (the antithesis of beautiful) and corrupt soul is imbalanced and disordered, and in itself undesirable regardless of other advantages of acting unjustly. Dorian's portrait is the means by which other individuals, such as his friend Basil, may see Dorian's distorted soul.
At one point, Dorian attends a performance of Richard Wagner's opera, Tannhäuser, and is explicitly said to personally identify with the work. Indeed, the opera bears some striking resemblances with the novel, and, in short, tells the story of a medieval (and historically real) singer, whose art is so beautiful that he causes Venus, the goddess of love herself, to fall in love with him, and to offer him eternal life with her in the Venusberg. Tannhäuser becomes dissatisfied with his life there, however, and elects to return to the harsh world of reality, where, after taking part in a song-contest, he is sternly censured for his sensuality, and eventually dies in his search for repentance and the love of a good woman.
Wilde is reputed to have stated that "in every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust." As in Faust, a temptation is placed before the lead character Dorian, the potential for ageless beauty; Dorian indulges in this temptation. In both stories, the lead character entices a beautiful woman to love them and then destroys her life. Wilde went on to say that the notion behind The Picture of Dorian Gray is "old in the history of literature" but was something to which he had "given a new form."
Unlike Faust, there is no point at which Dorian makes a deal with the devil. However, Lord Henry's cynical outlook on life, and hedonistic nature seems to be in keeping with the idea of the devil's role, that of the temptation of the pureand innocent qualities which Dorian exemplifies at the beginning of the book. Although Lord Henry takes an interest in Dorian, it does not seem that he is aware of the effect of his actions. However, Lord Henry advises Dorian that "the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing"; in this sense, Lord Henry can be seen to represent the Devil, "leading Dorian into an unholy pact by manipulating his innocence and insecurity."
In his preface, Wilde writes about Caliban, a character from Shakespeare's play The Tempest. When Dorian is telling Lord Henry Wotton about his new 'love', Sibyl Vane, he refers to all of the Shakespearean plays she has been in, referring to her as the heroine of each play. At a later time, he speaks of his life by quoting Hamlet, who has similarly driven his girlfriend to suicide and her brother to swear revenge.
Wilde does not name the book but at his trial he conceded that it was, or almost, Huysmans's A Rebours...To a correspondent he wrote that he had played a 'fantastic variation' upon A Rebours and some day must write it down. The references in Dorian Gray to specific chapters are deliberately inaccurate.Title page of the Ward, Lock & Co. edition of 1891 with decorative lettering designed by Charles Ricketts
The Picture of Dorian Gray began as a short novel submitted to Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. In 1889, J. M. Stoddart, an editor for Lippincott, was in London to solicit short novels for the magazine. On 30 August 1889, Stoddart dined with Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the Langham Hotel, and commissioned short novels from both men. Conan Doyle promptly submitted The Sign of the Four to Stoddart, but Wilde was more dilatory; Conan Doyle's novel was published in the February 1890 edition of Lippincott's, but Stoddart did not receive Wilde's typescript for The Picture of Dorian Gray until 7 April 1890. Stoddart was impressed by the story's literary merits, but wrote to publisher George Lippincott that "in its present condition there are a number of things an innocent woman would make an exception to." Stoddart and his colleagues proceeded to make numerous changes to the novel (several manuscripts of which survive). Deletions to Wilde's typescript made prior to publication in Lippincott's include: the removal of several passages alluding to homosexuality and homosexual desire; the deletion of all references to the title of the fictitious book Le Secret de Raoul, and to its fictitious author, Catulle Sarrazin; and three references to Gray's female lovers Sibyl Vane and Hetty Merton as his "mistresses". The novel was published on 20 June 1890 in the July edition of Lippincott's. British reviewers widely condemned the book for immorality, and the novel was so controversial thatW H Smith pulled that month's edition of Lippincott's from its bookstalls in railway stations.
In part due to the criticism of the first edition, Wilde subsequently attempted to moderate some of the more homoerotic references in the book, and to simplify the book's moral message. In the 1890 edition, Basil tells Henry how he "worships" Dorian, and begs him not to "take away the one person that makes my life absolutely lovely to me." The focus for Basil in the 1890 edition seems to be more towards love, whereas the Basil of the 1891 edition cares more for his art, saying "the one person who gives my art whatever charm it may possess: my life as an artist depends on him." The book was also extended greatly: the original thirteen chapters became twenty, and the final chapter was divided into two new chapters. The additions involved the "fleshing out of Dorian as a character" and also provided details about his ancestry, which helped to make his "psychological collapse more prolonged and more convincing." The character of James Vane was also introduced, which helped to elaborate upon Sibyl Vane's character and background; the addition of the character helped to emphasise and foreshadow Dorian's selfish ways, as James sees through Dorian's character, and guesses upon his future dishonourable actions (the inclusion of James Vane's sub-plot also gives the novel a more typically Victorian tinge, part of Wilde's attempts to decrease the controversy surrounding the book). Another notable change is that in the latter half of the novel events were specified as taking place around Dorian Gray's 32nd birthday, on 7 November. After the changes, they were specified as taking place around Dorian Gray's 38th birthday, on 9 November, thereby extending the period of time over which the story occurs. The former date is also significant in that it coincides with the year in Wilde's life during which he was introduced to homosexual practices.
The preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray was added, along with other amendments, after the edition published in Lippincott's was criticised. Wilde used it to address the criticism and defend the novel's reputation. It consists of a collection of statements about the role of the artist, art itself, and the value of beauty, and serves as an indicator of the way in which Wilde intends the novel to be read, as well as traces of Wilde's exposure to Taoism and the writings of the Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuang Tsu. Shortly before writing the preface, Wilde reviewed Herbert A. Giles's translation of the writings of Chuang Tsu. In it he writes:
The honest ratepayer and his healthy family have no doubt often mocked at the dome-like forehead of the philosopher, and laughed over the strange perspective of the landscape that lies beneath him. If they really knew who he was, they would tremble. For Chuang Tsǔ spent his life in preaching the great creed of Inaction, and in pointing out the uselessness of all things.
Overall, initial critical reception of the book was poor, with the book gaining "certain notoriety for being 'mawkish and nauseous,' 'unclean,' 'effeminate,' and 'contaminating.'" The Irish Times wrote that The Picture of Dorian Gray was "first published to some scandal." This had much to do with the novel's homoerotic overtones, which caused something of a sensation amongst Victorian critics when first published. A large portion of the criticism was levelled at Wilde's perceived hedonism, and its distorted views of conventional morality. The Daily Chronicle of 30 June 1890 suggests that Wilde's novel contains "one element...which will taint every young mind that comes in contact with it." TheScots Observer of 5 July 1890 asks why Wilde must "go grubbing in muck-heaps?” Wilde responded to such criticisms by curtailing some of the homoerotic overtones, and by adding six chapters to the book in an effort to add background.
The 1891 version was expanded from 13 to 20 chapters, but also toned down, particularly in some of its overt homoerotic aspects. Also, chapters 3, 5, and 15 to 18 are entirely new in the 1891 version, and chapter 13 from the first edition is split in two (becoming chapters 19 and 20).
- (Basil about Dorian) He has stood as Paris in dainty armour, and as Adonis with huntsman's cloak and polished boar-spear. Crowned with heavy lotus-blossoms, he has sat on the prow of Adrian's barge, looking into the green, turbid Nile. He has leaned over the still pool of some Greek woodland, and seen in the water's silent silver the wonder of his own beauty. (This passage turns up in Basil's speech to Dorian in the 1891 version.)
- (Lord Henry about fidelity) It has nothing to do with our own will. It is either an unfortunate accident, or an unpleasant result of temperament.
- "You don't mean to say that Basil has got any passion or any romance in him?" / "I don't know whether he has any passion, but he certainly has romance," said Lord Henry, with an amused look in his eyes. / "Has he never let you know that?" / "Never. I must ask him about it. I am rather surprised to hear it.
- (Describing Basil Hallward) Rugged and straightforward as he was, there was something in his nature that was purely feminine in its tenderness.
- (Basil to Dorian) It is quite true that I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man usually gives to a friend. Somehow, I had never loved a woman. I suppose I never had time. Perhaps, as Harry says, a reallygrande passion is the privilege of those who have nothing to do, and that is the use of the idle classes in a country. (the latter remark being part of Lord Henry's dialogue in the 1891 version)
- Some dialogue between Mrs Leaf and Dorian has been cut, which mentions Dorian's fondness for "jam" (which might have been used metaphorically for his sexuality).
- When Basil confronts Dorian: Dorian, Dorian, your reputation is infamous. I know you and Harry are great friends. I say nothing about that now, but surely you need not have made his sister's name a by-word. (That part has been deleted in the 1891 version, and the passage after that has been added.)
- Each class would have preached the importance of those virtues, for whose exercise there was no necessity in their own lives. The rich would have spoken on the value of thrift, and the idle grown eloquent over the dignity of labour.
- A grande passion is the privilege of people who have nothing to do. That is the one use of the idle classes of a country. Don't be afraid.
- Faithfulness! I must analyse it some day. The passion for property is in it. There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up.
In 2011 Harvard University Press published under its Belknap Press imprint an annotated and uncensored edition of the work that includes material that was removed prior to its first publication in 1890.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was chosen as the book of 2010 for Dublin City's "One City, One Book" Festival in its fifth year. Cultural events related to the book and Oscar Wilde were hosted in Dublin during April 2010.
Big Finish Productions has produced a series of audio dramas entitled The Confessions of Dorian Gray based on the Wilde character and starring Alexander Vlahos as Dorian. An adaptation of the novel, also starring Vlahos, dramatised by David Llewellyn and directed by Scott Handcock is due for release August 2013.