Creative Arts

Undergraduate study

Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

There's no such thing as a moral or an immoral book, books are well written or badly written, that is all.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Summary

In this video, Dr Nick Freeman, a specialist reader in Late Victorian Literature at Loughborough University, discusses the importance of morality and art in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Summary

Oscar Wilde wrote poetry, short stories, critical essays, plays, book reviews, and hundreds of letters, but he published only one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which first appeared as a 'novelette' in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in July 1890. At this point, the text was only 30,000 words long and had thirteen chapters, but the following year, Wilde expanded it for publication as a novel, adding seven new chapters and his notorious 'Preface', in which he claims that 'There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.' It is this version, weighing in at around 80,000 words, which is most widely read nowadays.

Dorian Gray was controversial from the outset. Both versions tell the story of a beautiful (rather than the more 'manly' term, 'handsome') young man who is the subject of a portrait by the artist Basil Hallward. Enraptured by his own loveliness, Dorian wishes that the traditional relationship between art and life could be overturned. Instead of the picture remaining youthful as he grows old, he wants the portrait to suffer the ravages of age while he retains his good looks. Basil's charming but amoral friend, Lord Henry Wotton, encourages Dorian to lead a selfish life of pleasure, leaving all manner of emotional wreckage in his wake. When the picture begins to deteriorate in line with his morals, Dorian hides it in his attic to prevent anyone seeing its terrible decay.

After twenty years of various excesses, Dorian still looks like he did when he was eighteen, but the portrait has become foully distorted; a loathsome vision of his shrivelling soul. When Basil discovers what has become of his masterpiece, Dorian murders him and blackmails his friend Alan Campbell into disposing of his body. Ostracised, horribly aware of what he has become, and disgusted by the picture he once adored, Dorian stabs the portrait through the heart, killing himself. When his body is found, the portrait is once again pristine, but he is so wrinkled and withered that he can only be identified by the rings on his ancient hands.

Analysis

Dorian Gray is a richly ambiguous story. Although many condemned it for offering a celebration of immorality and vice, others (including Sherlock Holmes' creator, Arthur Conan Doyle) saw it as a powerfully moral tale in which sin is punished. Wilde encouraged his critics to concentrate on the book's artistic qualities, but many found it difficult to be so intellectually detached, particularly once Wilde's homosexuality became public knowledge in the Spring and Summer of 1895. Wilde was frequently identified with his creation, famously remarking that Dorian Gray 'contains much of me': Basil Hallward is 'what I think I am,' Lord Henry 'what the world thinks me,' and 'Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.'

The novel's core is the tussle for Dorian's affections between Basil and Henry. Basil refuses to imagine that beauty and wickedness can co-exist in the same form, and insists that Dorian lead a virtuous life. Henry preaches a very different gospel, one in which 'the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it'. For him, life is an intellectual exercise, in which experiences are to savoured for their own sake, not for what one may learn from them. Putting the ideas of the Victorian writer and critic Walter Pater into a series of witty epigrams, Henry encourages Dorian to pursue new sensations, and to not to waste his time caring for others. Armed with his wealth, his beautiful voice, his wit and intelligence, Henry easily wins out over Basil. Dorian becomes increasingly selfish and cruel, and the portrait ever more monstrous.

Dorian Gray persistently questions the relationship between art and life. It also explores the tensions between a person's inner self (or selves) and the social conventions which force them into particular roles and attitudes. Finally, it conducts its philosophical debates in brilliantly stylised comic language which seems at odds with serious moral and ethical concerns and the overarching Gothic atmosphere of the story.

Key Themes

Theme Description
Temptation Wilde restages the Bible's encounter between the innocent Eve and the seductive Satan when exposing Dorian to Lord Henry's dangerous charms.
Secrecy Dorian conceals his portrait, but perhaps all of us have something to hide, especially from ourselves. Self-knowledge is a priceless commodity in Wilde's world.
Love There are many forms of love in this novel. Wilde views love from a variety of perspectives, but always resists a single, unifying definition of what it might mean or be.

Resources

  1. The Online Books website has electronic texts of both versions of Dorian Gray.
  2. The British Library website contains lots of material which will enhance your understanding of Wilde's life and times.
  3. The Victorian Web also has an excellent range of Wildean resources.