Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

A witty critique of Aestheticism that's been reinterpreted as a horror story.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, 1890, 252 pages. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.

Oscar Wilde brings his enormous gifts for astute social observation and sparkling prose to The Picture of Dorian Gray, the dreamlike story of a young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty. This dandy, who remains forever unchanged---petulant, hedonistic, vain, and amoral---while a painting of him ages and grows increasingly hideous with the years, has been horrifying and enchanting readers for more than 100 years. Taking the reader in and out of London drawing rooms, to the heights of aestheticism, and to the depths of decadence, The Picture of Dorian Gray is not simply a melodrama about moral corruption. Laced with bon mots and vivid depictions of upper-class refinement, it is also a fascinating look at the milieu of Wilde's fin-de-siècle world and a manifesto of the creed "Art for Art's Sake." The ever-quotable Wilde, who once delighted London with his scintillating plays, scandalized readers with this, his only novel. Upon publication, Dorian was condemned as dangerous, poisonous, stupid, vulgar, and immoral, and Wilde as a "driveling pedant." The novel, in fact, was used against Wilde at his much-publicized trials for "gross indecency," which led to his imprisonment and exile on the European continent. Even so, The Picture of Dorian Gray firmly established Wilde as one of the great voices of the Aesthetic movement and endures as a classic that is as timeless as its hero.

Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is often considered an early work of "horror" because of the grotesque, supernatural conceit that motivates the premise: a dissolute young man is blessed/cursed with eternal youth, thanks to a portrait painted by an artist friend of his which reflects all the sins and depravities of his debauched life. As Dorian Gray stays young and beautiful, his portrait becomes more and more ghastly, until the karmic climax.

It's easy to take that premise, set in a gaslit Victorian London, and reimagine The Picture of Dorian Gray as a Lovecraftian horror story. But Wilde was an amazingly sharp and witty social critic, not a writer of pulp horror.

If you actually read the novel, the "horror" aspects, particularly the supernatural parts, are basically a thin symbolic veneer. Dorian Gray, who begins as a rather callow but not cruel youth, falls under the cynical influence of Lord Henry Wotton, a professional member of the aristocratic do-nothing class. When the painter Basil Hallward captures Dorian's Adonis-like perfection on canvas, Dorian is overcome with angst.

"How sad it is!" murmured Dorian Gray with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. "How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June.... If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that--for that--I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!"


Unlike in the movie versions, there is no magical statue of an Egyptian cat-god or a deal with the Devil that makes this happen — for Wilde, Dorian Gray's selling of his soul was entirely metaphorical. He was apparently satirizing the Aesthetic Movement (of which he was a prominent representative), summarized as "Art for Art's Sake." Aesthetics, the artsy hipsters of their day, were associated with decadence and disregard for social and moral judgments. Thus, Dorian Gray was a literal manifestation of the Aesthetic ideal: he sold his soul for Art.

Dorian becomes increasingly heartless after his cruel treatment of Sylvia Vane, whom he loved for her art but then jilted when she let him down artistically. After a brief attempt at redemption, he becomes one of the most notorious men in London, though notably, the precise nature of his many evil deeds is never described, leaving it all up to the reader's lascivious imagination. (This didn't prevent Wilde from being prosecuted for indecency.) Dorian ruins lives and destroys everyone close to him, yet still manages to keep a few friends like Lord Henry and Basil.

Wilde had to cut out some of the more overt homoeroticism when it went from serialization in a magazine to publication as a novel, but even in the sanitized version, the homoerotic vibes between Dorian and Basil are pretty obvious.

Read as a tale of supernatural horror, The Picture of Dorian Gray is pretty lightweight — it's definitely not "scary." As a satire/criticism of the Aesthetic Movement, it is not terribly subtle. However, Oscar Wilde was most famous for his bon mots, and reading Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil exchange wry witticisms is the real pleasure of the novel, even if none of them talk like actual people having real conversations.

"My dear Dorian," answered Lord Henry, taking a cigarette from his case and producing a gold-latten matchbox, "the only way a woman can ever reform a man is by boring him so completely that he loses all possible interest in life. If you had married this girl, you would have been wretched. Of course, you would have treated her kindly. One can always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing. But she would have soon found out that you were absolutely indifferent to her. And when a woman finds that out about her husband, she either becomes dreadfully dowdy, or wears very smart bonnets that some other woman's husband has to pay for. I say nothing about the social mistake, which would have been abject--which, of course, I would not have allowed--but I assure you that in any case the whole thing would have been an absolute failure."

The story itself is merely a Victorian morality play with a tinge of the supernatural. You should read it because Wilde was a genius, not quite on the level of Shakespeare, but somewhere in his league.

Of this novel, Wilde said: "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 Films of Dorian Gray

Like all classics, The Picture of Dorian Gray has been filmed many times. The earlier productions were more faithful to Wilde's original script and themes, while more modern versions tend to emphasize the horrific elements.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

This was a big release back in 1945, and is worth seeing just to appreciate the lovely young Angela Lansbury as Sylvia Vane, especially if you only know her from Murder She Wrote. It's a high quality film of its time, and is mostly faithful to the novel, keeping much of the original dialog. The only serious departure was the addition of a love interest in the form of Basil Hallward's niece - who first meets Dorian when she's six years old. (Got a bit of a Dickensian thing going on there...) It also rather crucially changes Dorian's reason for dumping Sylvia for something less subtle and more understandable to audiences of the time.

A very nice film, and my favorite of the versions I watched.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1976)

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1976)

This was a made-for-TV BBC production of the play, starring John Gielgud and Peter Firth. Unlike the Hollywood production, this was a performance of Wilde's script, so it is even closer to the original. Also unlike the Hollywood production, the homoerotic vibe between Dorian and Basil is not scrubbed out. The production values are typical of 70s BBC dramas, but it's probably the most faithful adaptation.

Pact with the Devil (2004)

Pact with the Devil

Personally, I think Malcolm McDowell is an underrated actor, but you know any movie he appears in is probably going to be schlock. In this modern reimagining of Wilde's novel, Dorian is a male model and McDowell plays the Lord Henry role as his agent.

I watched this for the sake of completeness. It is, in fact, schlock, and not even the good kind of schlock. Other than the names and the magic-picture-that-gets-old-and-ugly-while-Dorian-stays-young, there is barely any resemblance to Wilde's novel, and this movie is otherwise completely unentertaining.

Dorian Gray (2009)

Dorian Gray (2009)

Starring Colin Firth, this 2009 movie is the most recent "horror" version, and it does not improve the story. Typical in the difference between 1940s movies and modern ones, nothing is left between the lines: the portrait oozes blood and drips maggots, and Dorian's depravities are portrayed explicitly enough for an 'R' rating. Dorian's descent from naive young lad to monstrous debaucher under the bad influence of Lord Henry is a convincing transformation. But this movie sacrificed wit, satire, and subtext for sex and violence. It's not a completely bad or unfaithful adaptation, but it's inferior on almost every level to the 1945 version.

Verdict: Oscar Wilde can be relied upon for quotable lines on every page, and as a story of a man falling headfirst into Faustian temptation, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a very readable literary classic. It is not perfect (it's awfully convenient how often Dorian escapes judgment by someone else's timely death, and the prose is a bit turgidly Victorian), but it's full of great one-liners and witty observations about Wilde's milieu.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, literary, movies, reviews

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