The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s one novel, published originally in 1890 (as a serial) and then in book form the following year. The novel is at once an example of late Victorian Gothic horror and, in some ways, the greatest English-language novel about decadence and aestheticism, or ‘art for art’s sake’.
To show how these themes and movements find their way into the novel, it’s necessary to offer some words of analysis. But before we analyse The Picture of Dorian Gray, it might be worth summarising the plot of the novel.
The Picture of Dorian Gray: summary
The three main characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray are the title character (a beautiful young man), Basil Hallward (a painter), and Lord Henry Wotton (Basil Hallward’s friend).
The novel opens with Basil painting Dorian Gray’s portrait. Lord Henry Wotton takes a shine to the young man, and advises him to be constantly in search of new ‘sensations’ in life. He encourages Dorian to drink deep of life’s pleasures. When the picture of Dorian is finished, Dorian marvels at how young and beautiful he looks, before wishing that he could always remain as young and attractive while his portrait is the one that ages and decays, rather than the other way around. When he proclaims that he would give his soul to have such a wish granted, it’s as if he has made a pact with the devil.
Basil’s finished portrait is sent to Dorian’s house, while Dorian himself goes out and follows Lord Henry’s advice. He falls head over heels in love with an actress, Sibyl Vane, but when she loses her ability to act well – because, she claims, now she has fallen in love for real she cannot imitate it on the stage – Dorian cruelly discards her. He had fallen in love with her art as an actress, and now she has lost that, she is meaningless to him.
Sibyl takes her own life before Dorian – who has observed a change in his portrait, which looks to have a slightly meaner expression than before – can apologise to her and beg her forgiveness. But Lord Henry consoles Dorian, arguing that Sibyl, in dying young, has given her last beautiful performance.
Dorian, shocked by the change in the portrait, locks it away at the top of his house, in his old schoolroom. Inspired by an immoral ‘yellow book’ which Lord Henry gives to him, Dorian continues to experience all manner of ‘sensations’, no matter how immoral they are. When he next takes a look at the portrait in his attic, he finds an old and evil face, disfigured by sin, staring out at him.
The novel moves forward some thirteen years. Dorian, of course, is still young and fresh-faced, but his portrait looks meaner and older than ever. When Dorian shows the portrait to Basil, who painted it, the artist – who had worshipped Dorian’s beauty when he painted the picture – is shocked and appalled. Dorian stabs Basil to death, before enlisting the help of someone to dispose of the body (this man, horrified by what he has done, will later take his own life).
Dorian slides further into sin and evil, until one day, the brother of the dead actress, Sibyl Vane, bumps into Dorian Gray and intends to exact revenge for his sister’s mistreatment at the hands of Dorian. But when he follows Dorian to the latter’s country estate, he is accidentally shot by one of Dorian’s shooting party.
Dorian becomes intent on reforming his character, hoping that the portrait will start to improve if he behaves better. But when he goes up to look at the painting, he finds that it shows the face of a hypocrite, because even his abstinence from vice was, in its own way, a quest for a new sensation to experience. Horrified and angered, Dorian plunges a knife into the canvas, but when the servants walk in on him, they find the portrait as it was originally painted, showing Dorian Gray as a youthful man. Meanwhile, on the floor, there is the body of a wrinkled old man with a ‘loathsome’ face.
The Picture of Dorian Gray: analysis
The Picture of Dorian Gray has been analysed as an example of the Gothic horror novel, as a variation on the theme of the ‘double’, and as a narrative embodying some of the key aspects of late nineteenth-century aestheticism and decadence.
Wilde’s skill lies in how he manages to weave these various elements together, creating a modern take on the old Faust story (the German figure Faust sold his soul to the devil, via Mephistopheles) which also, in its depictions of late Victorian sin and vice, may remind readers of another work of fiction published just four years earlier: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (which we’ve analysed here). Indeed, the discovery of the body of Dorian Gray as a wrinkled and horrifically ugly corpse at the end of the novel recalls the discovery of Jekyll/Hyde in Stevenson’s novella.
To find the novel’s value as a book of the aesthetic movement, we need look no further than Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which he states, for instance, that ‘there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book’ (what matters is whether the book is written well or not) and ‘all art is quite useless’ (art shouldn’t change the world: art exists as, and for, itself, and no more).
Lord Henry Wotton is very much the voice of the aesthetic movement in the novel, and many of his pronouncements echo those made by the prominent art critic (under whom Wilde had studied at Oxford), Walter Pater. But whereas Pater talked of ‘new impressions’, Lord Henry (or Wilde, in his novel) took this up a notch, calling for new ‘sensations’.
We tend to speak conveniently of ‘periods’ or ‘movements’ or ‘eras’ in literary history, but these labels aren’t always useful. Both Oscar Wilde and Elizabeth Gaskell, the author of Mary Barton and North and South, were ‘Victorian’ in that they were both writing and publishing their work in Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).
But whereas Gaskell, writing in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, wrote ‘realist’ novels about the plight of factory workers in northern England, Wilde wrote a fantastical horror story about upper-class men who are able to stay forever young and spotless while their portraits decay in their attic. They’re a world away from each other.
Wilde’s novel is a good example of how later Victorian fiction often turned against the values and approaches favourited by earlier Victorian writers. It was Wilde who, famously, said of the sad ending of Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, which Dickens’s original readers in the 1840s wept buckets over, ‘one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without’ – what, crying? No. Wilde’s word was ‘laughing’. The overly sentimental style favoured by mid-century novelists like Dickens had given way to a more casual, poised, nonchalant, and detached mode of storytelling.
At the same time, we can overstate the extent to which Wilde’s novel turns its back on earlier Victorian attitudes and values. Despite his statement that there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a highly moral work, as the tale of Faust was. Dorian’s life is destroyed by his commitment to a life of pleasure, even though it entails the destruction of other lives – most notably, Sibyl Vane’s. Far from being a book that would be denounced from the pulpits by Anglican clergymen for being ‘immoral’, The Picture of Dorian Gray could make for a pretty good moral sermon in itself, albeit one that’s more witty and entertaining than most Christian sermons.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is, at bottom, a novel of surfaces and appearance. We say ‘at bottom’, but that is precisely the point: the novel is, as many critics have commented, all surface. Lord Henry is so taken by the beauty of Dorian Gray that he sets about being a bad influence on him. Dorian is so taken by the painting of him – a two-dimensional representation of his outward appearance – that he makes his deal with the devil, trading his soul, that thing which represents inner meaning and inner depth, in exchange for remaining youthful on the outside.
Then, when Dorian falls in love, it’s with an actress, not because he loves her but because he loves her performance. When she loses her ability to act, he abandons her. Her name, Sibyl Vane, points up the vanity of acting and the pursuit of skin-deep appearance at the cost if something more substantial, but her first name also acts as a warning: in Greek mythology, the Sibyls made cryptic statements about future events.
But there’s probably a particular Sibyl that Wilde had in mind: the Sibyl at Cumae, who, in Petronius’ scurrilous Roman novel Satyricon (which Wilde would surely have known) and in other stories, was destined to live forever but to age and wither away. She had eternal life, but not eternal youth. Dorian’s own eternal youth comes at a horrible cost: without a soul, all he can do is go in pursuit of new sensations, forever chasing desire yet never attaining true fulfilment.
It will, in the end, destroy him: in lashing out and trying to destroy the truth that stares back at him from his portrait, much as he had destroyed the artist who held up a mirror to his corrupt self, Dorian Gray destroys himself. In the last analysis, as he and his portrait do not exist separately from each other, he must live with himself – and with his conscience – or must die in his vain attempt to close his eyes to who he has really become.
About Oscar Wilde
The life of the Irish novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is as famous as – perhaps even more famous than – his work. But in a career spanning some twenty years, Wilde created a body of work which continues to be read an enjoyed by people around the world: a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray; short stories and fairy tales such as ‘The Happy Prince’ and ‘The Selfish Giant’; poems including The Ballad of Reading Gaol; and essay-dialogues which were witty revivals of the Platonic philosophical dialogue.
But above all, it is Wilde’s plays that he continues to be known for, and these include witty drawing-room comedies such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as a Biblical drama, Salome (which was banned from performance in the UK and had to be staged abroad). Wilde is also often remembered for his witty quips and paradoxes and his conversational one-liners, which are legion. They include, ‘Work is the curse of the drinking classes’, and ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius’ (when travelling through customs in America).
Wilde’s life – his generosity to others, his double life as a family man and someone who engaged with extramarital affairs with other men, and his subsequent downfall when he was put on trial for ‘gross indecency’ – has been movingly written about in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde and in the 1997 biopic Wilde, with Stephen Fry in the title role.