The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

Even if you haven’t read this horror classic it’s likely you know about it, at least by reputation or one of the six films (three were pre-sound) made from the book. The book also spawned an opera. I came to the book late myself but have read it twice since my first reading.

The general outline, of course, is that a beautiful young man named Dorian Gray is painted in a portrait. For some reason the painting ages while Dorian stays eternally young. And that’s mostly true but there’s more than that going on in many ways.

When Dorian first sees the completed portrait of himself, done by an admiring friend, he has one of those “it’s all downhill from here” realizations and makes a wish or prayer that the painting could age while he could stay in that moment of physical perfection. And somehow that happens. The painting, however, doesn’t just show the physical signs of age. It also picks up a physical manifestation of every sin, which Dorian notices almost immediately though it doesn’t appear in the book until near the halfway point. Dorian falls in love with a beautiful actress named Sybil Vane. They are engaged and Dorian convinces close friends Sir Henry and Basil Hallward (the painter of the picture) to see her perform. She gives a dismal performance. Dorian goes backstage and breaks off the engagement. She gave the poor performance because acting no longer held any interest in comparison with her love for the man she always calls Prince Charming. But Dorian was more interested in her art than the woman herself. When he returns home he notices that the painting has suddenly changed and now has a subtle look of cruelty around the mouth. This upsets him so much that he covers the painting with a screen and finally, after it continues to transform, has it moved into the attic so he doesn’t have to see it.

Note that the painting isn’t absorbing his aging so much as his sins. It also seems to absorb his guilt for those sins since he isn’t even required to observe them in himself. There’s an old saying that “by age 50 a man has the face he deserves”. In Dorian’s case the painting takes on the physical burden. The emotional burden is different. Though it doesn’t show on his face he carries it in his heart. The painting dulls guilt but doesn’t destroy it.

Through the book Sybil kills herself from the pain of ending the engagement. Her brother, a sailor on his way to Australia, vows revenge. Dorian has an argument with Basil in the attic where Basil’s painting is still hidden. Dorian ends up stabbing Basil to death and then forces a chemist friend to dissolve the body.

Dorian goes on to live a life of opium smoking and general dissipation. After years of increasing guilt he eventually decides that he must confess some of his evils but wants, first, to destroy the painting that continues to haunt him. He goes to the attic and stabs the picture with the same knife he used to kill Basil. The household servants and neighbors hear a scream. In the attic they find the corpse of an ancient old man and the painting in its original version showing Dorian as a beautiful young man.

There were split reactions to the book when it first appeared in a magazine in 1890. Wilde had toned down the more overt references to the homosexuality of the three main characters of Dorian, Basil, and Sir Henry. The editor of Lippincott’s Monthly, where the book first appeared, quietly stripped another 500 words out of the story before publishing it without letting Wilde know. Despite that Victorian editors knew their evil sodomite influences when they saw them and reacted accordingly.

Looking at the book nearly a century and a half later the relationships are clear if subtle. In fact, homosexuality helps explain why Dorian was willing to marry Sybil for her artfulness more than her beauty, and when that was gone his passion took the same exit. With women Dorian has a cruelty that destroys women. It’s one of these “fallen women” who eventually cues Sybil’s brother as to the identity and whereabouts of Dorian some 20 years after Sybil’s suicide.

Wilde dealt with some of the criticism in his preface to the first book edition. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” he wrote. “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all…. The moral life of man forms part of the subject matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.”

From a modern perspective this is all pretty tame. If there is an irritation in the book it may be Sir Henry, who serves as something of Wilde’s personal presence in the book. He’s a wit and some of the observations are biting even today.  When complaining about going to dinners at the home of Lady Brandon he says, “My dear fellow. She tried to found a salon and only succeeded in opening a restaurant.” On Americans: “I am told that pork-packing is the most lucrative profession in America, after politics.”

The problem is that Sir Henry is less a character than an epigram machine. In place of a personality he has a valise full of sayings that, as they would with someone in real life, gets to be noisome in pretty short order. In Wilde’s plays the wit or oddball statements (“I never travel without my diary. One should have something sensational to read in the train.”) are spread evenly among the characters and no single individual carries the sole burden of wit.

Still, the book still stands as an intriguing view of subjects like narcissism, guilt, and redemption threaded through one of the more famous horror stories of all time. Amazon features quite a few versions. There’s a modern “unexpurgated” version that restores the language of Wilde’s original … sort of a director’s cut version. Several Kindle versions are free, and some even include original illustrations. As the book is public domain there are also multiple Audible versions. The most listenable is read by Simon Prebble.