This is my all time favourite novel so I can’t promise to be 100% impartial, but I will try. You have been warned!
The version I will be writing about is: The Oxford University Press 1974 paperback edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray written by Oscar Wilde, edited by Joseph Bristow.
I chose to review this edition because it is the very first version I ever read. I had done my research beforehand and wanted to get an authentic copy as close to Wilde’s vision as possible, this one sounded promising. I actually picked my copy up on eBay, secondhand, for around £2.50. (Note: I do not recommend this particular version, I have listed down below a version closer to the original.)
I am not a critic, I am writing this review for fun. It will be biased in places and I am going to start off by saying why this is the best book I have read to date. P.S: Possible spoilers.
This novel is my favourite for a few reasons, the most prominent being the ending. The ending utterly captivated me, left me in a state of shock, bewilderment and has always stayed with me. It is one of those endings you just can’t forget. If you have read my ‘about me’ then you will know that I loved the decadent theme, I loved the philosophical themes of ethics and morality too.
The decadent theme presents itself from the out:
The studio was filled with the rich odor of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink flowering thorn.
Wilde uses vibrant language to put us right there in the scene and continues in this fashion through-out the novel. A few lines after this extract we meet our first character, the notorious Lord Henry Wotton.
Henry Wotton is personally my favourite character, he is a hedonistic, philosophical devil’s advocate and clearly is a voice for the aesthetic movement. I have not yet completed all of my intended research on Oscar Wilde so I cannot say for sure whether I believe Henry Wotton to be a vessel for his own views, but I should think one would be forgiven for thinking so.
Wilde established himself as a leading proponent of the aesthetic movement, a theory of art and literature that emphasized the pursuit of beauty for its own sake, rather than to promote any political or social viewpoint
Further along in chapter one we meet Basil Hallward, the artist who paints Dorian Gray. I believe Basil to be the voice of reason and he loves Dorian because of his purity and innocence. I personally believe Basil Hallward to be the channel for Wilde’s homosexual expression and that Basil Hallward is in love with Dorian Gray.
Because without intending it, I have put into some expression of all this curious artistic idolatry, of which, of course, I have never cared to speak to him. – Page 11
Because I have put into it all the extraordinary romance of which, of course, I have never dared to speak to him. – Wilde’s unedited version.
Basil Hallward about Dorian Gray
It is at this point I realise my book is perhaps not quite as close to Wilde’s original text as I would have liked.
This line on page 11 is in fact from the censored and edited version that appeared in Lippincotts magazine.
I can however point you in the direction of a better version: The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray – Nicholas Frankel
Now Nicholas Frankel, a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, has restored the original version of Dorian Gray which Harvard University Press has just published in a handsome “annotated, uncensored edition.” It reproduces the full 1890 text that Wilde submitted to Lippincott’s for publication, as well as extensive notes tracing the alterations made by J.M. Stoddart, then the editor of Lippincott’s, and some of the changes made by Wilde for a later expanded version that appeared in book form.
Some may not agree but I personally think it better to always read a text that is, or is as close as possible to, the authors original writings. I think it is tragic that an author can pour their heart and soul onto paper and then someone else can come along and change it as if it were a meaningless thing to be played with.
Getting back on track
here is some more evidence that further corroborates my opinion that Basil was in love with Dorian.
There seemed to him to be something so tragic in a friendship so coloured by romance.
Dorian about Basil, page 117
He only interested me once, and that was when he told me, years ago, that he had a wild adoration for you.
Henry to Dorian about Basil page 212
Of course we know that Oscar Wilde could not write openly on homosexuality so he had to disguise it well, this means we have to look for indicators of the characters meanings and intent, which of course is always open to interpretation.
Wilde could not write an openly homoerotic book so we have to read between
the lines for things that can thus can divert a reader, mostly his critics, from viewing the book as homoerotic – Basil says he cannot show the world his “heart” and his “soul” because the painting contains something more than abstract art.
It is because of Basil’s feelings that he does not want Henry to meet Dorian Gray. He believes Henry to be a corrupting influence.
“Don’t spoil him. Don’t try to influence him.”
Basil to Henry – Page 14
Says Basil, further reinforcing the theory that Basil is in love with Dorian and believes Henry to be a bad influence.
We do not meet our protagonist until chapter two.
I believe this to be specific because it has allowed for a lot of contextual build up and suspense. At this point we have many questions and a veil of mystery is currently surrounding the infamous Dorian Gray.
When we meet Dorian he is just as Basil has described; innocent, young and polite. However Henry Wotton’s corrupting influence soon starts to develop throughout this chapter. His philosophy laden monologue challenges Dorian’s views of right and wrong and expresses strong aesthetic and hedonistic themes. We can clearly see Dorian becomes influenced.
Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them!
This is the very first change we start to see in Dorian and it succeeds Henry’s monologue. The ensuing scene in the garden is another vital point in the story. This is where Henry further influences Dorian, he tells him how beauty and youthful good looks are the only things worth having and to appreciate them while he can. He tells Dorian that all other feats are futile and that preserving beauty is the only thing worth doing.
Dorian Gray listened, open-eyed and wondering.
This particular sentence succeeds another of Henry’s monologues and I think it paints Dorian in a childish light, further implying his purity and innocence, it also shows that Dorian is listening to and thinking about what Henry is saying. Chapter two is pivotal because it is the only time we see the untainted nature of Dorian without Henry’s influence. We see the Dorian that Basil “worships”, however this is not the only reason why chapter two has such an impact. It is towards the end of this chapter that Henry’s influence has made the biggest change in Dorian and our protagonist goes on to make his famous wish, the wish to always be beautiful and for his portrait to bear the burden of his life and sins.
Following the fateful wish, we move into chapter three and we find Dorian to be engaged to Sibyl Vane. Sibyl is an important character because as we later discover, she is Dorian’s first sin. During the theatre scene in chapter seven we start to see Henry’s influence upon Dorian fully come to light, Dorian talks as if the beauty of Sibyl’s acting is all that makes her worthy, showing no regard for her intense love for him and only for the way he personally feels.
It is during this scene that Sibyl says:
“I knew nothing but shadows, and thought them real.”
In my opinion this is clearly a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from The Republic and further reinforces Wilde’s knowledge of philosophy and his talent in using references like this in context.
This theory is further vindicated by Martin Puchner; renowned literary critic and philosopher.
It is aimed particularly at actors, who are condemned to live in plato’s cave.
The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy page 88.
Dorian shuns Sibyl because he believes her to be no longer of beautiful intellect and a bad actress, despite her begging on her knees, he walks away.
Further along this chapter we see more evidence of change in Dorian where he questions whether he was cruel to Sibyl.
When they took lovers, it was merely to have some one with whom they could have scenes. Lord Henry had told him that, and Lord Henry knew what women were. Why should he trouble about Sibyl Vane? She was nothing to him now.
This passage again reinforces the fact that Henry Wotton has indeed corrupted Dorian’s mind and Dorian believes that Henry is wise and knows better than he. It is in the next chapter that Sibyl is realised dead and the ensuing chapter really shows us how Dorian has dramatically changed. He talks about her death as if it were a play.
It seems to me to be simply like a wonderful ending to a wonderful play. It has all the
terrible beauty of a great tragedy, a tragedy in which I took part, but by which I have not been wounded.
Dorian Gray page 100
He asks Henry if he thinks him heartless, to which he replies no. Henry is like the devil on Dorian’s shoulder in this scene, he continues on to tell Dorian that the real tragedies of life hurt them because of how crude and inartistic they are. Henry talks about Sybil as if she were a character to ultimately forget about and how she flitted through plays and never really lived, he speaks of her as if she were not a real person. Of course Dorian being the impressionable, young boy we know him to be, listens intently to and believes Henry because he cannot bear to face what he has done.
We also see the pivotal moment where Dorian discovers the portrait has changed and his wish has indeed come true.
Throughout the story there area couple of references to Ovid’s character Narcissus, Wilde’s portrayal of Dorian as a modern day Narcissus is clear in this chapter when Dorian talks of kissing his portrait in ‘boyish mockery of Narcissus.’ I enjoy the dramatic irony here of Dorian not realising he has very much become egotistical and self-obsessed.
As the story progresses we see Dorian become depraved and corrupted.
The strong decadent themes continue through-out the story and although our main character shows selfish remorse at certain opportunities he is mostly bold, self-absorbed and vulgar. Wilde goes into great detail regarding Dorian’s adventures, which is a very interesting and captivating read. There is one particular event that stands out for me in the middle of the story and that is the gift from Henry to Dorian of the unnamed yellow book.
He read the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. After a few minutes, he became absorbed. It was the strangest book he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.
Many scholars believe this book to be Joris-Karl Huysmans novel A’Rebours and as you may already know illicit novels in 19th century France were always bound in yellow, so we can be sure that Dorian is being further inspired and tainted by a hedonistic and debauched tale.
Through-out the novel Wilde references many great literary figures such as: Dante Aligheiri, Theophilé Gautier, Plato, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Ovid, Petronius, Charles Darwin, Shakespeare and even Chopin and Beethoevn. There are many more references and this just goes to show Wilde’s vast knowledge of literature and the world. Wilde clearly has a varied vocabulary and flair for writing. The story is engaging and flows effortlessly and coherently,unlike my review.
Dorian’s continued downward spiral comes to a shocking head in chapter eleven. One night Dorian bumps into his old friend Basil after a long period of separation. Shortly afterwards Dorian says:
‘You are the one man in the world who is entitled to know everything about me. You have had more to do with my life than you think.’
Dorian to Basil page 155
This clearly implies that Dorian places some blame upon Basil for how depraved he has become, he believes Basil taught him to be proud and vain.
‘I was wrong. It has destroyed me.’
Dorian to Basil, about the portrait – page 157
Dorian blames Basil for painting the beautiful picture of him that would consequently lead him to make the fateful wish. Dorian shows much apparent remorse and regret in these final chapters.
It is at this point that Dorian reveals his portrait in all it’s tainted glory to Basil, who is horrified to see his once beloved friend’s soul has become so marred. At first he does not want to believe it is true, but Dorian assures him it is. He pleads with Dorian to pray repentance however Dorian does not believe there is hope for him. Dorian becomes enraged in a mental tempest of guilt and blame…
“An uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him.”
It is at this moment that Dorian murders his old friend Basil. It is a very shocking moment in the story, it really took me aback. Basil still thought there was hope for Dorian even after seeing his hideous soul on the canvas, he tried to make him pray for forgiveness and I believe that ultimately it was Basil’s love for Dorian that so enraged Dorian to kill his friend. He really believed that it was his friends love that caused all of this, if Basil did not worship him, he never would have painted the picture of Dorian Gray.
Following this Basil is referred to as “The thing” and “The man”. This, to me, points to the same feelings Dorian was having when Sybil committed suicide. Do you remember how Henry talked of Sybil as if she were not a person? Now it seems Dorian has adopted this mentality as a coping mechanism and so he does not have to feel any sadness or remorse.
“He felt that the secret of the whole thing was not to realise the situation. “
This is exactly what Henry taught Dorian to do when Sybil died. This further reinforces how Dorian has metamorphosized into Henry’s figurative idol. There is a quote near the beginning in which Basil says to Henry: “You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing.” Henry loved to philosophise about ethics and hedonism but very rarely, if ever, was seen to act upon his words. Dorian has become the realisation of Henry’s words, he acts out all of the things Henry talked about. Even towards the final chapters Henry never once takes any blame or shows any remorse for influencing Dorian the way he did because he truly does not believe he is at fault. He believes he helped Dorian to live a more fulfilling life and even towards the end Henry is still reinforcing the idea that Dorian is beautiful and wonderful. I wonder would Henry still feel the same way about Dorian if he had the face of the portrait?
For me the most striking part of the story is the ending.
It begins with Dorian talking to Henry about his resolution to change his ways and to be “good”. This is also where we see more of Dorian’s loss of faith in Henry and his acknowledgement of Henry’s bad influence.
‘Yet you poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that. Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to any one. It does harm.’
Dorian to Henry page 218
Dorian tells Henry how from now on he is going to be good and that he wants to change for the better. However Henry plays on Dorian doubts by telling him not to change because he is perfect and that people cannot change.
“You and I are what we are, and will be what we will be”
Henry to Dorian page 218
This instills a sense of hopelessness and despair in Dorian and he questions whether he will ever be able to be good. As the chapter progresses we see more evidence of Dorian’s tainted and unchanged nature. He talks of Basil’s Death and Alan Campbell’s suicide as if they were just “flitting moments in a play” and he certainly does not express any regret or responsibility. These things indicate to us that Dorian is still very much corrupted and although he is expressing a wish to change, this has not happened.
Dorian believes he needs to do good things, however he is still thinking with the mind of a depraved person, this indicates to us an unwillingness to change his thought process thus implying that his willingness to change is actually for selfish gain. His portrait he describes as “loathsome” and he only wants to be good so that his portrait will look beautiful again, it is only out of pure vanity that Dorian has any wish to change at all.
Right until the very end Dorian is still looking out for his own interests. He thinks the idea of confessing is “monstrous” and that no one would believe him anyway because there is no evidence.
But this murder,—was it to dog him all his life? Was he always to be burdened by his past? Was he really to confess? Never. There was only one bit of evidence left against him. The picture itself—that was evidence. He would destroy it.
He wants to destroy the portrait to erase all evidence of him being evil so that he can go ahead and live his life without worry, he also describes the portrait as being his conscience, he wants to get rid of it because it unsettles him and he cannot enjoy his life, again, purely hedonistic, personal gain.
He stabs the painting with the knife he used to kill Basil. The dramatic irony here has to be appreciated. He tears the portrait from top to bottom. The scene then cuts to the servants point of view and we read the ending from their stance.
When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognised who it was.
Upon my first reading I re-read the ending paragraph perhaps five or six times. It still shocks me even now. I think it is the dramatic irony that really gets me. How Basil had loved him and how he never wanted Dorian to meet Henry. How Henry’s words had created a monster and how Dorian had tried to resist them. How Dorian was so heartless to the ones who loved him and in the end he died alone. How the blade he used to murder his loving friend ultimately killed him too.
If we are to assign blame…
to a one particular factor, in my entirely personal opinion, it would be the scene in the garden, in which Henry tells Dorian that his youth and beauty are the only things that matter in the world. I agree with Dorian, that Basil did indeed inflate his ego and in doing so made Dorian more proud and vain, however Basil had known Dorian for a long while already and had not had a corrupting influence. It was only when Dorian met Henry and heard his views on ethics, morality and the value of beauty that Dorian started to think differently. Although Basil had painted a beautiful portrait of Dorian, which made him more vain, it was ultimately Henry’s opinion that Dorian should value his beauty that made Dorian wish that fateful wish.
Throughout the story Henry has a hold over Dorian. Dorian becomes too self conceited to value Basil’s love and friendship and instead he looks up to Henry and sees him as a best friend with worldly knowledge. He listens to Henry and believes the things he says because after all Dorian was an impressionable young boy. He became depraved by Henry’s teachings and also by the infamous yellow book that was given to him.
Perhaps Dorian was so impressionable he was always doomed to become what he was. After all ““You and I are what we are, and will be what we will be” . Clearly Dorian always had the potential in him to become corrupt, he had known that Basil loved him and had not shown any regard for him. The very first time we meet Dorian he says “Oh, I am tired of sitting, and I don’t want a life-sized portrait of myself.” Although charming and care-free there is also an undertone of petulance and nonchalance, this would seem to signal to events that were to come.
Dorian’s fall from grace is a spectacular tragedy that challenges our ideas of modern morality and what it is to live and be happy,
it is an engaging and thought provoking read for anyone. Despite being written in the late 1800’s it is not too difficult a read, Wilde’s natural flair for writing shines through and as his only novel it is a marvel. If you are familiar with Wilde’s other works you will breeze through this no problem, it is one of those books you cannot put down. This philosophy laden work of art will have you staying up til 1:00am every night!
P.s: Have you read this book? Do you agree or disagree with my ideas? Let’s talk about it! Comment. 🙂