Oscar Wilde’s Preface to his only novel, written in response to the scandalised and scathing reception Dorian Gray received from the press, issues the reader with a warning. Wilde states that ‘those who read the symbol do so at their peril’ and that the role of the critic is to ‘translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things’. I am unsure if I can answer Wilde’s demand of the critic and therefore proceed, somewhat cautiously, at my peril.
The premise of Wilde’s dazzling novel is that a beautiful young man, the eponymous subject of the picture, rashly exclaims that he would give up his soul to remain young forever and have his portrait age instead. His desire is inexplicably granted, leaving Wilde to examine the consequences in a book that is as much a meditation on art and life as it is the story of one man’s terrible choice. A vindication of the saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ if ever there was one.
Though a relatively slim volume and one that I managed to race through within a day, The Picture of Dorian Gray is more challenging than its number of pages might suggest and remains a bit of a puzzle. While the plot in itself is straightforward enough – though the central metamorphosis affecting the portrait remains a mystery – it is Wilde’s probing of ideas, by turns playful and philosophical, that throws up innumerable questions. Can or should art contain anything of its creator? What relation does art bear to life? How far is it possible to influence another human being? I could go on and on.
One of the most fascinating of the concepts thrown about in the novel is that of art. The Preface advocates ‘art for art’s sake’, boldly stating that ‘no artist desires to prove anything’ and provocatively declaring that ‘all art is quite useless’. Of course its lack of a practical use is one of the beauties of art; it needs no use but to be experienced, appreciated and enjoyed. Wilde also writes in the Preface that there is ‘no such thing as a moral or an immoral book’, suggesting that, contrary to the opinions of the age, art cannot corrupt. This may well be a defence against the accusations made towards his controversial book, but it sets up the rest of the novel in an intriguing manner. Art, Wilde argues, does not exert moral influence, yet it is the exquisite beauty of his portrait that prompts the wish that will determine the rest of Dorian Gray’s life, while he claims that he has been ‘poisoned’ by the book that his friend Lord Henry Wotton lends him.
Here there may possibly be detected a note of cynicism. While Dorian blames the influence of both art and his persuasive friend for his descent into sin, it is perhaps more likely that this is a facet of his nature that has been present all along. He embraces a selfish life devoted to pleasure with little hesitance and although he describes the painting as his ‘conscience’, he seems unswayed by it in his actions despite his disgust for it. When the portrait eventually reveals Dorian as a hypocrite, it is easy to conclude that this is what he has been throughout, placing blame at art’s door when it is he who is truly at fault – a damning rebuke to readers who saw immorality in Wilde’s work. After all, the art that Dorian experiences later in life during his dedication to pleasure holds only temporary sway over him, failing to truly move or influence him.
Almost more fascinating than the central character is his friend and mentor Lord Henry Wotton, surely one of the most quotable characters in English literature. Spouting wonderfully preposterous phrases such as ‘I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible’ and ‘the value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it’, his speeches should be savoured. It is not surprising that his witticisms found him connected with Wilde himself; in one of his letters, the author wrote that ‘Lord Henry [is] what the world thinks me’. Many of the scenes seem set up merely to prompt philosophical discussion led by Henry, leading to dialogue that, unsurprisingly for Wilde, fizzes and sparkles. Henry is indeed all talk and whenever we see him he is connected with conversation rather than action, living vicariously through Dorian, over whom he attempts to exert his influence.
Speaking of influence, Wilde’s own literary influences are quite evident throughout the novel. The central idea of a character surrendering his soul in exchange for some kind of earthly gratification immediately recalls the Faust legend, widely disseminated through Marlowe and Goethe’s literary incarnations, although Dorian Gray wishes for eternal youth rather than unlimited knowledge. There are also hints of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, written by Wilde’s contemporary Robert Louis Stevenson not long prior to Dorian Gray, continuing the nineteenth century literary fascination with doubling and doppelgangers that can arguably seen in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Victor Frankenstein and the Creature) and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (Jane and Bertha).
Furthermore, there is a hint of the Gothic as Dorian’s dread intensifies, with the portrait almost taking on the qualities of a supernatural demon or monster. As surely as the Creature is destined to be Victor Frankenstein’s end, Dorian’s life is irrevocably tied to the monstrous picture that his wish has created. Visible also are strands of psychology, a study that is referred to frequently throughout the novel. Yet Wilde takes all these influences and inspirations and moulds them, to take the words of the Preface, into ‘new material’. Filled with dazzling conversation and beautifully crafted prose, Dorian Gray is, like its protagonist, perfectly formed.
As has probably been made evident, I could write on and on about this book. A quick and thrilling read, it unites a gripping central plot with thought-provoking questions, leaving me to continue mulling over the many philosophical points raised. My initial thoughts only begin to touch on the many themes of this novel, so please expand on my musings by adding your own comments and letting me know what you thought about the book.
One book down, only 99 to go!