Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was written during the years that Wilde was writing fairy tales and short stories such as “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” (1887), which the novel resembles in milieu. Aside from the fairy tales and “The Canterbury Ghost” (1887), the novel is his only prose fantasy. His dramas appeared from 1892 onward, and The Picture of Dorian Gray prefigures them in its witty dialogue and portrait of London social life.
The first critical question raised about The Picture of Dorian Gray concerned its morality, although, except for the murder of Basil, no immoral acts are described. Wilde stated that the story’s moral was that all excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment. The nature of Dorian’s sins is never clear, though a few hints were added after newspaper reviews attacked the original version. In the context of the book, Dorian’s chief sin seems to be a desire for experience and knowledge of all kinds.
What connection exists between Dorian’s crimes and his interest in art? Adjectives such as “monstrous,” “terrible,” “maddening,” and “corrupt” are applied with little apparent regard to their subject in the descriptions of the “poisonous book” and of Dorian’s interests and activities. Scholars have speculated that Wilde’s own underground homosexual life was hinted at by Lord Henry’s cynical statements and the vagueness of Dorian’s sins. This may have been what made newspaper critics uncomfortable. For Wilde, sin and art seem one in life and in literature; the Platonic ideal of beauty can be worshiped as easily in a young man as in a beautiful object.
Other criticism has focused on influences, especially the identity of the poisonous book. Wilde himself said his novel bore a resemblance to A rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, but that resemblance cannot be pushed too far. Other strong influences are Vivian Grey (1826-1827) by British novelist and prime minister Benjamin Disraeli and Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Wilde’s great-uncle, Charles R. Maturin. Finally, Studies in the History of the Renaissance by Walter Pater, with its philosophy of living life to the fullest, was a prime source of the decadent philosophy, which Wilde exemplifies so thoroughly in Dorian himself.