Oscar Wilde Oscar Wilde Long Fiction Analysis

Oscar Wilde book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Oscar Wilde Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Oscar Wilde Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Oscar Wilde began his literary efforts with poetry, which was a common approach in his day. He published Ravenna in 1878. He would write little poetry after the release of Poems in 1881. For the next several years he gave lectures in Europe and the United States, establishing his name on both sides of the Atlantic. He also assumed the editorship of a monthly magazine, The Lady’s World, which was rechristened The Woman’s World.

In the late 1880’s Wilde wrote two collections of fairy tales as well as a number of short stories, essays, and book reviews. He steadily gained attention as a writer, social critic, and, most of all, aesthete. Literary critics frequently were unenthusiastic, or even hostile, toward his works, finding them to be overly contrived or recklessly immoral. It is true that Wilde’s writing can at times assume a baroque ornamentation and artificiality. There is no doubt that Wilde’s characteristic indolence (which he exaggerated for show) constrained his ability to see his works through to the final stages of editing and polishing. It is true also that Wilde’s writing frequently ridiculed social conventions, mores, and morals. Wilde was, however, indisputably an ingenious analyst of art and culture, possessing a mastery of prose and verse and equipped with a keen sense of paradox.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde’s only novel was published in its complete form in 1891. It is not a long book, and some of its features reflect the writer’s haste or carelessness. However, the story is a fascinating and engaging one, at once depicting basic elements of human nature and conjuring fantastic, almost gothic images. Its plot is rather simple, but the ideas and issues that the narrative presents are complex and even profound. Perhaps for this reason the book has stood the test of time.

The story centers on three figures: an artist (Basil Hallward), his clever but impudent friend (Lord Henry Wotton), and a young, attractive, and impressionable man (Dorian Gray). Basil paints a full-length portrait of young Dorian and presents it to him as a gift. Lord Henry, who meets Dorian for the first time at Basil’s studio, talks at length about the supreme value, but transience, of youth. Immediately drawn to Lord Henry’s theories, Dorian observes the just-completed portrait of himself and remarks on “how sad it is” that he “shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young.If it were only the other way!” In the first section of the book, therefore, Wilde sets up a framework to examine some fundamental ideas about art and beauty: the transience of beauty, the inevitability of aging and death, the goal of the artist to “capture” beauty in art, and the corruptive influence of ideas, among others.

Wilde uses Lord Henry—whom Wilde later declared to be a depiction of how the public perceived Wilde—to provide the corruptive theories and ideas. Throughout the book Lord Henry utters clever aphorisms and paradoxes in Wilde’s celebrated wordplay. Dorian is infatuated by Lord Henry and appears receptive to his theories and values. Readers soon see evidence of the corruptive influence of those theories and values in Dorian’s behavior. Dorian becomes smitten by a young actress in a seedy theater. He returns with Basil and Lord Henry to watch her perform, but this time he is disappointed by her acting. After the performance the actress declares to Dorian that he has helped her see how false is her world of acting—the false world of the stage—and she declares her love for him. Dorian, however, spitefully dismisses her, claiming that she had thrown away her artistic genius and poetic intellect. Now, she “simply produce(s) no effect.”

Upon returning home, Dorian observes a slight change in the portrait Basil had painted of him. Dorian notes a “touch of cruelty in the mouth.” It becomes evident that the painting shows the outward signs of sin and of aging, while Dorian...

(The entire section is 1,417 words.)