The critical writings of Oscar Wilde and the writings of his contemporaries Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) and Walter Pater (1839-1894) all emphasize the relationship of art to sensuality and suggest that life imitates art—not that art imitates life. These influences are evident in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel. The initial appearance of the work in serial form in the July, 1890, issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine had elicited savage attacks by critics in the St. James’s Gazette, the Daily Chronicle, and the Scots Observer, who branded the story as immoral and an incitement to vice. Pater, however, and critic Julian H. Hawthorne (1846-1934), had written favorable reviews.
Over the years, The Picture of Dorian Gray has been viewed as gothic entertainment, a cautionary tale, and even a philosophical treatise using the medium of fiction. The novel may be any or all of these things, but its unity derives from the motif of the mirror image, the opposite, the contrast—Dorian Gray and his portrait furnish the first and most obvious example of this motif. Other examples are Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton, both of whom are vying for influence over Dorian. Hallward is virtuous, sincere, and idealistic. Lord Henry is clever, insouciant, and amoral (at least in his witty conversation). He plays the role of the tempter.
In chapter 2, Hallward is shocked by Dorian’s reaction to the portrait. He picks up a palette-knife with the intention of destroying the painting, but Dorian prevents him, saying it would be an act of murder. In chapter 13, after Hallward has seen the loathsome picture, Dorian seizes a knife previously used to cut a piece of cord and murders his friend with it. In chapter 20, Dorian takes up that same knife and, in his attempt to destroy his portrait, kills himself.
Early in the novel, Lord Henry’s aunt, Lady Agatha, wishes Dorian to play the piano for the residents of Whitechapel, as part of her effort to raise the cultural level of the poor. Instead, Dorian is prowling the East End with quite different experiences in mind. He casts Sybil Vane aside, ruining her life and prompting her suicide. The wretched woman in the opium den who identifies Dorian as Prince Charming tells James Vane that almost eighteen years earlier Dorian had made her what she has become. Near the end of the novel, Dorian tells Lord Henry that he has spared Hetty Merton. The contrast is made specific when Dorian says Hetty reminds him of Sybil. Dorian’s renunciation, however, is not morally superior to his rejection of Sybil, because both women are the products of his vanity.
The most interesting relationship in the novel is that of Dorian and Lord Henry. The latter has often been identified with the author—understandably so, since Wilde, like his fictional character, filled every conversation with brilliant epigrams and delighted in shocking Victorian sensibilities. This identification has tempted some, therefore, to identify Dorian with Lord Alfred Douglas, the young man whose friendship with Wilde would eventually bring about the writer’s ruin. However, the men did not become acquainted until 1891, so Douglas could scarcely have been Wilde’s model in the initial publication one year earlier. In 1895, Lord Douglas’s father, the marquess of Queensberry, publicly called Wilde a sodomite, a charge that led to three trials and culminated in Wilde’s conviction for homosexuality and his sentence of two years in prison. The first trial, occasioned by Wilde’s unwise suit against Queensberry for libel, is of literary interest because of the way The Picture of Dorian Gray importantly and ironically figures in the testimony.
Queensberry’s defense attorney, Edward Carson, used The Picture of Dorian Gray extensively in his cross-examination of Wilde. He forced Wilde to admit that the book Dorian receives in one passage is Huysmans’s novel À rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922), considered by many at the time to be scandalous. Interestingly, the name of the Mephistophelean character who gives Dorian the book, Lord Henry, had not been raised in the questioning. Instead, Carson had read aloud three long passages from the text, all spoken by Hallward. The first describes Dorian to Lord Henry before the young man makes his first appearance in the story. The other two are long speeches: In the first, Hallward tells Dorian that he worships him with romance of feeling and, in the second, Hallward warns that people are speaking of Dorian’s behavior as vile and degraded.
Carson’s approach was probably a wise one. After all, he was a barrister, not a literary critic, and his task was to prove his client justified in labeling the “despoiler” of his son a sodomite. He chose passages that would most readily strike the court as lurid and reflective of the story’s homosexual subtext. Wilde also blurred his direct association with any of the characters in an 1894 letter to Ralph Payne. He writes that Hallward is who Wilde himself thinks he is, Lord Henry is who the world thinks Wilde is, and Dorian is who Wilde himself would like to be—in other ages perhaps.
A number of critics writing since the end of the Victorian era have denied, despite the protagonist’s ultimate destruction, that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a moral tale. They assert that it is among the earliest postmodern novels. If the universe is mindless, if there is no moral code sanctioned by a deity, if morality is no more than a series of decisions society has made over time, then Dorian is contemporary. He is neither all good nor all bad, but divided—alienated and plagued by verities in which he no longer believes, but from which he cannot free himself.
Wilde could have chosen “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” as his title, but the choice of the word “picture” instead of “portrait” indicates a look into Dorian’s character well beyond what his portrait, no matter how skillfully rendered, could reveal. On the other hand, Wilde had been received into the Roman Catholic Church shortly before his death in 1900. It is reasonable to assume that on that occasion, at least, Wilde had accepted the concept of sin.
Wilde’s novel is aptly suited for dramatization. Since 1945, it has been adapted several times into film, opera, and stage, musical, and teleplays.