When first published in England, The Picture of Dorian Gray met with a storm of negative reviews, many of which attacked the book in virulent terms for its alleged immorality. The Daily Chronicle, for example, assailed its “effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, its theatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophisings and the contaminating trail of garish vulgarity” (quoted in Norbert Kohl’s Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel). The anonymous critic for the St. James’s Gazette affected a manner of even greater disgust when he wrote, “not wishing to offend the nostrils of decent persons, we do not propose to analyse [the novel] . . . that would be to advertise the developments of an esoteric prurience” (quoted in Michael Patrick Gillespie’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray: What the World Thinks Me”). This critic even ventured the opinion that he would be pleased to see Wilde or his publishers prosecuted for publishing the novel.
In letters to the editor of the St. James’s Gazette, Wilde defended himself against such charges. He insisted that The Picture of Dorian Gray had a very clear moral and that his main problem in writing the book had been to keep the obvious moral from subverting the artistic effect.
Although not all early reviews were unfavorable, the negative impression created by those who denounced the book affected how people responded to it for decades. Passages from the novel were read in court by the prosecution during Wilde’s trial for homosexuality in 1895. The habit of interpreting the novel, and other works by Wilde, in the context of his life dominated early scholarship about Wilde. Some twentieth-century and twenty-first-century critics continued to use biographical details to shed light on The Picture of Dorian Gray; others examined it in relation to the cultural context in which it was written or used archetypal criticism, in which the novel was analyzed in terms of myths and legends such as the Faust story. Some critics interpreted the novel by examining issues of sexual orientation.