“All art is useless” – so says the author’s 1891 preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (sometimes referred to, wrongly, as The Portrait of Dorian Gray), the only published novel by Oscar Wilde. This darkly sardonic, Faustian-themed novel very much reflects the interests and personality of its author. Ever the aesthete, Wilde was himself profoundly affected by beauty and lived and dressed in a manner which, compared to the Victorian styles and mores of the time, was regarded as flamboyant. As such, he was often publicly caricatured and the target of much moral outrage in Europe and America. His writings (including Dorian Gray, with its homoerotic themes) also brought much controversy for him. He was nonetheless part of the ever-growing movement of ‘decadents’ who advocated pacifism, social reform and libertarianism. While many vilified him, he was making his mark with style and wit and enjoyed much success with many of his plays. Wilde was also lauded by and acquainted with many influential figures of the day, including fellow playwright George Bernard Shaw, American poets Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and English author and social critic John Ruskin. In Dorian Gray the titular hero, realising that his beauty will one day fade, expresses a desire to sell his soul to ensure that his portrait ages while he does not. Dorian’s wish is fulfilled, plunging him into debauched acts. The portrait serves both as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed as a disfigurement or ageing of his form, and as a warning to all that no amount of outer beauty can make up for the darkness within.
Both Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray cast long shadows. Readers often come to the novel intrigued and forewarned about Wilde – with knowledge of his wit, say, or of some scandal attaching to his life, perhaps of what is now freely labelled his homosexuality – or they may come to it possessed of the central premise of the plot – something about a devil’s bargain, a man who sells his soul to remain forever young, while a picture of him turns old and hideous. Some readers may also begin the novel with a notion that the hero’s story somehow represents a prefiguring in fiction of important features of Wilde’s own experience. In this sense the novel presents an interesting conundrum. The idea to which Wilde gave literary form in Dorian Gray was one which had occurred to him some years before he considered making a long story of it, and one which he would tell – perhaps as a cautionary tale, perhaps as a riddle – to young male admirers. In later life, Wilde liked to pretend that he wrote down his version of the story ‘in a few days’ and that, like his plays, it was ‘the result of a wager’, but in fact it was the result of painstaking care and attention to detail, and went through several comprehensive re-writes. When it was eventually published, to say that it caused a sensation would be to use too weak a word.
Dorian Gray provoked an extraordinary furore among British newspaper and magazine reviewers, whose expressions of outrage and condemnation at the time may well now strike modern readers as bordering on hysteria. The St James’s Gazette, for example, announced that “…not wishing to offend the nostrils of decent persons, we do not propose to analyse The Picture of Dorian Gray“. One anonymous reviewer felt that the author aired “…his cheap research like any drivelling peasant”, while another’s view was that, though the premise of the novel could have provided other writers with material for good writing “it has been reserved for Mr Oscar Wilde to make it dull and nasty”. Other reviews referred to the novel variously as “malodorous putrefaction”, “dangerous and corrupt” and “fit to be chucked on the fire” – and those were just the nicer ones! Such unpleasant criticism, with its hinting at obscenities in the novel and its unmistakable animosity, forced Wilde to write in protest that this constituted “the most unjustifiable attack that has been made upon any man of letters for many years”. A series of defensive letters from Wilde and offensive editorials from his critics followed, by turns delighting and scandalizing the reading public in equal measure.
This tit-for-tat should not detract from the powerful central premise of the novel. The notion of a young man selling his soul in exchange for eternal youth was an idea that was old in the history of literature, as Wilde himself admitted, but it was one to which he gave new form. Dorian Gray has a clear affinity, for example, with the story of Faust as presented in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Indeed, the same complaint often levelled at Marlowe’s play – that it has a beginning and an inevitable end but no significant action in between – can be levelled at Wilde’s novel. Powerful parallels can also be found in the literature of Wilde’s own day. R L Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published in 1886, exploited public fears of scientific advances to touch on the old theme of a double life. The search for the key to life, meanwhile, was the theme of numerous novels such as H Rider Haggard’s She (1887), which climaxes in a scene where an ageless Egyptian priestess urges her lover to accept the gift of eternal youth, only to be transformed herself into a hideous cadaver thousands of years old. In fact, the list of possible influences is almost endless. Ultimately, the novel is an intoxicating blend of Gothic melodrama and morality tale, an assault on the senses which, whatever view you have of the man and his values, leaves you in no doubt as to Wilde’s immense literary talent. Another quote from the preface to Dorian Gray probably says it best: “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”