on October 13, 1993
Genres: Classics, Fiction, Psychological, Suspense, Thrillers
I was on the hunt for a classic horror novel to add to my 2021 spooky reading lineup. I couldn’t think of a better choice than Oscar Wilde’s homoerotic “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Oscar Wilde is a historical figure of interest for me. He was bold enough to live openly as a gay man in the 19th century, resulting in imprisonment. After references to Dorian Gray in contemporary media, such as Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, I wanted to read the original work. I knew the general premise of the novel, a young attractive man never ages, while a supernatural painting of him does. I was not expecting the story to become a critique on the purpose of art.
When the story begins, readers are introduced to Dorian Gray, a young attractive man, and two older gentlemen Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton. Basil and Lord Henry are obsessed with Dorian because of his youth and beauty. Dorian is the muse for Basil’s paintings and is the subject of his best work. Upon seeing Basil’s painting of him Dorian becomes aware that he will one day age and lose his beauty. He makes a fateful wish, saying “If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!” (Wilde 19). This ends up being the classic scenario of be careful what you wish for. Dorian never ages, but the painting, which he hides away from others does. Under Lord Henry’s influence Dorian becomes obsessed with living a beautiful, happy life at any cost. With each immoral act he commits the portrait of Dorian grows hideous, while real Dorian remains unchanged.
A Picture of Dorian Gray is very gay (ha! A rhyme). Basil and Lord Henry’s competition for the attention of the young, attractive Dorian feels way more than friendship. Dorian originally wrote a more homoerotic version of the story that was “toned” down before publication. I’d love to read the bits deemed too gay that had to be deleted. Wilde makes his support for the movement of aestheticism clear in the preface. He believes art should have no morals. Art is meant to stand alone as an aesthetically pleasing work. This contrasts the Victorian style where stories were crafted to teach readers moral lessons (Charles Dickens was an example of this). I think both philosophies place too many limitations on what art is. However, I believe this novel ironically contradicts Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy because the story ends with a moral message. Dorian’s pursuit of an aesthetic life corrupts him and lead to tragedy at the novel’s conclusion. Wilde fails to write this story without including a moral.
A Picture of Dorian Gray was a challenging book to read. The language from Wilde’s time is difficult to understand, resulting in a slower reading pace. Also, there were sections in the book that referenced many people and events that were not familiar to me. Chapter XI is an entire section made up of these references. The chapter reads as a long list of aesthetic objects Dorian acquires to surround himself with beautiful things. Reading this chapter was a struggle for me and I found myself skimming most of it.
I am impressed with The Picture of Dorian Gray. I enjoyed reading a novel from the 19th century with so many gay references. While the language was challenging to read the experience made it well worth the effort. Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism was interesting and led me to reflect on my own artistic philosophy. I recommend picking up Dorian Gray for a short, spooky read. And don’t feel guilty skimming through the sluggish parts!
I wanted to end with a fascinating quote from Oscar Wilde that I am still processing. “Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry what the world thinks of me; Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”