Media type Print
Dewey Decimal 823/.8 22
Originally published July 1890
Genre Philosophical fiction
Adaptations Dorian Gray (2009)
LC Class PR5819.A2 M543 2003
Original language English
|Characters Lord Henry Wotton, Basil Hallward, Sibyl Vane, Dorian Gray, James Vane, Lady Victoria Wotton, Alan Campbell|
Similar Oscar Wilde books, Gothic fiction books, Classical Studies books
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a philosophical novel by Oscar Wilde, first published complete in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. The magazine's editor feared the story was indecent, and without Wilde's knowledge, deleted roughly five hundred words before publication. Despite that censorship, The Picture of Dorian Gray offended the moral sensibilities of British book reviewers, some of whom said that Oscar Wilde merited prosecution for violating the laws guarding the public morality. In response, Wilde aggressively defended his novel and art in correspondence with the British press, although he personally made excisions of some of the most controversial material when revising and lengthening the story for book publication the following year.
- Aestheticism and duplicity
- The Republic
- Joris Karl Huysmans
- Possible Disraeli influence
- Publication history
- Textual revisions
The longer and revised version of The Picture of Dorian Gray published in book form in 1891 featured an aphoristic preface—a defence of the artist's rights and of art for art's sake—based in part on his press defences of the novel the previous year. The content, style, and presentation of the preface made it famous in its own right, as a literary and artistic manifesto. In April 1891, the publishing firm of Ward, Lock and Company, who had distributed the shorter, more inflammatory, magazine version in England the previous year, published the revised version of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The only novel written by Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray exists in several versions: the 1890 magazine edition (in 13 Chapters), with important material deleted before publication by the magazine's editor, J. M. Stoddart; the "uncensored" version submitted to Lippincott's Monthly Magazine for publication (also in 13 chapters), with all of Wilde's original material intact, first published in 2011 by Harvard University Press; and the 1891 book edition (in 20 Chapters). As literature of the 19th century, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an example of Gothic fiction with strong themes interpreted from Faust.
Dorian Gray is the subject of a full-length portrait in oil by Basil Hallward, an artist who is impressed and infatuated by Dorian's beauty; he believes that Dorian's beauty is responsible for the new mode in his art as a painter. Through Basil, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, and he soon is enthralled by the aristocrat's hedonistic worldview: that beauty and sensual fulfilment are the only things worth pursuing in life.
Newly understanding that his beauty will fade, Dorian expresses the desire to sell his soul, to ensure that the picture, rather than he, will age and fade. The wish is granted, and Dorian pursues a libertine life of varied and amoral experiences, while staying young and beautiful; all the while his portrait ages and records every sin.
The plot of the novel varies between each of the published versions. The summary below deals with the longest version, the 1891 novel. However, certain episodes described—in particular Dorian's encounter with, and murder of, James Vane—do not appear in the version originally submitted by Wilde to Lippincott's.
The Picture of Dorian Gray begins on a beautiful summer day in Victorian era England, where Lord Henry Wotton, an opinionated man, is observing the sensitive artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of Dorian Gray, a handsome young man who is Basil's ultimate muse. While sitting for the painting, Dorian listens to Lord Henry espousing his hedonistic world view, and begins to think that beauty is the only aspect of life worth pursuing. This prompts Dorian to wish that the painted image of himself would age instead of himself.
Under the hedonist influence of Lord Henry, Dorian fully explores his sensuality. He discovers the actress Sibyl Vane, who performs Shakespeare plays in a dingy, working-class theatre. Dorian approaches and courts her, and soon proposes marriage. The enamoured Sibyl calls him "Prince Charming", and swoons with the happiness of being loved, but her protective brother, James, warns that if "Prince Charming" harms her, he will murder him.
Dorian invites Basil and Lord Henry to see Sibyl perform in Romeo and Juliet. Sibyl, too enamoured with Dorian to act, performs poorly, which makes both Basil and Lord Henry think Dorian has fallen in love with Sibyl because of her beauty instead of her acting talent. Embarrassed, Dorian rejects Sibyl, telling her that acting was her beauty; without that, she no longer interests him. On returning home, Dorian notices that the portrait has changed; his wish has come true, and the man in the portrait bears a subtle sneer of cruelty.
Conscience-stricken and lonely, Dorian decides to reconcile with Sibyl, but he is too late, as Lord Henry informs him that Sibyl has committed suicide by swallowing prussic acid. Dorian then understands that, where his life is headed, lust and good looks shall suffice. Dorian locks the portrait up, and over the following eighteen years, he experiments with every vice, influenced by a morally poisonous French novel that Lord Henry Wotton gave him.
[The narrative does not reveal the title of the French novel, but, at trial, Wilde said that the novel Dorian Gray read was À Rebours ('Against Nature', 1884), by Joris-Karl Huysmans.]
One night, before leaving for Paris, Basil goes to Dorian's house to ask him about rumours of his self-indulgent sensualism. Dorian does not deny his debauchery, and takes Basil to see the portrait. The portrait has become so hideous that Basil is only able to identify it as his work by the signature he affixes to all his portraits. Basil is horrified, and beseeches Dorian to pray for salvation. In anger, Dorian blames his fate on Basil, and stabs him to death. Dorian then calmly blackmails an old friend, the scientist Alan Campbell, into using his knowledge of chemistry to destroy the body of Basil Hallward. Alan later kills himself over the deed.
To escape the guilt of his crime, Dorian goes to an opium den, where James Vane is unknowingly present. James had been seeking vengeance upon Dorian ever since Sibyl killed herself, but had no leads to pursue: the only thing he knew about Dorian was the name Sibyl called him, "Prince Charming". In the opium den however he hears someone refer to Dorian as "Prince Charming", and he accosts Dorian. Dorian deceives James into believing that he is too young to have known Sibyl, who killed herself 18 years earlier, as his face is still that of a young man. James relents and releases Dorian, but is then approached by a woman from the opium den who reproaches James for not killing Dorian. She confirms that the man was Dorian Gray and explains that he has not aged in 18 years. James runs after Dorian, but he has gone.
James then begins to stalk Dorian, causing Dorian to fear for his life. However during a shooting party, a hunter accidentally kills James Vane who was lurking in a thicket. On returning to London, Dorian tells Lord Henry that he will live righteously from then on. His new probity begins with deliberately not breaking the heart of the naïve Hetty Merton, his current romantic interest. Dorian wonders if his new-found goodness has reverted the corruption in the picture, but when he looks he sees only an even uglier image of himself. From that, Dorian understands that his true motives for the self-sacrifice of moral reformation were the vanity and curiosity of his quest for new experiences.
Deciding that only full confession will absolve him of wrongdoing, Dorian decides to destroy the last vestige of his conscience, and the only piece of evidence remaining of his crimes – the picture. In a rage, he takes the knife with which he murdered Basil Hallward, and stabs the picture. The servants of the house awaken on hearing a cry from the locked room; on the street, passers-by who also heard the cry call the police. On entering the locked room, the servants find an unknown old man, stabbed in the heart, his face and figure withered and decrepit. The servants identify the disfigured corpse by the rings on its fingers which belonged to their master; beside him is the picture of Dorian Gray, restored to its original beauty.
Oscar Wilde said that, in the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), three of the characters were reflections of himself:
Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.
Aestheticism and duplicity
The greatest theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) is aestheticism and its conceptual relation to living a double life. Throughout the story, the narrative presents aestheticism as an absurd abstraction, which disillusions more than it dignifies the concept of Beauty. Despite Dorian being a hedonist when Basil accuses him of making a "by-word" of the name of Lord Henry's sister, Dorian curtly replies, "Take care, Basil. You go too far ..."; thus, in Victorian society, public image and social standing do matter to Dorian. Yet, Wilde highlights the protagonist's hedonism: Dorian enjoyed "keenly the terrible pleasure of a double life", by attending a high-society party only twenty-four hours after committing a murder.
Moral duplicity and self-indulgence are evident in Dorian's patronising the opium dens of London. Wilde conflates the images of the upper-class man and lower-class man in Dorian Gray, a gentleman slumming for strong entertainment in the poor parts of London town. Lord Henry philosophically had earlier said to him that: "Crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders. ... I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations"—implying that Dorian is two men, a refined aesthete and a coarse criminal. That authorial observation is a thematic link to the double life recounted in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), by Robert Louis Stevenson, a novella admired by Oscar Wilde.
In Book 2 of Plato's The Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus present the myth of the Ring of Gyges, by means of which Gyges made himself invisible. They then ask Socrates, "If one came into possession of such a ring, why should he act justly?" Socrates replies that although no one can see one's body, the soul is disfigured by the evils one commits. The disfigured and corrupted soul (antithesis of the beautiful soul) is imbalanced and disordered, and, in itself, is undesirable, regardless of any advantage derived from acting unjustly. The picture of Dorian Gray is the means by which other people, such as his friend Basil Hallward, may see Dorian's distorted soul.
Dorian attends a performance of Tannhäuser, by Richard Wagner, and the narrative identifies him with the protagonist of the opera. Disruptive beauty is the thematic resemblance between the opera and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Based upon a medieval historical figure, Tannhäuser is a singer whose art is so beautiful that Venus becomes enamoured of him. The Roman goddess of love then offers him eternal life with her in the Venusberg, and he accepts; yet, Tannhäuser becomes dissatisfied with life in the Venusberg, and returns to the harsh reality of the mortal world. After participating in a singing contest, Tannhäuser is censured for the sensuality of his art; eventually, he dies searching for repentance and the love of a good woman.
About the literary hero, the author Oscar Wilde said, "in every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust." As in the legend of Faust, in The Picture of Dorian Gray a temptation (ageless beauty) is placed before the protagonist, which he indulges. In each story, the protagonist entices a beautiful woman to love him, and then destroys her life. In the preface to the novel (1891), Wilde said that the notion behind the tale is "old in the history of literature", but was a thematic subject to which he had "given a new form".
Unlike the academic Faust, the gentleman Dorian makes no deal with the Devil, who is represented by the cynical hedonist Lord Henry, who presents the temptation that will corrupt the virtue and innocence that Dorian possesses at the start of the story. Throughout, Lord Henry appears unaware of the effect of his actions upon the young man; and so frivolously advises Dorian, that "the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing." As such, the devilish Lord Henry is "leading Dorian into an unholy pact, by manipulating his innocence and insecurity."
In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Wilde speaks of the sub-human Caliban character from The Tempest. When Dorian tells Lord Henry about his new love Sibyl Vane, he mentions the Shakespeare plays in which she has acted, and refers to her by the name of the heroine of each play. Later, Dorian speaks of his life by quoting Hamlet, a privileged character who impels his girlfriend (Ophelia) to suicide, and prompts her brother (Laertes) to swear mortal revenge.
The anonymous "poisonous French novel" that leads Dorian to his fall is a thematic variant of À rebours (1884), by Joris-Karl Huysmans. In the biography, Oscar Wilde (1989), the literary critic Richard Ellmann said that:
Wilde does not name the book, but at his trial he conceded that it was, or almost [was], Huysmans's À rebours ... to a correspondent, he wrote that he had played a 'fantastic variation' upon À rebours, and someday must write it down. The references in Dorian Gray to specific chapters are deliberately inaccurate.
Possible Disraeli influence
Some commentaters have suggested that The Picture of Dorian Gray was influenced by the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's (anonymously published) first novel Vivian Grey (1826) as, "a kind of homage from one outsider to another." The name of Dorian Gray's love interest, Sibyl Vane, may be a modified fusion of the title of Disraeli's best known novel (Sybil) and Vivian Grey's love interest Violet Fane, who, like Sibyl Vane, dies tragically. There is also a scene in Vivian Grey in which the eyes in the portrait of a "beautiful being" move when its subject dies.
The Picture of Dorian Gray originally was a short novel submitted to Lippincott's Monthly Magazine for serial publication. In 1889, J. M. Stoddart, an editor for Lippincott, was in London to solicit short novels to publish in the magazine. On 30 August 1889, Stoddart dined with Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and T. P. Gill at the Langham Hotel, and commissioned short novels from each writer. Conan Doyle promptly submitted The Sign of the Four (1890) to Stoddart, but Wilde was more dilatory; Conan Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes novel was published in the February 1890 edition of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, yet Stoddart did not receive Wilde's manuscript for The Picture of Dorian Gray until 7 April 1890, nine months after having commissioned the novel from him.
The literary merits of The Picture of Dorian Gray impressed Stoddart, but, as an editor, he told the publisher, George Lippincott, "in its present condition there are a number of things an innocent woman would make an exception to. ..." Among the pre-publication deletions that Stoddart and his editors made to the text of Wilde's original manuscript were: (i) passages alluding to homosexuality and to homosexual desire; (ii) all references to the fictional book title Le Secret de Raoul and its author, Catulle Sarrazin; and (iii) all "mistress" references to Gray's lovers, Sibyl Vane and Hetty Merton.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was published on 20 June 1890, in the July issue of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. British reviewers condemned the novel's immorality, and said condemnation was so controversial that the W H Smith publishing house withdrew every copy of the July 1890 issue of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine from its bookstalls in railway stations. Consequent to the harsh criticism of the 1890 magazine edition, Wilde ameliorated the homoerotic references, to simplify the moral message of the story. In the magazine edition (1890), Basil tells Lord Henry how he "worships" Dorian, and begs him not to "take away the one person that makes my life absolutely lovely to me." In the magazine edition, Basil concentrates upon love, whereas, in the book edition (1891), Basil concentrates upon his art, saying to Lord Henry, "the one person who gives my art whatever charm it may possess: my life as an artist depends on him."
The magazine edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) was expanded from thirteen to twenty chapters; and the magazine edition’s final chapter was divided into two chapters, the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of the book edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Wilde's textual additions were about "fleshing out of Dorian as a character" and providing details of his ancestry that made his "psychological collapse more prolonged and more convincing."
The introduction of the James Vane character to the story develops the socio-economic background of the Sibyl Vane character, thus emphasising Dorian's selfishness and foreshadowing James's accurate perception of the essentially immoral character of Dorian Gray; thus, he correctly deduced Dorian’s dishonourable intent towards Sibyl. The sub-plot about James Vane's dislike of Dorian gives the novel a Victorian tinge of class struggle. With such textual changes, Oscar Wilde meant to diminish the moralistic controversy about the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Consequent to the harsh criticism of the magazine edition of the novel, the textual revisions to The Picture of Dorian Gray included a preface in which Wilde addressed the criticisms and defended the reputation of his novel. To communicate how the novel should be read, in the Preface, Wilde explains the role of the artist in society, the purpose of art, and the value of beauty. It traces Wilde's cultural exposure to Taoism and to the philosophy of Chuang Tsǔ (Zhuang Zhou). Earlier, before writing the preface, Wilde had written a book review of Herbert Giles's translation of the work of Zhuang Zhou. The preface was first published in the 1891 edition of the novel; nonetheless, by June 1891, Wilde was defending The Picture of Dorian Gray against accusations that it was a bad book.
In the essay The Artist as Critic, Oscar Wilde said that:
The honest ratepayer and his healthy family have no doubt often mocked at the dome-like forehead of the philosopher, and laughed over the strange perspective of the landscape that lies beneath him. If they really knew who he was, they would tremble. For Chuang Tsǔ spent his life in preaching the great creed of Inaction, and in pointing out the uselessness of all things.
In the 19th century, the critical reception of the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) was poor. The book critic of The Irish Times said, The Picture of Dorian Gray was "first published to some scandal." Such book reviews achieved for the novel a "certain notoriety for being 'mawkish and nauseous', 'unclean', 'effeminate' and 'contaminating'." Such moralistic scandal arose from the novel's homoeroticism, which offended the sensibilities (social, literary, and aesthetic) of Victorian book critics. Yet, most of the criticism was personal, attacking Wilde for being a hedonist with a distorted view of conventional morality of Victorian Britain. In the 30 June 1890 issue of the Daily Chronicle, the book critic said that Wilde's novel contains "one element ... which will taint every young mind that comes in contact with it." In the 5 July 1890 issue of the Scots Observer, a reviewer asked "Why must Oscar Wilde 'go grubbing in muck-heaps?'" In response to such criticism, Wilde obscured the homoeroticism of the story and expanded the personal background of the characters.
After the initial publication of the magazine edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Wilde expanded the text from 13 to 20 chapters and obscured the homoerotic themes of the story. In the novel version of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), chapters 3, 5, and 15 to 18, inclusive, are new; and chapter 13 of the magazine edition was divided, and became chapters 19 and 20 of the novel edition. In 1895, at his trials, Oscar Wilde said he revised the text of The Picture of Dorian Gray because of letters sent to him by the cultural critic Walter Pater.
Passages revised for the novel
Passages added to the novel
The uncensored edition
In 2011, the Belknap Press published The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition. The edition includes text that was deleted by JM Stoddart, Wilde's initial editor, before the story's publication in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890.