First published in its entirety in 1890 by Oscar Wilde, the novel was met by controversy at the time considering some of the themes explored within the book. Wilde himself was even threatened with prosecution for offending British moral sensibilities, however, Wilde defended his right to publish the novel as a form of art. The book was published and the rest is history. These days there are several versions of The Picture of Dorian Grey and whilst I have no idea which version I have on my kindle I still want to talk about it.
Naturally by today’s standards when books like Altered Carbon or even trash like Fifty Shades of Grey can graphically describe sex acts between its characters the themes and pleasures that are explored in the Oscar Wilde’s novel are incredibly tame. However, despite modern trends leading to the pornographic it has to be said that for its time Dorian Grey was very provocative and dealt with the question of morality and what would happen to someone should they allow themselves to be consumed by their own selfish wants and desires.
It is possible that you, my reader, may already have heard of Dorian Grey either from his inclusion in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film in 2003 or Dorian Grey in 2009, I have seen The League of…etcetera film and whilst I wouldn’t mind seeing the 2009 film as of writing this article I haven’t seen anything other than snippets of it.
Right just in case you don’t know then let me give you the quick version of who Dorian Grey is and what his powers are…basically he has a painting which has somehow captured his soul. The painting ages and reflects Dorian’s soul whilst he remains immune to everything around him, this makes him essentially immortal as any damage also happens to the portrait rather than him. In The League…he was unable to look upon the painting whereas in the book he is able to see what he is becoming but only he looks upon the portrait and sees what his own soul looks like.
But how does the above happen in the novel, well, permit me to tell you…
The novel begins with Basil Hallward telling his friend Lord Henry about the young man whom he is currently painting. The young man is named Dorian Grey and is considered by all around him to be the picture of youth and beauty, he is a relatively naive young man, and as Basil completes his portrait Lord Henry talks to the boy and tells him that youth and beauty are the only things that matter in life. That Dorian needs to enjoy his youth and beauty whilst he can because given time his looks will fade, his beautiful face will become broken by lines and his youth will be nothing more than a memory.
Upon seeing the picture and knowing that the image in the painting is already younger than he is, Dorian weeps and curses the youth Basil has captured on the canvass. Basil is hurt because he doesn’t understand that Dorian wants the painting to age instead of him, he wants to remain young and beautiful forever.
Basil warns Henry away from Dorian but the young lad is fascinate by Henry’s views and over the next month the two dine together numerous times and Lord Henry turns the head of the naive young Dorian prompting him to start to explore his sensuality. He falls in love with an actress named Sybil Vane whilst watching her perform in Romeo and Juliet, and excitedly invites Lord Henry and Basil to see her in the play. But during the performance, Sybil, nervous about the prospect of Dorian and his friends coming to see her, performs badly and the embarrassed Dorian rejects her following the performance.
Returning home Dorian looks to his portrait and sees that the once innocent expression on his double’s face has been twisted by a subtle but cruel sneer. Dorian realises that somehow he has gotten what he wanted, his portrait is changing whilst he is remaining the same, he is initially frightened and guiltily attempts to reconcile with Sybil but it is too late as she has already committed suicide due to his rejection.
Dorian, who now fully believes that the only things in life that matter are beauty and his own lust, locks up the painting then spends the next eighteen years exploring every vice he can, influenced by a morally poisonous French novel his friend Lord Henry has given him. Whilst he indulges his pleasures the portrait grows increasingly ugly as it continues to reflect Dorian’s twisted soul.
As I have said time, and time, and time again there are numerous novels which have helped to define or create new genres and like The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and Dracula or Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Grey also created a genre. It gave audiences the idea of immortality and shows the slow corruption of someone who starts off as an innocent naive youth that is completely corrupted by Lord Henry Wootton and his desires for consequence-free pleasures.
Like Frankenstein in which the exact method Dr Frankenstein uses to give life to his creation is not clear, exactly how Dorian manages to transfer his soul to the painting is not explained, it kind-of implies that it might have been a wish, or that when he was being painted the artist, who loved him, captured his soul. How it happens is unclear but as the story continues the picture becomes more and more ugly as Dorian’s soul becomes darker and more corrupted by his actions.
Like some of the other novels I have read, such as The Invisible Man, it is the idea that I find more interesting than some aspects of the novel. I remember reading it wondering when I was going to see someone decapitate Dorian or try to kill him only for his body to regenerate, if you look at the poster for the film…
I think you’ll agree that looks like what happens. Now whilst it is possible that in the film this does indeed happen, in the novel Dorian is never really under threat from anything other than his own vices.
There is a sequence when the brother of Sybil stalks Dorian seeking revenge for his sister’s suicide, and Dorian fears for his life. I was willing the stalker to leap out of a bush or something and stab him, only for Dorian to calmly pull the knife from his own body and kill the attacker with it. Thus cementing his downfall in to true darkness, unfortunately, this doesn’t happen. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen we see Dorian getting shot, stabbed and slashed with a blade and in each instance his body heals leaving him completely unharmed. This doesn’t happen in the novel. Yes, I understand that the novel is more about someone selfishly pursuing his own pleasures and the painting showing Dorian what his soul is becoming rather than action but it would have been interesting to see.
Like the other novels that came out around this sort of time the ideas in the novel were groundbreaking at the time and whilst they seem pretty mundane by now it is worth remembering that this was the source of so many stories about immortality. Dorian Grey is an interesting character who surrenders to every dark impulse he chooses and even murders people who try and stop him doing what he desires.
I have to say that I don’t think this novel is as good as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but it is one that I have read more than once, so unlike Treasure Island the story did leave me with the desire to read it again. I think that I will leave my Thumb Up because I enjoyed the story and it is probably only my own desire for immortals shrugging off fatal injuries because it looks cool that left me disappointed I didn’t see that in this novel.
7/10 – A groundbreaking novel that is definitely worth a read, personally I put it into a similar vein to Frankenstein or War of the Worlds, it is more about the ideas behind the story and characters than the novel itself which will interest. It is one of those novels that can be downloaded for free onto a kindle so I urge you to do that and check it out.