Friday, April 23, 2021

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde--Fiction Review

For today’s review, I thought we would go old school and talk about a classic supernatural horror story by Oscar Wilde, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” and despite the rumors, I don’t have my own portrait moldering away in some locked room. It’s in my parlor. I like to look at that shit. 

Oscar Wilde

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” has that Victorian-era gothic aura about it that you can also get a taste of in Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Emily Brontë’s work. It’s a quality that is probably my favorite thing about writers of this period—their predilection for evoking the supernatural. Unlike the famous works of those writers, the narrative of this story doesn’t involve ghosts but rather revolves around a Faustian bargain the protagonist makes regarding a portrait of him. 

Wilde makes some deep meditative points regarding Victorian society’s philosophy on the world in this novel. And if ever there was a group of people who didn’t take to criticism well, it was the Victorians—so I admire the bravery of that since they were also his primary audience.

Plus, on a far baser level, there is just something fun about the idea of you can do anything, and none of the consequences of your actions will touch you. They’ll just jack up some portrait of you. 

What I don’t love about this book:

For a guy who might be immortal—or at least doesn’t suffer consequences—not a lot happens on stage in this book. There are a lot of conversations about Dorian Gray’s wild behavior and a lot of allusions to what he gets up to as a functional immortal, but precious little action. This is really just true of the era stylistically. Novels and stories of his time tend to be sedate even when they involve supernatural monsters.

Dorian Gray is really one of those archetypical characters who, when granted eternal youth, nearly immediately goes full dickhead. Why does nobody who gets one of these bargains ever just live a life of quiet, industrious virtue? Probably the devil—well, I guess I answered my own question there.

This preview is an Amazon Affiliate link; 
as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

At the beginning of the story, Dorian Gray is modeling for Basil Hallward, a painter painting Dorian’s portrait. Through this painter, Dorian becomes acquainted with Lord Henry Wotton, the consummate hedonist, and in many ways, the antithesis of the moralizing Hallward. Somewhere amidst the conversation between the three, Dorian expresses a wish that the painting should suffer the effects of time in his stead, and he should remain forever youthful.

He doesn’t know it at first, but Dorian’s wish is granted in some unknowable way. At this point, Dorian starts hanging out a lot with the vulgar Lord Wotton, who has a deleterious effect on the young man’s character. Despite this, Dorian meets a young actress, Sibyl, and they fall in love so quickly Dorian proposes marriage in short order. Sibyl is so enthralled with Dorian she takes to calling him “Prince Charming.” Dorian, wanting to show her off to his friends, takes Hallward and Wotton to see her perform “Romeo and Juliet,” and Sibyl is unexpectantly dreadful. She tries to explain to the embarrassed Dorian that she was distracted with how much she loves Dorian that she couldn’t act out her role in the legendary tragedy. Dorian, however, is having none of it and heartlessly tells her that he only loved her for her talent as an actress.

Once at home, Dorian sees his portrait has subtly changed, and this is when he begins to suspect its supernatural qualities. In the picture, he sees himself sneering with a cruel expression. Dorian regrets what he did to Sibyl and decides to apologize, but sadly, she’s already taken her own life. Instead of learning humility here, Dorian Gray goes the other direction. He spends the better part of the next two decades engaging in every sin or vice he can think of, and the consequences of his actions never seem to take a toll on him, but on his portrait, which he’s locked away. One day, he shows the picture to its creator, Hallward, who only recognizes the grotesque perversion of his art because of his signature on it. Hallward beseeches Dorian to repent and pray for salvation. Dorian, having a different idea, murders him.

After doing away with the body of his late friend—by blackmailing another acquaintance who reluctantly helps Dorian and then kills himself—Dorian continues on with his debauched life. One day whilst at an opium den—of course—Dorian is nearly recognized by the still grief-stricken brother of Sibyl. Sibyl’s brother heard someone there refer to Dorian as “Prince Charming” like his sister once had and resolves to kill him for his role in Sibyl’s suicide. Dorian talks his way out of this jam by explaining that Sibyl died nearly two decades ago, and he is clearly a young man, too young to have been an acquaintance of hers. This appears to be true because of the picture’s peculiar magic, which keeps Dorian looking precisely as he did when it was painted.

Soon after letting Dorian go, Sibyl’s brother soon regrets his mercy because someone informs him that Dorian is the same “Prince Charming” who was involved with Sibyl. He stalks Dorian but is accidentally killed in a shooting accident. After this close call, Dorian decides to atone. He tells his sole remaining friend, Wotton, that he will live an upright life from here on out. However, one look at his portrait reveals to Dorian the truth of his inner self, namely that he’s full of shit and was lying about his sincerity to even himself. So—choosing violence once again—he tries to destroy the painting with the very knife he used to kill its creator.

There is a terrible racket, and Dorian’s servants find an immaculate painting of their late employer in a hitherto locked room and a twisted old man—quite dead—wearing Dorian’s rings, lying next to the picture.


Wilde is heavy on the critique of Victorian society and its perceived shallowness and obsessions with this novel. I see it most in the dichotomy between the secondary characters of Hallward and Wotton, who act as that cliché angel and devil on Dorian’s shoulders. The symbolism is palpable when Dorian outright murders Hallward—the angel in this analogy—and even blames him for all his problems, not recognizing that it was Wotton who gave him all of his ideas. Wotton is the lordly character who sets Dorian on the same path as himself—that of a selfish aristocrat—too obsessed with superficial beauty to recognize the real thing, whose corruption isn’t just ugly but infectious.

There is also a touch of the classical in this story. It certainly evokes the Greek myth of Narcissus—where we get the word narcissism, by the way, hint-hint, nudge-nudge—and our boy Dorian Gray is in many ways a Victorian-era version of Narcissus. Narcissus fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water, which is sort of like a picture. Both characters’ extreme vanity eventually leads them to self-destruct in the end.

Parting thoughts:

What first introduced me to Dorian Gray as a character was “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” the movie, not the comic book. While I’m uncertain of the quality of the comic book, having never read it, the film was terrible. But like most teenage boys who saw the movie in theaters in 2003, I thought that the villainous Dorian Gray was super cool and badass.

The reality of the character in the novel is less so—mainly Dorian Gray in the book is a self-indulgent prick who is also a bit of a coward. The movie shows him to be physically immortal, instantly healing from any wound a la Wolverine-Esque manner. Still, in Wilde’s story, Dorian is clearly afraid that Sibyl’s brother might actually kill him, which implies that just because he doesn’t grow older, that doesn’t mean he’s immune to physical violence.

Personally, in my head-cannon, the Dorian Gray of the novel has the exact same powers as the dumb movie version. He’s just that much of a coward. Like this guy could be god-emperor of all of Europe if he applied himself but is so worried about getting an owie he just spends his days getting blitzed at opium dens for no better reason than he’s got nothing better to do with his time.

No comments:

Post a Comment