Oscar Wilde: “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

1890/1891

Oscar Wilde’s only novel tells the story of the beautiful Dorian Gray, muse to painter Basil Hallward. After Dorian meets Basil’s friend Lord Henry, he becomes fearful of losing his beauty. Dorian wishes for Basil’s painting to absorb his years, leaving his body forever young, and as time passes and his sins accumulate, he conceals the increasingly hideous, bloodstained, and sneering portrait in the attic to hide its changes from the world. Among Dorian’s offenses are the seduction of a young actress, Sybil Vane, whom he rejects when her love ruins her art. Later, he kills Basil as his old friend begs him to change his ways, and Dorian must call in a favor from his estranged lover Alan Campbell (under threat of exposure, it seems) to ‘scientifically’ destroy all evidence of the body. The novel ends when Dorian attempts to escape his misery by stabbing the painting with the same knife he used to kill Basil. His servants hear an agonized cry and burst in upon an old man with a knife in his heart, dead before a portrait of exquisite beauty.

The original, “uncensored” version of the novel was published serially in 1890 and includes the few highly homoerotic passages excised in the 1891 “censored” version. The later, “censored” text is actually much longer, since it adds Chapters 3, 16, 17, and 18, filling in the family history of Sybil Vane and adding the part of the narrative where her brother, James Vane, tracks down Dorian in an opium den 18 years later and nearly kills him (his youthful looks save him). The ‘censorship’ is therefore largely by way of dilution and detraction.

There is less a mode of detection/genre fictionality or a sense of fear that Dorian will be caught in the original (it also eliminates the ‘novelistic’ lapse of time provided by James’ reappearance. Sybil’s suicide and Basil’s murder are given equal weight and treatment among Dorian’s sins, and Hetty and Alan are both innocents whom Dorian corrupts. It is almost as if for every minor female character, there is a corresponding male, and the fleshed-out characters are all men. Furthermore, without James, none of the men read as straight. 

In the less diluted text, the intense, homoerotic relationships of the central triad of characters are much more vibrant. Wilde said in a letter,

Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.

Certainly, this opens itself for psychological interpretation, but perhaps more interestingly, the (incestuous) intensity of the triadic relationship between Lord Harry, Basil, and Dorian might be read as that between writer, reader, and text. Hands-off Lord Harry, with his Kantian disinterestedness and almost literally Flaubertian ‘paring of the fingernails’ in the background of the text, acts as the figure of the writer, an agent who places Dorian in queer, experimental situations and cruelly pushes his narrative development along. Though Basil is a painter, he acts not as a figure for authorship in the novel, but in fact for the reader. His solipsistic projections of himself onto and into the surface of the painting he creates, as well as his adoring sensation of being led by Dorian’s will, make him both as powerful and as powerless as the consumer of the text itself. Finally, Dorian, as the text, fascinatingly divides himself between form and content when he divests himself of his ‘soul’ in the portrait and makes the art of his life ‘pure form,’ pure beauty – albeit one that fails.

As he ceases to discern between sensory experiences, Dorian devolves into indiscriminate hedonism, and he begins to lose the ability to discern between the pleasing presentation of beauty to the senses (aesthetic consciousness) and the mere sensations themselves This represents a loss of conscious experience (German aesthetics via Arnold and Pater). Without this discernment, Dorian can no longer aestheticize nonmaterial things, as his many lists of things  and acquisitions in Chapter 11 suggests. He must constantly use these objects like drugs to retain their pleasure, also linked to a proliferation of capitalist language as the novel progresses.

In contrast to the visual and plastic arts, Wilde insists on music as the least “imitative” art and the language of literature as freer from the tired constraints of mimesis (depict vs describe) – there could be no “song” or “novel” of Dorian Gray, as it were, but there could be a sculpture or a theatre performance. (The novels’ preface suggests that the 19th century detests realism as Caliban does his own reflection in the glass.)

Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Dorian’s zealous, self-cancelling commitment to his ‘philosophical’ ideals has an ‘ominous’ twinge from the start, and does eventually lead to his ruin (where Marlow would function as the passive ‘writer’ figure, and the simple, adoring Russian is more like Basil, a ‘reader’ of ‘greatness’).

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