The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Genre: Gothic Drama
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Are we all running from our reflections? Must there always be a great price for being extraordinary? Oscar Wilde paints a painfully clear picture of human nature, its propensity towards sin, and its struggle with conscience in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
A young man in late nineteenth-century London endowed with remarkable beauty sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for eternal youth. In a fit of narcissistic despair, he prays that he may forever remain as beautiful as he has ever been. His portrait—painted by a friend who is infatuated with Gray—bears the marks of his moral deterioration while he stays handsome and appears to be not a day over 21.
Quite the scandal in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray tiptoes around themes of homosexuality and substance abuse, the former being considered an unspeakable sin during that time, even worse than the latter. It was revised and republished in 1891 with a few edges softened to better suit the audience of the time.
It is interesting what Wilde classifies as sin in this Gothic novel. Perhaps in an unconscious effort to concur with the ideals of nineteenth century English society (in spite of his rebellious nature and general disagreement with said ideals), Wilde’s protagonist primes himself for sin by indulging himself in sensual art and music, which are invariably pagan or Eastern. Did Wilde really believe the East and “the Orient” to be godless, or was he merely tired of rebelling and, for once, wanted English society to nod along with him?
Either way, our protagonist (also the antagonist) doesn’t disappoint. Dorian Gray warms up with regular debauchery and, over a course of twenty years, spirals into actual crime. His portrait grows horrific while his person remains aesthetically angelic.
A fascinating read for the most part of it, it is a dramatic novel with only a dash of fantasy but an era-appropriate amount of misogyny. The plot unfurls steadily and tapers towards a gripping climax. The reader is caught among the many facets of the marvelous Dorian Gray, even as they converge and bring him to face the reflection of his soul.