Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Wow, it’s been a long time since we stumbled across something that’s actually famous. What a treat!
I’m cheating a little bit here since what Project Gutenberg actually pulled up for us was a Finnish translation of Dorian Gray. But I can’t read Finnish, so we’re going to look at the English version instead (although I will like to the Finnish version here so you can see it).
If by chance you’ve never heard of this classic book or its author, allow me to give you some background info. Oscar Wilde was an Irish author and playwright who started working in the 1880s and found massive popularity and acclaim in the early 1890s. A major figure in the Aesthetic and Decadent artistic movements, he’s best known today for 1890’s Dorian Gray and his 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest. More on his personal life later.
Wilde’s only novel, Dorian Gray is a Gothic tale of vanity, hedonism and a classic Faustian bargain. The titular Dorian Gray is an airheaded Victorian pretty boy whose story begins when two very different men come into his life. One is Basil Hallward, a kind and sensitive painter who is infatuated with Dorian and shows it through the gorgeous full-length portrait he paints of him. The other is Lord Henry Wotton, a libertine who claims that man is only at his best when he gives in to his every temptation and prizes beauty and pleasure above all else. Wotton’s ideas have quite the effect on Dorian, who begins to think about the fleeting nature of his own beauty. And when he sees Basil’s finished portrait, he’s so overcome by it that he wishes it could grow old in his place and leave him looking young forever. Lord Henry then takes Dorian under his wing and starts introducing him to the darker, more sensual side of the Victorian world. Dorian’s early experiments with pursuing pleasure culminate in his courtship and rejection of a working-class actress named Sybil Vane. When Sybil kills herself out of love for Dorian, he notices a subtle change in his portrait: the innocent smile has become “a touch of cruelty in the mouth.” Dorian’s impulsive wish has come true, and for the next eighteen years, the portrait ages instead of him. But that’s not all, because it also bears the marks of Dorian’s every sin and vice — and Dorian gets caught up in many, many vices.
So why are people still reading and adapting this story 130 years after its publication? Because it’s a damn good story, that’s why. With his plotting and prose, Wilde manages to pull off the delicate balancing act between genuine horror and the sharp, witty social commentary he was known for. Reading his dialogue, you can tell that he was a playwright: the characters’ flowery monologues and snappy remarks feel like they’re just waiting to be spoken aloud. For example, take this exchange between Basil and Lord Henry in the opening chapter:
Hallward shook his head. “You don’t understand what friendship is, Harry,” he murmured—”or what enmity is, for that matter. You like every one; that is to say, you are indifferent to every one.”
“How horribly unjust of you!” cried Lord Henry, tilting his hat back and looking up at the little clouds that, like ravelled skeins of glossy white silk, were drifting across the hollowed turquoise of the summer sky. “Yes; horribly unjust of you. I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool. They are all men of some intellectual power, and consequently they all appreciate me. Is that very vain of me? I think it is rather vain.”Chapter 1
But Wilde’s descriptions are no slouch, either. Feast your eyes on the sumptuous imagery in this paragraph:
On one occasion he took up the study of jewels, and appeared at a costume ball as Anne de Joyeuse, Admiral of France, in a dress covered with five hundred and sixty pearls. This taste enthralled him for years, and, indeed, may be said never to have left him. He would often spend a whole day settling and resettling in their cases the various stones that he had collected, such as the olive-green chrysoberyl that turns red by lamplight, the cymophane with its wirelike line of silver, the pistachio-coloured peridot, rose-pink and wine-yellow topazes, carbuncles of fiery scarlet with tremulous, four-rayed stars, flame-red cinnamon-stones, orange and violet spinels, and amethysts with their alternate layers of ruby and sapphire. He loved the red gold of the sunstone, and the moonstone’s pearly whiteness, and the broken rainbow of the milky opal. He procured from Amsterdam three emeralds of extraordinary size and richness of colour, and had a turquoise de la vieille roche that was the envy of all the connoisseurs.Chapter 11
But what about the horror? Oh, there’s plenty of that to go around, too.
Often, on returning home from one of those mysterious and prolonged absences that gave rise to such strange conjecture among those who were his friends, or thought that they were so, he himself would creep upstairs to the locked room, open the door with the key that never left him now, and stand, with a mirror, in front of the portrait that Basil Hallward had painted of him, looking now at the evil and aging face on the canvas, and now at the fair young face that laughed back at him from the polished glass. The very sharpness of the contrast used to quicken his sense of pleasure. He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul. He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age. He would place his white hands beside the coarse bloated hands of the picture, and smile. He mocked the misshapen body and the failing limbs.Chapter 11
And who could forget the famous scene where Basil finally sees Dorian’s portrait in all its grisly glory?
An exclamation of horror broke from the painter’s lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him. There was something in its expression that filled him with disgust and loathing. Good heavens! it was Dorian Gray’s own face that he was looking at! The horror, whatever it was, had not yet entirely spoiled that marvellous beauty. There was still some gold in the thinning hair and some scarlet on the sensual mouth. The sodden eyes had kept something of the loveliness of their blue, the noble curves had not yet completely passed away from chiselled nostrils and from plastic throat. Yes, it was Dorian himself. But who had done it? He seemed to recognize his own brushwork, and the frame was his own design. The idea was monstrous, yet he felt afraid. He seized the lighted candle, and held it to the picture. In the left-hand corner was his own name, traced in long letters of bright vermilion.Chapter 13
But I think Dorian Gray‘s legacy, and the ways in which Wilde’s real life came to mirror his own fiction, are among the most interesting things about the book. This story is regarded as a masterpiece today, but that was far from the case when it first came out. It was decried as “unclean,” “effeminate” and “contaminating.” There are many things in this book designed to disgust and horrify the Victorian populace — of course there are, it’s Wilde — but the element that truly damned it at the time was the homoeroticism.
It’s straight-up impossible to deny the sheer truckload of romantic and sexual tension going on between the men in this story, particularly Dorian and Basil. Basil is so clearly in love with Dorian that it hurts. Like, look me in the eye and try telling me the following words are spoken by a straight man:
He is all my art to me now,” said the painter gravely. “I sometimes think, Harry, that there are only two eras of any importance in the world’s history. The first is the appearance of a new medium for art, and the second is the appearance of a new personality for art also. What the invention of oil-painting was to the Venetians, the face of Antinous was to late Greek sculpture, and the face of Dorian Gray will some day be to me. It is not merely that I paint from him, draw from him, sketch from him. Of course, I have done all that. But he is much more to me than a model or a sitter. I won’t tell you that I am dissatisfied with what I have done of him, or that his beauty is such that art cannot express it. There is nothing that art cannot express, and I know that the work I have done, since I met Dorian Gray, is good work, is the best work of my life. But in some curious way—I wonder will you understand me?—his personality has suggested to me an entirely new manner in art, an entirely new mode of style. I see things differently, I think of them differently. I can now recreate life in a way that was hidden from me before. ‘A dream of form in days of thought’—who is it who says that? I forget; but it is what Dorian Gray has been to me. The merely visible presence of this lad—for he seems to me little more than a lad, though he is really over twenty—his merely visible presence—ah! I wonder can you realize all that that means? Unconsciously he defines for me the lines of a fresh school, a school that is to have in it all the passion of the romantic spirit, all the perfection of the spirit that is Greek. The harmony of soul and body—how much that is! We in our madness have separated the two, and have invented a realism that is vulgar, an ideality that is void. Harry! if you only knew what Dorian Gray is to me!Chapter 1
Meanwhile here’s what Dorian is thinking to himself about Basil:
He shuddered, and for a moment he regretted that he had not told Basil the true reason why he had wished to hide the picture away. Basil would have helped him to resist Lord Henry’s influence, and the still more poisonous influences that came from his own temperament. The love that he bore him—for it was really love—had nothing in it that was not noble and intellectual. It was not that mere physical admiration of beauty that is born of the senses and that dies when the senses tire. It was such love as Michelangelo had known, and Montaigne, and Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself. Yes, Basil could have saved him. But it was too late now. The past could always be annihilated. Regret, denial, or forgetfulness could do that. But the future was inevitable. There were passions in him that would find their terrible outlet, dreams that would make the shadow of their evil real.Chapter 10
Oscar Wilde once said that “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.” And in a twisted, tragic way, he got his wish. Wilde was gay, and like Dorian, he ultimately fell in with the wrong crowd. His own Lord Henry was Lord Alfred Douglas, with whom he began a notorious affair in 1893. This would trigger a chain of events culminating in two high-profile trials in 1895, Wilde v. Queensberry and Regina v. Wilde. The former trial saw Dorian Gray itself used as evidence against Wilde, supposedly proving that he really was a “posing sodomite” as his lover’s father had called him. The latter trial saw Wilde convicted for “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labor. His health and reputation never recovered, and he died penniless in 1900. He was only 46.
Hindsight, then, makes The Picture of Dorian Gray a much darker and more personal story. It’s about a character grappling with desires that society says he shouldn’t have, and how his fear and shame destroys his life. Underneath the lurid Gothic horror lies a sense of real and justified anxiety about how the world views and judges and ostracizes those who fail to properly conform. And Wilde knew how that felt.
After all that, it should go without saying that you ought to read this book if you haven’t already. It’s a compelling piece of fiction written by a brilliant author, a product of its time that in many ways was ahead of its time.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!