Oscar Wilde is one of my all-time favourite writers and people. His sassy one-liners and subversion of hetero-normality suggests that he was a highly intelligent man. Despite suffering through a dark and difficult life as a gay man in Victorian England, he was able to inject such life and comedy into the world. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was the first novel of his that I ever read, and there is a reason that it is a classic.
Dorian Gray is an absolutely beautiful man, and so to immortalise his beauty he commissions Basil to paint him a portrait. Basil is encapsulated not only by Gray’s looks, but also his intelligence and charm. It is suggested that Basil develops perhaps a crush on Gray.
Lord Henry, Basil’s witty friend, sees Basil’s painting and describes it as a masterpiece. Gray also loves the painting as it perfectly captured his beauty. However, when Henry goes on about how beauty is meaningless as it does eventually fade, Gray tosses the painting into the attic as he is worried it will remind him one day when he is old and wrinkled of how beautiful he used to be. In anger, Gray pledges his soul if only the painting could bear the burden of age, allowing him to stay forever young.
Gray at this time is in love with an actress named Sibyl Vane. She realises how much she loves Gray and gives up acting as she believes she can no longer pretend to be in love now that she has actually experienced it with Gray. However, Gray loved Sibyl because of her acting, and so breaks up with her in a horrible way. He finds out later that after this, Sibyl kills herself. Gray sees his portrait again and notices that it now sneers.
Lord Henry influences Gray to live a life of sin and corruption. He seeks pleasures with no regard of morals nor consequences. His reputation gets worse and worse as a sleaze bag. Eighteen years pass of this sinful life, and Gray stays young and beautiful. Basil confronts Gray about his bad reputation, and Gray simply shows Basil the portrait. It is now ugly and hideous. Basil begs Gray to repent and try to fix his reputation, but this only angers Gray and he kills Basil.
Gray realises what he has done and blames the portrait. He stabs it. When his servants enter the room they find an unharmed portrait of Dorian Gray looking young and beautiful, and a wrinkly old man lying next to it with a knife in his heart.
“Some things are more precious because they don’t last long”
“To define is to limit”
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing”
“Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing”
This novel is of particular importance as it was used in a trial as evidence that Oscar Wilde was homosexual. There is certainly a homoerotic undertone, especially in regards to Basil’s feelings towards Gray, however Wilde was talented enough to include this subtly so that the novel was eventually disregarded as evidence.
‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is a fantastic story surrounding morality and beauty. Wilde was amongst one of the first in the movement of Aestheticism, which challenged the traditional Victorian views of sexuality, politics and art. A novel with a running subplot of an artist being obsessed with the beauty of another man is the epitome of an Aesthetic novel. Not only are hetero-normative romantic relationships being challenged and subverted, but also art is being used as the means to do so (both the physical medium of the the novel that the story is being told to us by, but also the painting). It is subversive art withing subversive art. Not only is the plot interesting and though-provoking, but the implications behind the story are huge. This is what makes reading this particular novel so thrilling as it is a part of something much bigger. I really do hope that you, reader, will find time to give this novel a go. You will not be disappointing.
Love from Evie x