Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only published novel by the much quoted poet-satirist Oscar Wilde, appearing first in a magazine in 1890, and in book form in 1891. The title is sometimes rendered incorrectly as The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian’s beauty and becomes infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art. Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil’s, and becomes enthralled by Lord Henry’s hedonistic and solipsistic world-view, suggesting that the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfillment of the senses. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian (whimsically) expresses a desire to sell his soul to ensure the portrait would age rather than himself. Dorian’s wish is fulfilled, plunging him into debauched acts. The portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed on the portrait as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of aging. The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered a work of classic gothic horror fiction with a strong, contemporized Faustian theme. It is an exciting, beautifully crafted novel which mandates our attentions.
The memorable quotes come predominantly from his character, Lord Henry. “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it…Children begin by loving their own parents; as they age, they judge them; sometimes, they forgive them…Married people become unselfish and unselfish people are colorless…The only important thing is one’s self…Both love and art are a form of imitation…There are only two kinds of people who are truly fascinating: those who know everything and those who know nothing…There is something fatal about a portrait. It has a life of its own…Passion makes one think in a circle…Ugliness is the one reality…Each man lives his own life and pays his price for living it…One has to pay so often for a single fault…over and over again…Destiny never closes her accounts…Love is an illusion…To be popular, one must be a mediocrity…Men love only with their eyes, if at all; women love with their memories…[He was] sick with the terror dying, yet indifferent to life itself…Actual life is chaos…In the common world, the wicked are not punished nor the good rewarded…Success goes to the strong, failure to the weak…The only horrible thing in life is ennui…”
Saliently, Wilde told us, “Basil, the artist, is who I am; Lord Henry is who people think I am; Dorian is who I want to be.” His life, however, suggests that Wilde was all three! Wilde also allegedly said that, in the first work of every author (and PDG was the first and last for Wilde), the lead character is the author, either as Christ or Faust.
So, is this “a great book”? Initially, it was poorly received (which means nothing artistically, as critics on balance are viciously jealous), in its era of Victorian morality, and Wilde’s subsequent trial for homosexuality and his imprisonment for several years and death shortly after his release, did nothing to then enhance the book’s popularity. In the 100 years since, the book has survived and enjoys popularity to this day and has been the subject of multiple Hollywood films. Wilde’s epigrams continue to be quoted and PDG depicts inner conflicts that many feel, some of which are erotic and others not, being the universal conundrums with which most of us wrestle. To be fair, it is a well conceived Faustian tale that is well written by one of the most erudite masters of our language in history, and it holds our attentions to the end. Oscar Wilde was brilliant and society shamelessly mistreated him. No education can be complete without reading Wilde.