The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray


Spellbound before his own portrait, Dorian Gray utters a fateful wish. In exchange for eternal youth he gives his soul, to be corrupted by the malign influence of his mentor, the aesthete and hedonist Lord Henry Wotton. The novel was met with moral outrage by contemporary critics who, dazzled perhaps by Wilde's brilliant style, may have confused the author with his creation, Lord Henry, to whom even Dorian protests, 'You cut life to pieces with your epigrams.'. Encouraged by Lord Henry to substitute pleasure for goodness and art for reality, Dorian tries to watch impassively as he brings misery and death to those who love him. But the picture is watching him, and, made hideous by the marks of sin, it confronts Dorian with the reflection of his fall from grace, the silent bearer of what is in effect a devastating moral judgement.


Early critical reaction to The Picture of Dorian Gray was almost unanimously hysterical. One review began: 'Why go grubbing in muck-heaps?' Another considered whether the book should be prosecuted. Typical of the general outrage was an unsigned review in the Daily Chronicle, which condemned the novel on all counts, and chiefly as 'a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction'. In a follow-up to one review the critic asserted that the novel 'constantly hints, not obscurely, at disgusting sins and abominable crimes'.

Wilde enthusiastically plunged into correspondence over different reviews, and prolonged the extra publicity. Characteristically, he did not confine himself to self-defence, but went on to the attack:

It was necessary, sir, for the dramatic development of this story to surround Dorian Gray with an atmosphere of moral corruption. Otherwise the story would have had no meaning and the plot no issue. To keep this atmosphere vague and indeterminate and wonderful was the aim of the artist who wrote the story. . . . Each man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray.

The furore about the 'poisonous' book obscured the fact that Dorian Gray is actually a very moral book in a conventional sense: Wilde claimed indeed that the moral was too obvious, the only artistic weakness in the book.

And the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment. The painter, Basil Hallward, worshipping physical beauty far too much, as most painters do, dies by the hand of one in whose soul he has created a monstrous and absurd vanity. Dorian Gray, having led a life of mere sensation and pleasure, tries to kill conscience, and at that moment kills himself Lord Henry Wotton seeks to be merely the spectator of life. He finds that those who reject the battle are more deeply wounded than those who take part in it.

The hysterical critics also failed to understand the nature of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is very much a novel of sensibilities rather than a novel of action: it has only enough action to reveal the essential natures of the characters, and their development. A great deal of the action is suppressed or anticipated, so that it provides . . .

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