Should You Read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde?

“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

“From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs…”

– Opening of The Picture of Dorian Gray

In the Victorian era, a beautiful young man named Dorian catches the eye of an artist who insists on painting him. Dorian poses for Basil again and again, in various locations and various costumes, but when Basil decides to paint him exactly as he is, the artist captures a secret of his own soul on the canvas. The astute reader may discern that there is more to Basil’s “worship” of Dorian than simple aesthetic appreciation, but he—and the text itself—is unable to make a clear admission. When Basil’s friend Henry questions why he is unwilling to showcase a portrait that may be the greatest work he has ever painted, leading him to develop an interest in impressionable young Dorian himself, the artist finds himself unable to stop the man he adores from meeting the friend he says to be a terrible influence on everyone except himself. Within the course of a single meeting, Henry places such thoughts in Dorian’s head about the value of youth and beauty that the young man becomes jealous of the painting of himself, which will retain its looks forever while he becomes more ugly. In a moment of passion, he wishes aloud that the situation could be reversed. To his surprise, that wish is granted. But it is not only age that begins to change that painted face. With every cruel and selfish act that he commits, whether through Henry’s influence or the snowballing effect of giving in to his own temptations, the portrait shows his sins. At first determined to use the portrait for self-examination, to turn off of the path he’s started down and become a better man, Dorian quickly finds himself unable to follow through. But when he hides the painting away and gives up on doing anything except what brings him pleasure, what will become of him and everyone within his sphere of influence?

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic written in the 1890’s, a time during which its author was forced to self-censor and endure the censoring of publishers in order to diminish what was already closer to a hint at homosexuality than a proud depiction of it. During this reread, I personally found more enjoyment in learning about the “uncensored” version of the text and imagining what the novel might have been if Wilde had been given full creative freedom than in actually reading the book itself. Knowing that this book was used as evidence in Wilde’s own trial for “gross indecency” is all the more fascinating and sad. If I had more of an interest in history, I could see myself going beyond this surface level understanding to learn more about his life and his relationships and how his society responded to both.

But as a reader I want to enjoy the book that’s in front of me. And I found myself not only wishing that Wilde could have been more explicit but that he could have made different writing choices altogether.

The book is written in third person omniscient, but I found myself wondering on more than one occasion whether that was the best choice or simply the default choice given the time period. I enjoyed being able to leave Dorian and Henry for a chapter in favor of seeing the home life of the young actress Dorian becomes enamored with, but when it comes to Dorian meeting her? Proposing marriage to her? Both are given to the reader not as scenes but told to us through dialogue! The best reason I can come up with is that the author wanted to be able to narrate these experiences through Dorian’s own words, basically then, in first person. But, it being dialogue, of course it wouldn’t be believable if it had all the length and detail of a scene in a first-person novel. I know first person wasn’t nearly as popular in this time period as it is in our current one, but I do wonder if the book might have been stronger if written in the epistolary style, in which all the characters might have exchanged letters. This way, they would have been able to express themselves in their own words, while believably having taken time to consider how the stories they are telling would best be told. And it would still allow for what I think is the largest benefit of the novel using the omniscient perspective: a certain emotional distance from a character who becomes increasingly corrupt. In an epistolary novel, the reader would still be able to look at Dorian from a perspective outside his own and be encouraged to render their own judgment on him. And any graphic details the author might want to spare the audience could also be toned down or removed as Dorian believably wouldn’t want to share them with the person he is writing to.

Besides that, I found myself thinking that Wilde had fallen too much in love with the epigrams he is famous for. The first time I read this novel, I picked it up because I loved the clever lines and laugh-out-loud (for me anyway) humor of his play The Importance of Being Earnest. But in novel form, stuffed into the dialogue of Lord Henry, this cleverness made me wince much more than laugh. In the first chapter, Henry seems to veer so often off the point of what is being discussed that I would have lost track of what was happening without some very slow and careful reading. The dialogue here is overloaded and meandering, seeming more like an author’s attempt to show off than a genuine hook for the reader’s interest. I might have forgiven this if it at least was funny. I do think it’s intended to be? But I personally wasn’t able to laugh given the context of the character. Is it really funny that he says things that are wrongheaded and lead others into moral corruption? And in the modern context, how about all those “clever” things he has to say about women? “Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.” Oh yes, this certainly puts me in a light-hearted mood.

Of course it is a book of its time, and I recognize that. But if I’m spending time with characters depicted through the eyes of sexism and antisemitism, groaning at the fact that a talented young actress apparently loses her ability to act because falling in love makes her realize that acting at love on stage is just a hollow sham (reinforcing, I’m sure, standards of the time that would have called it improper for a high-class woman to even want to be an actress), I do want the book to be well-written. It has an interesting premise, certainly. The second half reads very well once the action finally picks up, and the end is quite dramatic. But the setup seems forced, even a bit contrived. Portions read as if the author was trying to pad out the length, even at the expense of the readers’ interest. I found myself tempted to skim again and again, as I believe I did the first time I read it. Certainly that would explain how I’d so easily forgotten so much of it.

An image of Basil and Lord Henry before Dorian’s portrait; created in 1908 by Eugène Dété and Paul Thiriat

It’s disappointing, given how much I enjoyed the play by the same author. It’s interesting that there are sections of the book that are nothing more than long stretches of back-and-forth dialogue between two characters. When these lines were short, the text even started to have the appearance of a script for me, and I’m left with the unfortunate question of whether novels were really a format Wilde was able to master.

The best parts of the book, besides those that actually contain tense and emotional scenes, are the parts that depict ordinary life in this time period. I enjoyed seeing Dorian walk down a street as the narrator portrayed all the activity taking place on it. I was interested to see what kind of letters a man of Dorian’s standing receives on a daily basis. I liked being able to fill out my understanding of what it would have been like to ride in a horse-drawn cab or visit an opium den or participate in a hunt of the type the upper classes engaged in.

For those with a historical interest, I could see this book as being quite worthwhile. Whether you want to see depictions of life in that time written by an author who lived in that time or whether you want to dig into the history of Wilde himself or society’s attitudes towards homosexuality in different time periods and in different countries, you’ll certainly find something here. If you’re reading as a writer, it may be somewhat useful to understand how this book influenced those that were written after, or you may find it interesting to read it as if you were the author and consider whether you would have made the same changes I would. But as a modern reader, simply looking to be entertained, I think you might be better served with a modern adaptation or a different book altogether.

Apologies to any fans out there! If you have a defense of the book that you think I’m missing, I would be completely open to your thoughts. It’s obvious that books like this have survived the test of time for some reason, but I think we reviewers do a disservice to well-written classics if we don’t acknowledge that not all classics are well-written or inherently enjoyable to casual contemporary readers. The last thing I want is for people to pick up this book and take it as a representative of classic literature as a whole, deciding classics aren’t for them because they see other people praising it exactly as they do every other classic. Classics, in my opinion, are not above critique.

But what do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

6 thoughts on “Should You Read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde?

      1. Absolutely. I think we need to get away from that mentality of “you must read all classics and you must appreciate all classics as the masterpieces they are”. They all have significance in some way, but sometimes it’s historical or it’s based on how they influenced what was written after. And sometimes they have noticeable flaws. I think we have to be honest about that so we can uplift the classics that actually are great reads even to this day!


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