The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray Study Guide

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's first and only novel, is a faustian story of a man who trades the purity of his soul for undying youth. It was written in 1889 and first published in the literary magazine Lippincott's Monthly in July, 1890 (Drew ix). This was a shorter version, without the preface or chapters 3, 5, or 15-18, which were added for later publication in 1891. These additional chapters, which are now indespensible aspects of the work, introduce the character of James Vane, the vengeful brother of one of the victims of Dorian's many careless affairs. At the time it was published, the novel elicited a sensational amount of negative criticism, with detractors condemning its homosexual undertones and seeming embrace of hedonistic values. The preface was written as a response to the unkind critics of the first edition, blaming them for failing to grasp Wilde's belief that art should be appreciated on purely aesthetic terms, without consideration of morality.

The central idea behind Wilde's reinterpretation of the Faust myth appeared several years before he began writing the novel, in the form of a spoken tale that the author would tell to friends, especially young admirers. Wilde was well aware of the story's debt to older tales of selling one's soul, youth, beauty, and power, freely admitting that it was a notion "that is old in the history of literature, but to which I have given a new form" (Drew xiv). This "new form" brings the idea of duplicity, of leading a double life, to the forefront of the tale, a theme that is much more dominant in Dorian Gray than it is in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus or Goethe's Faust, which is a typical characteristic of Wilde's work. This theme is explicitly explored, for instance, in the author's most celebrated play, The Importance of Being Earnest.

As Wilde's notoriety grew, mainly as a result of this novel's infamy, his enemies continued to use the homosexual undertones and seemingly immoral hedonistic values of Dorian Gray as an argument against his character. Such criticisms continued throughout his ruinous court appearances in 1895. At the time, any sort of homosexual act was a serious criminal offense in England. The first published version of the book from Lippincott's Monthly contained much more obvious allusions to physical love between Dorian and Lord Henry, and Dorian and Basil. Wilde had made a point of reducing these references in the revision, but the original version of the novel provided much fuel for his opponents' arguments.

After the trials, Wilde was briefly imprisoned, and his literary career never recovered. He moved to the European mainland and lived under an assumed name until his death, in a Paris hotel, in 1900. Wilde cited this novel as being primarily responsible for his ruin, speaking of "the note of Doom that like a purple thread runs through the cold cloth of Dorian Gray" (Drew xxvii). Only decades after Wilde's death would the work truly become respected as a literary masterpiece.

Despite the critical preoccupation with the book's seeming approval of alternative lifestyles, Dorian Gray is a novel that offers much more to both intellectual and artistically sensitive readers. It is primarily concerned with examining the complex relationships between life, art, beauty, and sin, while presenting a compellingly cynical portriat of high society life in Victorian-era London. It examines the role of art in social and personal life while warning against - despite Wilde's claims of artistic amorality - the dangers of unchecked vanity and superficiality.