Picture of Dorian Grey, book cover

Debauchery, Vanity, Pleasure and Cruelty in a Life of Eternal Youth

A century old yet this book echoes today's "Me" generation with its pursuit of perpetual beauty and self fulfilment without facing realities of life or accepting ageing.

Penguin has taken the opportunity of a new film adaptation of A Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde to revamp their Penguin Classics edition. The film starring Ben Barnes, Colin Firth and Emilia Fox was released September 2009. Oscar Wilde's only novel is the subject of this book review.

Surprisingly Modern Literary Novel

Apart from being set in the late 19th century The Picture of Dorian Gray feels surprisingly modern. The theme and most of the text would not be out of place as a novel about the self-centred, celebrity focussed, modern generation. The nineteenth century Society, manners and mores still do not make it feel old fashioned and it is therefore still relevant to the modern reader.

Well Known Story but More Language than Action

The story is well known, as it should be after 120 years. A vain, and beautiful, youth wishes that he can retain his youth and beauty. The painting, the artist's masterpiece, shows the ageing and the effects of a dissolute life spent in the pursuit of pleasure and sensation. Dorian Gray stays beautiful and maintains his youthful appearance. A life that leads to murder, suicides and the destruction of lives.

The story is about language and most of the dissolute behaviour is alluded to rather than described in detail. This is a novel about ideas, behaviour and its impact in individuals and Society rather than action so it is not graphic as a more modern novel might be.

Although he has sold his soul Dorian Gray ultimately comes to appreciate his failings and pays the consequences with a twist at the end.

Oscar Wilde – Erudite Wit but Self-destructive

There are elements of Wilde in all three main characters.

  • Lord Henry Wotton– Dorian Gray’s friend and mentor is an advocate of Art for Art’s Sake (Wilde was a propagandist for the Aesthetic Movement) and that all experience is good. A cynical character he does much to form and guide the person Dorian Gray becomes. He is regarded by Society as a wit and a thinker even if somewhat cynical and would seem to be the character most modelled on Wilde himself.
  • Basil Hallward is the artist who creates the picture and for whom Dorian Gray is the muse. He is the older man who is in love with the young Dorian Gray. While that love appears not be reciprocated it eventually leads to tragedy. It could be read as a reference to Wilde’s love for the young Lord Alfred Douglas whom he met in 1891, the year The Picture of Dorian Gray was published That relationship was not to reach its bitter demise until 1895 so the reader should avoid reading too much into the similarities between life and book.
  • Dorian Gray himself in his sensation seeking and initial selfishness may reflect some of the more self-destructive aspects of Wilde'sown life. Inevitably a novel such as A Picture of Dorian Gray is likely to be based, consciously or otherwise, on the author's own experience.

Short Novel Best Read Slowly

The text is complex and the readers will benefit best by paying close attention. This, then, is not a book to be rushed so that the wit and subtlety of the language can be appreciated by more careful reading.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel by Oscar Wilde and was first published in 1891. It was first published in Penguin Classics in 2000 with the current paperback edition (ISBN: 978-0-141-19153-9) being released to coincide with the film release in August 2009 priced at £7.99 (Can$18).


First shown on Suite101


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