Year of First Publication: 1891
Year of Publication for This Edition: 2015
Number of Pages: 214
Publisher: Barnes and Noble
Sub-Genres: Gothic fiction, Horror
Subjects: Art, Morality, Society
Although I didn’t exactly plan it this way, the irony of my reviewing The Picture of Dorian Gray on the week of Halloween isn’t lost on me. Since it was first published in the early 1890’s, it’s been a staple of Gothic horror. Like many book in this genre, Dorian Gray is lavish, over-the-top, and not for all tastes. Unlike many books in this genre, it’s also a magnificent work of art with a powerful message.
For those of you who aren’t already familiar with the book, The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a handsome young man whose wish to have his portrait age in place of him comes true. But the painting doesn’t just grow gray and wrinkly when the real Dorian Gray should have: it also grows uglier and more nightmarish as Dorian, a rank hedonist with nothing to lose, delves further and further into sin.
A quick note
Before I get into the actual review, I thought I ought to let you know that there are actually three versions of Dorian Gray, all essentially telling the same story, but all different. The first version was published in 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and was heavily edited (without Wilde’s permission) by Lippincott’s editor J. M. Stoddart, who sought to excise “a number of things which an innocent woman would make an exception to.” After even this redacted version provoked controversy, Wilde himself further edited the manuscript before publishing it as a novel 1891. He also expanded greatly on his original story (more on that later). Finally, we have Wilde’s original, unedited manuscript which was published for the first time by Harvard University Press in 2011. The 1891 version is considered the authoritative version of the text and that’s the one that I am going to review.
Now for the review . . .
I have to say, for a story that’s been reviled as a moral abomination pretty much since the day it was published—and whose author denied all relationship between morality and art—I was amazed at this book’s moral clarity. Some even today will take issue with the topics discussed and the behaviors practiced in this book, as if to even mention them is to slap a big red “stamp of approval” on them. That’s not the case. Of course, Dorian does engage in some unsavory acts, but that’s why it’s called The Picture of Dorian Gray and not The Wonderful Life and Times of Dorian Gray—the picture keeps a record of his sins. The picture reminds him (and us) that there’s a price to pay for everything. I’d have to spoil the book to argue this point any further: suffice it to say that I honestly don’t understand how anyone could get to the end of this book and still think that it glorifies the kind of life that Dorian leads.
Granted, there are a few places where Wilde’s philosophy goes awry. For instance, he seems to embrace the “People are basically good” fallacy in his treatment of Dorian, suggesting that Dorian was a perfect angel until his evil friend Lord Henry got his hooks into him. Still, I don’t think this book’s moral flaws are enough to take away from its central theme, one that is in itself good, sound, and certainly not trashy, as we’re all led to believe it is.
One of my favorite thing about this book is Wilde’s sublime prose. I’ve always liked ornate styles of writing, and Wilde more than delivers. Take for example this passage from Chapter 11:
Gradually white fingers creep through the curtains, and they appear to tremble. In black fantastic shapes, dumb shadows crawl into the corners of the room and crouch there. Outside, there is the stirring of birds among the leaves, or the sound of men going forth to their work, or the sigh and sob of the wind coming down from the hills and wandering round the silent house, as though it feared to wake the sleepers and yet must needs call forth sleep from her purple cave. Veil after veil of thin dusky gauze is lifted, and by degrees the forms and colours of things are restored to them, and we watch the dawn remaking the world in its antique pattern.
Whatever you think of the book, you can’t help but admire Wilde’s talent as a wordsmith.
There are a few glitches here and there. First, while I did find the plot interesting, there were some parts that I felt just added complexity where it didn’t need to be, or that reiterated points already made elsewhere. As it turns out, the first published version of Dorian Gray, the one that ran in Lippincott’s, was much shorter, having only thirteen chapters where this version has twenty. This article from The New Yorker names some of the sections not included in the original story, many of which are the sections that I found the least interesting. I think if I were Wilde’s editor, I would have advised him against adding new material, even though it would make this more of a novella or a long short story. There’s also one section in the middle where Wilde launches into a long parade of paragraphs describing some of the art, clothes, furniture, and other objects that Dorian has collected. A bit tedious, but not useless, as it does give a fuller picture of Dorian’s vanity and his obsession with seeking out the strange and unfamiliar. Other than these, I have no complaints about how the writing. For all of his bragging and crowing, Wilde actually was a great author.
I had been promising myself for ages that I was going to read this book and I’m glad I finally did. It may not have met all my expectations, but just the same, the language, the spooky atmosphere, and the sheer genius of this book are just what I had been wanting. At roughly 200 pages, the book itself doesn’t last very long, but I’m sure that the impact of it will stick around for a long time yet.