Oscar Wilde said that Dorian Gray was “poisoned by a book,” a claim I’m ready to believe, seeing as I was poisoned by The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Dorian’s case, it goes like this. While posing for his infamous portrait, he meets a man called Lord Henry Wotton, who offers Dorian a doctrine. “I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream — I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of medievalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal.” This speech has a big effect on Dorian. Lord Henry “was amazed at the sudden impression that his words had produced, and, remembering a book that he had read when he was sixteen, a book which had revealed to him much that he had not known before, he wondered whether Dorian Gray was passing through a similar experience.”
Just in case Dorian isn’t, Lord Henry follows up by sending him the influential book. “It was the strangest book that [Dorian] had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him . . . It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own.”
From here on Dorian is addicted:
For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of this book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he never sought to free himself from it. He procured from Paris no less than nine large-paper copies of the first edition, and had them bound in different colors, so that they might suit his various moods and the changing fancies of a nature over which he seemed, at times, to have almost entirely lost control. The hero, the wonderful young Parisian, in whom the romantic and the scientific temperaments were so strangely blended, became to him a kind of prefiguring type of himself. And, indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, it turns out, isn’t about a picture at all. It’s about a book. It’s about the transmission of that book into the mind of the protagonist, and the destruction that ensues. The Picture of Dorian Grayis about the spiritual risks of reading.
Originally commissioned by Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, in Philadelphia, and appearing in 1890 before being expanded and published as a book a year later, Wilde’s first and only novel remains a favorite of high school English teachers. The idea is to hook the kids on the spooky premise of an oil portrait assuming the sins of its subject and, then, while you’ve got their attention, to wedge in a little information about the Aesthetic movement, dandyism, and Wilde’s trial and imprisonment. Another appeal is the irreverence. Though the novel’s opening pages are a model of mandarin prose (“Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honeycoloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flame-like as theirs”), it isn’t long before the jokes begin. “Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face. The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid. Look at the successful men in any of the learned professions. How perfectly hideous they are! Except, of course, in the Church. But then in the Church they don’t think.” This is Page 3. More sacrilege follows. Wilde makes fun of marital fidelity, of reason, of the Garden of Eden, even of suffering. If a teenager is one part poetry and three parts sarcasm, then the mix here is about right. There’s the lush stuff, if you’re into that. But the wit is rebellious, a verbal switchblade.
The Picture of Dorian Grayis a strange hybrid. It survives, in the way of Draculaor Frankenstein, through the enduring appeal of gothic horror. The high-concept plot has inspired not only a feature film but an episode of the old Rod Serling show Night Gallery. It has even inspired another novel (Will Self’s Dorian). By reversing the laws of nature and having Dorian’s portrait age while Dorian himself remains forever young, Wilde found a brilliantly simple, mythic way to dramatize the life of the soul. Greek mythology thrived on mixed blessings. Cassandra told the future but was never believed. Tithonus possessed eternal age without eternal youth. Dorian Gray stands in their beleaguered company. He makes a pact with the devil, not officially, like Faust, but offhandedly, in the casual manner of a London gentleman. The fulfillment of his wish allows him to outsource the nasty business of physical corruption and spiritual maintenance. But exploitation persists overseas and brings a final accounting. There are certain places realistic novels can’t venture. Heaven and hell are two of them. For that we need myth, or its ghoulish stepchild, gothic. The gothic works by making the unseen visible. Our deepest fears and unholy desires find material form in its supernatural landscape. We know we are doomed to age. Because Dorian isn’t, we’re fascinated by the details of his exemption, and gratified when they turn out to be disastrous.