'The Picture of Dorian Gray' - Oscar Wilde Analysis

Updated: Jun 22, 2019

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ – Oscar Wilde Genre: Literary Fiction/Philosophical Novel No. pages: 210

Review Yup, here goes: Finally a book review! I know I’ve been doing some exam and analysing tips of late but I’m now heading back into my love of books – this review may contain spoilers, yet nothing particularly notable. I’ve recently finished reading Oscar Wilde’s novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, I’ve always been eager to read this novel – especially after I discovered his satirical comedy ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, and I wasn’t disappointed. Wilde produced another wonderful piece of literature that covers multiple motifs including the idea of aesthetics, a hint of the homoerotic, and a touch of philosophy through delving into the morality of the conscience.

Wilde’s novel follows the life of… you guessed it, Dorian Gray. Early on, we meet the artist Basil Hallward and his friend, Lord Henry Wotton. Basil paints a portrait of Dorian, to which Dorian exclaims how he would ‘give my soul’ in exchange for the painting to grow old while Dorian may keep his youthful looks, little did he know that his wish would come true. And thus, Basil’s painting becomes a physical representation of Dorian’s own soul, which both guides and troubles him throughout his life.

Dorian’s first trial comes with actress Sybil Vane, whom Wilde uses as a representation of the aesthetics within life. Wilde portrays Sybil’s character as false and artificial; she herself is an actress therefore already introducing the blur between fiction and reality, character and performer. Her mother is also an actress, hence increasing the artificiality of her family. Wilde also undermines Sybil’s brother, through Sybil referring to him as ‘one of the heroes of those silly melodramas’. Thus reinforcing that Sybil is simply a literary creation. What’s more, Dorian sees this too: On the first night at the theatre, Dorian is invited to meet Sybil, yet he is furious at the idea claiming that ‘Juliet had been dead for hundreds of years’, therefore implying that he doesn’t see Sybil as a reality in herself, more the aesthetic or the art that she produces. Dorian also refers to her as ‘Desdemona one night, and Ophelia the other’, further reinforcing the idea that he doesn’t love Sybil herself, more the characters and art that she creates. After Dorian’s very short engagement to Sybil is broken off due to her poor attempt at acting, Dorian explains ‘she acted badly because she had known the reality of love’. Wilde used this idea of aesthetics, both through Sybil’s performance at the theatre, and Basil’s painting of Dorian to demonstrate that art is destroyed by life and morality – through Sybil’s poor performance and alterations to the painting as a result of Dorian’s immoral corruption.

It was this night that Dorian notices the first alteration to Basil’s painting – ‘The expression looked different. One would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth.’ It soon becomes clear to him that his prayer had come true, and hence believed ‘the portrait… would be a guide to him through life, would be to him what holiness is to some, and conscience to others… here was a visible symbol of the degradation of sin.’ Therefore Wilde uses the painting as a metaphor for the soul and the conscience, to highlight Dorian’s struggles with the consequences of his actions and to see himself, the reality of his soul. Yet, while Dorian continues to destroy his soul through immoral acts, it leaves no physical imprint upon him – only the portrait. However, it could be argued that despite Dorian destroying his soul, the soul destroys him too through an intrusion of obsessive thoughts. He often lay awake thinking about the portrait, and admits ‘Its mere memory had marred many moments of joy’.

Dorian became curious about life and corruption ‘The more he knew, the more he desired to know. He had mad hungers that grew more ravenous as he fed them’, which may have lead him further down the path of immorality. It could be argued that Wilde alluded to homosexuality within his novel, as when Basil discusses Dorian’s impact within society he admits that ‘Stavely curled his lip’ once his name once mentioned, suggesting that Dorian isn’t considered moral and of the same status of some of those of the higher classes. What’s more, Basil questions why Dorian’s friendship is ‘so fatal to young men?’, through a boy who ‘committed suicide’ while Dorian was ‘his great friend’, and also ‘Sir Henry Ashton, who had to leave England, with a tarnished name’ – which could be hinting to the possibility of secretive homosexual acts between Dorian and these men. Despite this however, due to Dorian’s physical appearance unaltered with age nor sin, and only the portrait’s, society remains unaware of his true acts – ‘His mere presence seems to recall to them the memory of the innocence that they had tarnished’.

It has been suggested that there may also be an element of the homoerotic between Basil and Dorian. In Wilde’s first unedited version of the novel, in 1890, Basil admits to Dorian that his personality has ‘the most extraordinary influence over me. I was dominated, soul, brain and power by you’. Yet, in Wilde’s first published edition, he alters the text to read ‘It is quite true that I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man usually gives his friend’. Wilde may have realised that his first unedited version may cause the tension between them both to be too clear, which would risk both Wilde’s status as a writer and playwright, and his novel being published. However, it could still be argued that even in the edited version, the tension between the two characters is still notable. Wilde may also reinforce this idea further later in the novel, when Basil mentions that the painting shows ‘the secret of my own soul’, alluding to a potential homosexual secret. Furthermore, when Basil told Dorian that he admired him, he called it ‘a confession’, suggesting that it is sinful to do so – however, as Dorian mentions ‘You and I are friends, Basil, and must always remain so.’ This could be interpreted as Dorian also suggesting that there may be something more to their friendship, yet they must keep it hidden to remain notable people within society and also to avoid imprisonment.

Overall, Wilde may be suggesting throughout his novel, that as the narrator explains ‘There are moments, psychologists tell us, when the passion for sin, or what the world calls sin, so dominates a nature, that every fibre of the body, as every cell of the brain, seems to be instinct with fearful impulses.’, that psychology or even biology could be an explanation for Dorian’s immoral actions or criminal tendencies, yet it could also be Wilde linking again back to an explanation for homosexuality. This idea is particularly reinforced through ‘what the world calls sin’, suggesting Wilde’s disapproval at the world’s view and hence putting forward his opinion on homosexuality. I enjoyed Wilde’s novel and I’m glad I finally had the opportunity to read it, I would recommend it and so would rate 8/10 for its many open and some hidden themes and Wilde’s secretive hints to homosexuality.

I hope you enjoyed my book review, another should be on its way soon! Also, if you’re wondering where my missing weekly blog had got to, I took a week off from blogging to benefit my own mental health. As you may have guessed, I suffer from mental illness of my own so sometimes a break is necessary. If you’re interested in more themes within the novel, particularly for students, feel free to read on, yet it may include spoilers.

Sophie x

Summary for Literature Students (Contains spoilers)

This section of my review includes quotes and themes that may be useful to those studying English Literature. Feel free to contact me for any questions about where to find these quotes in the novel, or if you’d like to request a novel, play or poem for me to review or analyse.

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was published in 1891, nearing the end of the Victorian Era (1832 – 1900).

Themes and Quotes - Marriage - Lord Henry’s opinion on marriage: ‘You seem to forget that I am married, and the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties. I never know where my wife is, and my wife never knows what I am doing.’ Here, Wilde produces a similar idea to his theme of double lives in his play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, which he refers to as ‘bunburying’. He uses Henry to put forward his view on marriage and the need for a double life.

Sense/Sensibility - Wilde questions the importance of love and wealth within relationships, and which one should be considered of highest importance. As Henry researches Dorian’s family, he finds that his mother ‘made all the men frantic by running away with a penniless young fellow, a mere nobody,’ which shows that Dorian’s mother values love over wealth. Equally so, Sybil Vane shares this view when she asks her mother ‘what does money matter? Love is more than money.’ Whereas, Basil questions Dorian and Sybil’s engagement and says ‘But think of Dorian’s birth, and position, and wealth. It would be absurd for him to marry so much beneath him’ which implies that he values money and position more than love.

Homosexuality - (More quotes above, here are some which I didn’t include) - Basil questions ‘What about Lord Kent’s only son, and his career?’. - Also, Wilde’s unedited 1890 version of Basil’s love for Dorian ‘Dorian, from the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me. I was dominated, soul, brain and power by you… I worshipped you… I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you.’ (You could also link in the theme of love at first sight)

Similar Texts That Could Be Linked Through Themes (Contains spoilers)

Marriage – Play – Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (Algernon has similar views) Novel – Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ Poem – Elizabeth Jennings ‘One Flesh’

Sense/Sensibility – Play – Henry Medwall’s Fulgens and Lucrece’ Novel – Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’

Homosexuality - Play – Shakespeare’s ‘Edward II’ Novel – Alice Walker’s ‘The Colour Purple’ Poem – W.H. Auden ‘Stop all the clocks’

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