The Picture of Dorian Gray
212 pages • Ward, Lock, and Company • 1891
In the canon of gay literature, and the canon of gay iconography, Oscar Wilde occupies a pivotal and unassailable place. His one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is for those who value reading as a rite of passage in the coming out process. It is a panegyric to youth, and to the dangers of a life measured by the charms of youth alone.
Wilde is best known as an aphorist and a playwright. The first two chapters of Dorian Gray are a great example of the playwright’s skill brought to bear on the form of the novel. The subject of the book, and the ideas that drive it, are laid out in the conversation between Lord Henry Wotton and the painter of the picture, Basil Hallward, in the first chapter, with the addition of Dorian in the second. It is an astute move to introduce the idea of Dorian before his person. There is a plasticity to the young Dorian Gray, an ideal who is yet to become an idea, and who is yet to form an identity. It is Hallward and Wotton who determine that identity in the opening scenes.
Lord Henry sets forth on a speech as Hallward paints – in fact, Wotton is either making a speech or delivering an aphorism, standard forms of communication bring rather beneath him – in which he puts forth an ideal possibility for behaviour:
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 mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal.
From this argument he develops the ideal pre-Christian man that the impressionable Dorian could become. Dorian is little more than a rather pretty vessel at this point. What happens is that the artist Hallward then captures this moment in the portrait, the moment in which the idea settles onto Dorian Gray’s consciousness.
The driving force of this eternal decadence is youth. Youth, Lord Henry eulogises, is the one thing worth having. Lord Henry’s panegyric to youth then corrupts that youth. Dorian’s reaction to the picture, which has captured him in thrall to Lord Henry’s words, is “as if he had recognised himself for the first time”. When Wotton warns of youth’s brevity, Dorian recoils, and he wishes that the picture would age and not he. “I would give my soul for that.” And he does. It is a remarkable premise on which to found a story and the key to its continuing fascination.
Yet after this solid opening the book meanders for a while, with a few set-pieces featuring Lord Henry and his endless aphoristic prattle. It is as if Wilde had found the subject but not the story to deliver that subject. When Wilde does recall the point of it all he sets up the relationship between Dorian and the actress Sibyl Vane. It is a little heavy-handed, to say the least. Wilde puts no effort into her character. She is a catalyst to propel the story forwards. The resolution however, and Dorian’s heartless rejection of her, promises to make the novel interesting again because it takes the story to a new level. It is the moment in which the innocence of Dorian’s youth is lost, and that loss manifests itself in the picture.
Quite what Dorian does next is a mystery. It can’t be good judging by its manifestation on the portrait. It is the plot that dare not speak its name. The cipher of homosexuality is there in Basil’s continued love for Dorian. Wilde communicates the struggle and the longing, but in a moment of crisis Basil concludes that it is love between men as an intellectual ideal, such as experienced by Montaigne and Shakespeare. This is the Edward Carpenter nineteenth century thinking that EM Forster pours into the character of Clive in Maurice, and is there for public consumption. Did anyone actually believe it? The judge and jury who convicted Wilde for gross indecency in 1895 did not.
The problem herein is that Wilde is not much suited to the novel. His skill is for shorter fiction, the concentrated action of the play, or the untrammelled one-liner. Wilde in effect established his reputation through developing an aesthetic, and this was much misunderstood. Wilde was a celebrity figure, famous both for his aphorisms and for simply being famous before he had in fact published any of his work. It is the common standard to be humbled by his wit. Yet that wit grows tiresome fast because it is serves nothing but its own master. It is a parlour trick.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is an acknowledged classic in the canon of English literature. Reading it through one has to wonder why. It is not so much the book itself but the associations with the book’s author, his history. Of course The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic. I would argue that its position, like Wilde’s, is debatable. There is no doubt, however, as to the significance of either.