The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde'The whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it'.

Dorian Gray is young, rich and beautiful. When he sees an exquisite portrait of himself, he is bewitched and offers his soul in exchange for eternal youth and good looks.

Under the corrupting influence of his friend Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian becomes drawn into a double life, indulging his every desire in a secret life of pleasure and excess, while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only his portrait bears the traces of his decadence.

And as Dorian's behaviour sinks further into debauchery and cruelty, the bargain he has struck looks set to destroy him …

(From the Penguin Edition)

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The Publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, a literary journal run by an American publisher, the Philadelphia based J. M. Stoddart, whom Wilde had met during his tour of America in 1882. Stoddart visited London in September 1889 with the intention of commissioning short novels for his magazine and quickly signed up Arthur Conan Doyle, who offered ‘The Sign of Four’, and Wilde, who initially proposed the story of the murder of painter Basil Hallward in a similar vein. This was developed into the first version of Dorian Gray during the spring of 1890. Its initial publication provoked a good deal of negative criticism in newspapers and literary journals and Wilde wrote letters to several of these publications defending his work and setting out his aesthetic philosophy. Partly as a result of these disputes he composed the epigrammatic ‘Preface’ which he persuaded his friend, Frank Harris, to publish in his Fortnightly Review in March 1891. By then Wilde had completed an extensively rewritten and considerably expanded version of the work. Macmillan declined to publish it believing it contained “unpleasant elements”, but Ward, Lock & Co, a small publisher, eventually brought it out as a book in April 1891. It received widespread, mostly positive, review coverage, though the booksellers W. H. Smith refused to stock it, on the grounds that it was “filthy”. The epigrammatic ‘Preface’ which was also published in this edition came to be seen as an integral part of the book and has been included in all subsequent editions.

Reaction to The Picture Of Dorian Gray

At the time, Oscar Wilde was accused of writing an inconsequential and immoral story. The Daily Chronicle alleged that "Mr. Wilde's book has no real use if it be not to inculcate the 'moral' that when you feel yourself becoming too angelic you cannot do better than rush out and make a beast of yourself". The Scots Observer: "It is not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health, and sanity."  Other reviewers in the Daily Chronicle, St. James's Gazette and Scots Observer felt the work was corrupt, leprous, poisonous, and suited only for “perverted telegraph boys".

The Graphic, published in London, gave the opinion that "The plot is the most powerful and original for some time; but Mr. Wilde is hardly strong enough to do it justice. The twaddle of his emasculate men, and an uncertainty as to the uses of ‘will’ and ‘shall’ are blots on the work".

When Dorian Gray came out in book form The Graphic’s opinion was that  "It is made to be put upon the shelf, and remain there. Of its contents, much more than enough was said when they came out upon their own merits in a magazine; and we by no mean feel called upon to waste words upon a silly and tedious story merely because its first appearance has been prettily bound."

Wilde expressed surprised and writng to Arthur Conan Doyle in April 1891 he said: "I cannot understand how they can treat Dorian Gray as immoral …….. my difficulty was to keep the inherent moral subordinate to the artistic and dramatic effect".

In a letter to the St. James' Gazette (June 1890) Oscar makes the case for the moral in Dorian Gray:  "They will find that [Dorian Gray] is a story with a moral, and the moral is this; All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment ... Yes; there is a terrible moral in Dorian Gray - a moral which the prurient will not be able to find in it, but which will be revealed to all whose minds are healthy. Is this an artistic error? I fear it is. It is the only error in the book".

In his "Preface" in the Fortnightly Review (March 1891) he asked "Leave my book, I beg you, to the immortality that it deserves" and insisted "...there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That's all."

Literary Influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray

Elements of The Picture of Dorian Gray are clearly derived from the Victorian fascination with stories of murder and the grotesque. At a popular level these were often lurid and sensational. They find more literary expression in works such as R. L. Stevenson’s 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' (1886) and the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. The sometimes nightmarish tales of Edgar Allen Poe, published in the 1840s, but extremely popular in Victorian England, were a further influence on this side of the novel. It also owes a good deal to Goethe’s 'Faust' (1832), not least the Mephistophelean figure of Sir Henry Wotton, who acts as Dorian’s chief tempter. However the principal literary influence is undoubtedly J-K Huysmans 'À Rebours' (1884). This is generally taken to be the “yellow book” given to Dorian by Lord Henry Wotton, which has such a profound effect on his life.

“It was the strangest book that he 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. Things that he had dimly dreamed of  were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.”
(The Picture of Dorian Gray, Chapter Ten).

Though it is also referred to as “a poisonous book” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Chapter Ten); “One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some medieval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner” (Chapter Ten), yet it becomes an all pervading influence on Dorian’s life; “For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of this book” (Chapter Eleven). “He procured from Paris no less than nine large-paper copies of the first edition, and had them bound in different colours, 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.” (Chapter Eleven). “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.” (Chapter Eleven).

Wilde had read and admired À Rebours during his honeymoon in Paris in July 1884. This was only shortly after its publication when the book was being widely discussed in the French capital. He read it in French (it was not translated into English until 1922) in which he was proficient, later writing Salomé (1894) in French before subsequently translating it into English.

In the first (magazine) version of Dorian Gray Wilde invents an imaginary book Le Secret de Raoul by the equally imaginary Catulle Sarrazin, which he described to a friend as “a fantastic variation on À Rebours”. In the expanded version he abandoned this conceit, leaving the influential book unnamed, but he still introduces distancing elements, making some references to specific chapters and incidents deliberately inaccurate and introducing references to the hero’s immersion in renaissance scenes which are not in A Rebours at all but are borrowed from his friend John Addington Symonds’ Renaissance In Italy (1886). It is also likely that some of these allusions refer to Walter Pater’s Studies In the History of The Renaissance (1873), a book which had been a major influence on him in his own youth.

When questioned about the influential book he was later somewhat ambiguous. In a letter to E. W. Pratt on 15 April 1892 he wrote; “The book in Dorian Gray is one of the many books I have never written, but it is partly suggested by Huysmans’ À Rebours. It is a fantastic variation on Huysmans’ over-realistic study of the artistic temperament in our inartistic age.” In another letter, to Ralph Payne on 12 February 1894, he wrote; “The book that poisoned, or made perfect, Dorian Gray does not exist; it is a fancy of mine merely.”
[Rupert Hart-Davis ed. Selected Letters of Oscar Wilde p 116]

The issue arose again during the trial at the Old Bailey in April 1895 when Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel. He was cross-examined by Queensberry’s counsel Edward Carson, a near contemporary at TCD and later leader of the Irish Unionist Party, about the nature of his writings and about The Picture of Dorian Gray in particular. Alluding to the book which influences Dorian Gray, Carson asked; “Was the book to which you refer a moral book?” After some further questioning Wilde admitted that the book he had in mind was “the French novel by J-K Huysmans entitled À Rebours”. When Carson continued to demand his views on the morality of this book Wilde’s counsel Sir Edward Clarke objected and the judge ruled that there should be no further references to it.

À Rebours

'À Rebours' by Joris-Karl Huysmans was first published in Paris in 1884. It tells the story of Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes a wealthy aesthete who turns his back on the everyday world in search of an ideal world of sensuousness and pleasure. Written in a rich, florid style, its protagonist expresses his disdain for vulgar materialism, morality and social convention. The book was initially controversial, being condemned by some critics, especially those in the Catholic press and by Zola and other Naturalists, to whom Huysmans had previously been close. But it was welcomed by many more, including those in the emerging Symbolist movement, such as Mallarmé, Baudelaire and Verlaine. Wilde was not the only Irish writer to be impressed by it, George Moore, then beginning his own career as a novelist, called it “that prodigious book, that beautiful mosaic”. It was translated into English as 'Against The Grain' by John Howard (1922) and later by Robert Baldick (1959) as 'Against Nature'.

J-K Huysmans

Joris-Karl Huysmans was born in Paris in 1848. He was the only son of a Dutch father and a French mother. His father died while he was still a child and his mother re-married. As a young man he joined the French Civil Service as a clerk in the Ministry of the Interior. He continued to work as a civil servant for more than thirty years while simultaneously pursuing his literary career. His early novels were very much part of the Naturalist movement and he became friendly with Emile Zola, its principal advocate. The publication of 'À Rebours', in 1884, marked a distinct break with this form of literature. His later novels are largely autobiographical in character and tend to feature a single character engaged in a spiritual quest. The best known of these is 'La-bas '1891), in which the protagonist becomes involved in Satanism. It was translated into English by Keene Wallis as 'Down There' (1924).

About the Author

Oscar WildeOscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on16th October 1854 at 21 Westland Row, Dublin. He was the second son of Sir William Wilde and his wife Jane Wilde, who wrote under the pseudonym Speranza. Ireland's leading eye and ear surgeon, William Wilde was knighted in 1864 for his services to medicine.

The family moved to 1 Merrion Square in 1855 where Lady Wilde held a regular Saturday afternoon salon with guests that included Sheridan le Fanu, Charles Lever, George Petrie, Isaac Butt and Samuel Ferguson.

Oscar was educated at home until he was nine, after which he attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, and spent summer months with his family in Co. Waterford, Wexford and at his father's family home in Mayo. He read classics at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1871 to 1874. Having won the Berkeley Gold Medal for Classics in Trinity, he won a scholarship to Magdalen College in Oxford where he became part of the Aesthetic movement.

After leaving Oxford in 1878 Oscar earned a living by lecturing and writing for periodicals. He published a largely unsuccessful volume of poems in 1881 and in the next year undertook a lecture-tour of the United States in order to promote the D'Oyle Carte production of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera, Patience. After graduation from Oxford, Oscar returned to Dublin, where he met Florence Balcombe. She, however, became engaged to Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. On hearing of her engagement, Wilde wrote to her stating his intention to leave Ireland permanently.

After his marriage to Constance Lloyd in 1884, he tried to establish himself as a writer, but with little initial success. However, his three volumes of short fiction, The Happy Prince (1888), Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (1891) and A House of Pomegranates (1891), together with his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), gradually won him a reputation as a modern writer with an original talent, a reputation confirmed and enhanced by the phenomenal success of his Society Comedies – Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, all performed on the West End stage between 1892 and 1895.

Success, however, was short-lived. In 1891 Oscar met and fell extravagantly in love with Lord Alfred Douglas. In 1895, when his success as a dramatist was at its height, he brought an unsuccessful libel action against Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensberry. Oscar lost the case and two trials later was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for acts of gross indecency. As a result of this experience he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He was released from prison in 1897 and went into an immediate self-imposed exile on the Continent. Oscar died in Paris in 1900 and is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.

His epitaph is from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

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