Reading Guide Dorian Gray
Note: This 'Reading Guide' is reproduced here courtesy of Penguin Books.
DORIAN GRAY: ABOUT THE BOOK
‘If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!’
Basil Hallward has found a new muse in the divinely beautiful Dorian Gray. The portrait he paints of him is the most magnificent work of his life – a tribute to Dorian’s exquisite beauty and youth. However, when Basil introduces the boy to his cynical, debonair friend Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian quickly falls under his dangerous and corrupting influence.
Enthralled by his own portrait, Dorian recklessly exchanges his soul for eternal youth and beauty. From this moment on, he is motivated only by the search for new sensations and experiences, inspired by Lord Henry’s belief that ‘nothing can cure the soul but the senses’. Moving between the glittering, superficial world of high society and the shady back alleys and dark opium dens of London’s docks, Dorian leads an increasingly debauched double life. Reputations are lost and lives are wrecked in his wake but through it all, he remains perfectly beautiful and impossibly youthful. Only the fateful picture bears the traces of his decadence and corruption.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was a succès de scandale on first publication, shocking readers with its hints at unspeakable sins. One early review declared that the novel dealt ‘with matters only fitted for the Criminal Investigation Department’ and that Wilde wrote for ‘outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys’. Later, the book was used as evidence against the author at his trial for ‘gross indecency’ at the Old Bailey, resulting in his imprisonment for two years.
Today, this enthralling fin-de-siècle tale of double lives and secret vices has lost none of its power to fascinate and disturb. Written in Wilde’s witty and epigrammatic style, The Picture of Dorian Gray probes such complex issues as identity, morality, society and art, and yet still remains a thrilling page-turner of murder, betrayal and decadence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, wit, intellectual, aesthete and raconteur, was born in Dublin in 1854. His father was an eminent eye-surgeon who was knighted for his services to science, and his mother a nationalist poet and celebrated society hostess. Wilde was educated at Portora, a famous Irish public school, and attended Trinity College, Dublin, and then Magdalen College, Oxford, where he began to propagandize the new Aesthetic (or ‘Art for Art’s Sake’) Movement. Despite gaining a first and winning the Newdigate Prize for Poetry, Wilde failed to obtain an Oxford scholarship, and was forced to earn 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’Oyly Carte production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, Patience. He tried to establish himself as a writer during the 1880s, but with little initial success. However, his volumes of short fi ction including The Happy Prince (1888) and Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (1891), gradually won him 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 in the West End between 1892 and 1895.
By 1890 Wilde had been married for six years and was devoted to his two sons. He lived in the fashionable district of Chelsea and at various times belonged to a number of gentleman’s clubs. In 1891 Wilde had met and fallen extravagantly in love with Lord Alfred Douglas. In 1895, when his success as a dramatist was at its height, Wilde brought an unsuccessful libel action against Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde 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. Like Dorian Gray, Wilde had for some time been indulging in activities that were illegal and vilified by ‘respectable’ society, and which therefore forced him to lead a double life. He was released from prison in 1897 and went into an immediate selfimposed exile on the Continent. He died in Paris in ignominy in 1900, but today remains one of the world’s most frequently-quoted and well-loved writers.
STARTING POINTS FOR YOUR DISCUSSION
‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’
Dorian Gray leads a double life for most of the novel, indulging in secret vices whilst presenting himself as a gentleman. To what extent is duplicity the novel’s main theme?
Does Wilde suggest that duplicity is essential to life in late Victorian society?
- Basil’s painting is a work of art that somehow ‘confesses’ to its creator’s desire. Can we read the novel as a confession of Wilde’s own life and does it encourage us to think in these terms?
- Can the novel be categorized with other Victorian works? To what extent does it draw on Gothic themes and images?
- To what extent is the novel a satire on late nineteenth-century society?
- Dorian Gray moves between the well-lit squares of Mayfair and the seedy world of the East End. What is the significance of the presentation of London in the novel?
- Is the book a subversive and amoral story of decadence and corruption, or is it in fact a fable with a clear moral message?
- What is the role of Sybil Vane in the novel? Discuss the novel’s characterization of women in general.
- ‘One has a right to judge of a man by the effect he has over his friends.’ Is Dorian responsible for the ruined lives of his friends, and is Lord Henry responsible for the ruined life of Dorian? Does the narrative voice encourage us to blame any one character, or does it refrain from judgment?
OTHER BOOKS BY OSCAR WILDE
The Decay of Lying: and Other Essays (Penguin 2010, 9780141192659)
Nothing ... Except My Genius: The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde (Penguin 2010, 9780141192680)
The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Poems (Penguin 2010, 9780141192673)
The Canterville Ghost, The Happy Prince and Other Stories (Penguin 2010, 9780141192666)
The Complete Short Fiction (Penguin 2003, 9780141439693)
The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays (Penguin 2000, 9780140436068)
The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Selected Critical Prose (Penguin 2001, 9780140433876)
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson (9780141023588)
The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers – Henry James (9780141439907)
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner – James Hogg (9780141441535)
Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon (9780141192338)
The Lost Stradivarius – John Meade Falkner (9781843911371)
Against Nature – Joris-Karl Huysmans (9780140447637)
Oscar Wilde: A Biography – H .Montgomery Hyde (9780141390864)
Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions – Frank Harris (9781840225549)
Oscar’s Books: A Journey Through the Library of Oscar Wilde – Thomas Wright (9780099502722)
Oscar Wilde’s London – Wolf von Eckardt (9781854792549)
The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde – ed. Peter Raby (9780521479875)
Inventing the Victorians – Michael Sweet (9780571206636)
ADDITIONAL ONLINE RESOURCES
The Oscar Wilde Society: http://www.oscarwildesociety.co.uk/
Spark Notes: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/doriangray/
Victorian Web: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/wilde/index.html
Dorian Gray (2009)
Directed by Oliver Parker, with Ben Barnes and Colin Firth. The latest cinematic incarnation of the classic tale.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (2007)
Directed by Duncan Roy, with David Gallagher Modernised update set in New York.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (2004)
Directed by David Rosenbaum, with Josh Duhamel
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
Directed by Albert Lewin, with Hurd Hatfi eld, George Sanders and Angela Lansbury
Won an Oscar for its cinematography.
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