Oscar Wilde ‘The picture of Dorian Gray’

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Yerevan 2009

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November
1900) was an Irish playwright, poet and author of numerous short stories
and one novel. Known for his biting wit, he became one of the most
successful playwrights of the late Victorian era in London, and one of
the greatest «celebrities» of his day. Several of his plays continue to
be widely performed, especially The Importance of Being Earnest. As the
result of a widely covered series of trials, Wilde suffered a dramatic
downfall and was imprisoned for two years’ hard labour after being
convicted of homosexual relationships, described as «gross indecency»
with other men. After Wilde was released from prison he set sail for
Dieppe by the night ferry, never to return to Ireland or Britain.

Oscar Wilde was born at 21 Westland Row, Dublin. Oscar Wilde was
educated at home until he was nine. He then attended Portora Royal
School in Enniskillen, Fermanagh, spending the summer months with his
family in rural Waterford, Wexford and at his father’s family home in

Wilde had a disappointing relationship with the prestigious Oxford
Union. On matriculating in 1874, he had applied to join the Union, but
failed to be elected. Nevertheless, when the Union’s librarian requested
a presentation copy of Poems (1881), Wilde complied. After a debate
called by Oliver Elton, the book was condemned for alleged plagiarism
and returned to Wilde.

While at Magdalen, Wilde won the 1878 Newdigate Prize for his poem
Ravenna, which he read at Encaenia; he failed to win the Chancellor’s
English Essay Prize with an essay that would be published posthumously
as The Rise of Historical Criticism (1909). In November 1878, he
graduated with a double first in classical moderations and Literae
Humaniores, or «Greats».

At Oxford University, Wilde petitioned a Masonic Lodge and was later
raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason retaining his membership in
the Craft until his death.

Legends persist that his behaviour cost him a dunking in the River
Cherwell in addition to having his rooms trashed, but the cult spread
among certain segments of society to such an extent that languishing
attitudes, «too-too» costumes and aestheticism generally became a
recognized pose. Publications such as the Springfield Republican
commented on Wilde’s behavior during his visit to Boston in order to
give lectures on aestheticism, suggesting that Wilde’s conduct was more
of a bid for notoriety rather than a devotion to beauty and the
aesthetic. Wilde’s mode of dress also came under attack by critics such
as Higginson, who wrote in his paper Unmanly Manhood, of his general
concern that Wilde’s effeminacy would influence the behaviour of men and
women, arguing that his poetry «eclipses masculine ideals under such
influence men would become effeminate dandies». He also scrutinized the
links between Oscar Wilde’s writing, personal image and homosexuality,
calling his work and way of life «immoral».

Wilde was deeply impressed by the English writers John Ruskin and Walter
Pater, who argued for the central importance of art in life. Wilde later
commented ironically when he wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray that
«All art is quite useless». Wilde’s sexual orientation has variously
been considered bisexual or gay. He had significant sexual relationships
with Frank Miles, Constance Lloyd (Wilde’s wife), Robbie Ross, and Lord
Alfred Douglas. Wilde also had numerous sexual encounters with young
working-class men, who were often male prostitutes. Wilde became one of
the most prominent personalities of his day. Though he was sometimes
ridiculed for them, his paradoxes and witty sayings were quoted on all

The picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only published novel by Oscar Wilde,
appearing as the lead story in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine on 20 June
1890. Wilde later revised this edition, making several alterations, and
adding new chapters; the amended version was published by Ward, Lock,
and Company in April 1891. The story is often mistitled The Portrait of
Dorian Gray.

The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a
painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian’s beauty
and becomes infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for
a new mode in his art. Talking in Basil’s garden, Dorian meets Lord
Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil’s, and becomes enthralled by Lord
Henry’s world view. Espousing a new hedonism, Lord Henry suggests the
only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfilment of the
senses. Realising that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian cries out,
expressing his desire to sell his soul to ensure the portrait Basil has
painted would age rather than himself. Dorian’s wish is fulfilled,
plunging him into debauched acts. The portrait serves as a reminder of
the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed as a
disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of aging. The Picture of
Dorian Gray is considered a work of classic gothic horror fiction with a
strong Faustian theme.


The novel begins with Lord Henry Wotton, observing the artist Basil
Hallward painting the portrait of a handsome young man named Dorian
Gray. Dorian arrives later, meeting Wotton. After hearing Lord Henry’s
world view, Dorian begins to think beauty is the only worthwhile aspect
of life, the only thing left to pursue. He wishes that the portrait of
himself which Basil is painting would grow old in his place. Under the
influence of Lord Henry, Dorian begins to explore his senses. He
discovers an actress, Sibyl Vane, who performs Shakespeare in a dingy
theatre. Dorian approaches her and soon proposes marriage. Sibyl, who
refers to him as «Prince Charming,» rushes home to tell her skeptical
mother and brother. Her protective brother, James, tells her that if
«Prince Charming» harms her, he will kill him.

Dorian invites Basil and Lord Henry to see Sibyl perform in Romeo and
Juliet. Sibyl, whose only knowledge of love was love of theatre, loses
her acting abilities through the experience of true love with Dorian.
Dorian rejects her, saying her beauty was in her art, and he is no
longer interested in her if she can no longer act. When he returns home
he notices that Basil’s portrait of him has changed. Dorian realizes his
wish has come true – the portrait now bears a subtle sneer and will age
with each sin he commits, whilst his own appearance remains unchanged.
He decides to reconcile with Sibyl, but Lord Henry arrives in the
morning to say Sibyl has killed herself by swallowing prussic acid. With
the persuasion and encouragement of Lord Henry, Dorian realizes that
lust and looks are where his life is headed and he needs nothing else.
That marked the end of Dorian’s last and only true love affair. Over the
next 18 years, Dorian experiments with every vice, mostly under the
influence of a «poisonous» French novel, a present from Lord Henry.
Wilde never reveals the title but his inspiration was possibly drawn
from Joris-Karl Huysmans’s А rebours (Against Nature) due to the
likenesses that exist between the two novels.

One night, before he leaves for Paris, Basil arrives to question Dorian
about rumours of his indulgences. Dorian does not deny his debauchery.
He takes Basil to the portrait, which is as hideous as Dorian’s sins. In
anger, Dorian blames the artist for his fate and stabs Basil to death.
He then blackmails an old friend named Alan Campbell, who is a chemist,
into destroying Basil’s body. Wishing to escape his crime, Dorian
travels to an opium den. James Vane is nearby and hears someone refer to
Dorian as «Prince Charming.» He follows Dorian outside and attempts to
shoot him, but he is deceived when Dorian asks James to look at him in
the light, saying he is too young to have been involved with Sibyl 18
years earlier. James releases Dorian but is approached by a woman from
the opium den who chastises him for not killing Dorian and tells him
Dorian has not aged for 18 years.

While at dinner, Dorian sees Sibyl Vane’s brother stalking the grounds
and fears for his life. However, during a game-shooting party a few days
later, a lurking James is accidentally shot and killed by one of the
hunters. After returning to London, Dorian informs Lord Henry that he
will be good from now on, and has started by not breaking the heart of
his latest innocent conquest, a vicar’s daughter in a country town,
named Hetty Merton. At his apartment, Dorian wonders if the portrait has
begun to change back, losing its senile, sinful appearance, now he has
changed his immoral ways. He unveils the portrait to find it has become
worse. Seeing this, he questions the motives behind his «mercy,» whether
it was merely vanity, curiosity, or the quest for new emotional excess.
Deciding that only full confession will absolve him, but lacking
feelings of guilt and fearing the consequences, he decides to destroy
the last vestige of his conscience. In a rage, he picks up the knife
that killed Basil Hallward and plunges it into the painting. His
servants hear a cry from inside the locked room and send for the police.
They find Dorian’s body, stabbed in the heart and suddenly aged,
withered and horrible. It is only through the rings on his hand that the
corpse can be identified. Beside him, however, the portrait has reverted
to its original form.


In a letter, Wilde said the main characters are reflections of himself:
«Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks
me: Dorian what I would like to be–in other ages, perhaps».

The main characters are:

· Dorian Gray – a handsome young man who becomes enthralled with Lord
Henry’s idea of a new hedonism. He begins to indulge in every kind of
pleasure, moral and immoral.

· Basil Hallward – an artist who becomes infatuated with Dorian’s
beauty. Dorian helps Basil to realise his artistic potential, as Basil’s
portrait of Dorian proves to be his finest work.

· Lord Henry «Harry» Wotton – a nobleman who is a friend to Basil
initially, but later becomes more intrigued with Dorian’s beauty and
naivete. Extremely witty, Lord Henry is seen as a critique of Victorian
culture at the end of the century, espousing a view of indulgent
hedonism. He conveys to Dorian his world view, and Dorian becomes
corrupted as he attempts to emulate him.

The other characters are:

· Sibyl Vane – An exceptionally talented and beautiful (though extremely
poor) actress with whom Dorian falls in love. Her love for Dorian
destroys her acting ability, as she no longer finds pleasure in
portraying fictional love when she is experiencing love in reality.

· James Vane – Sibyl’s brother who is to become a sailor and leave for
Australia. He is extremely protective of his sister, especially as his
mother is useless and concerned only with Dorian’s money. He is hesitant
to leave his sister, believing Dorian will harm her and promises to be
vengeful if any harm should come to her.

· Alan Campbell – a chemist and once a good friend of Dorian; he ended
their friendship when Dorian’s reputation began to come into question.

· Lord Fermor – Lord Henry’s uncle. He informs Lord Henry about Dorian’s

· Victoria, Lady Henry Wotton – Lord Henry’s wife, who only appears once
in the novel while Dorian waits for Lord Henry; she later divorces Lord
Henry in exchange for a pianist.

In his preface, Wilde writes about Caliban, a character from
Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. When Dorian is telling Lord Henry Wotton
about his new ‘love’, Sibyl Vane, he refers to all of the Shakespearean
plays she has been in, referring to her as the heroine of each play. At
a later time, he speaks of his life by quoting Hamlet, who has similarly
driven his girlfriend to suicide and her brother to swear revenge.

Literary significance

The Picture of Dorian Gray began as a short novel submitted to
Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. In 1889, J.M. Stoddart, a proprietor for
Lippincott, was in London to solicit short novels for the magazine.
Wilde submitted the first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which
was published on 20 June 1890 in the July edition of Lippincott’s. There
was a delay in getting Wilde’s work to press while numerous changes were
made to the novel. Some of these changes were made at Wilde’s
instigation, and some at Stoddart’s. Wilde removed all references to the
fictitious book «Le Secret de Raoul», and to its fictitious author,
Catulle Sarrazin. The book and its author are still referred to in the
published versions of the novel, but are unnamed.

Wilde also attempted to moderate some of the more homoerotic instances
in the book or instances whereby the intentions of the characters may be
misconstrued. In the 1890 edition, Basil tells Henry how he «worships»
Dorian, and begs him not to «take away the one person that makes my life
absolutely lovely to me.» The focus for Basil in the 1890 edition seems
to be more towards love, whereas the Basil of the 1891 edition cares
more for his art, saying «the one person who gives my art whatever charm
it may possess: my life as an artist depends on him.» The book was also
extended greatly: the original thirteen chapters became twenty, and the
final chapter was divided into two new chapters. The additions involved
the «fleshing out of Dorian as a character» and also provided details
about his ancestry, which helped to make his «psychological collapse
more prolonged and more convincing.» The character of James Vane was
also introduced, which helped to elaborate upon Sibyl Vane’s character
and background; the addition of the character helped to emphasise and
foreshadow Dorian’s selfish ways, as James sees through Dorian’s
character, and guesses upon his future dishonourable actions. Another
notable change is that in the latter half of the novel events were
specified as taking place around Dorian Gray’s 32nd birthday, on 7
November. After the changes, they were specified as taking place around
Dorian Gray’s 38th birthday, on 9 November, thereby extending the period
of time over which the story occurs. The former date is also significant
in that it coincides with the year in Wilde’s life during which he was
introduced to homosexual practices.


The preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray was added, along with other
amendments, after the edition published in Lippincott’s was criticised.
Wilde used it to address the criticism and defend the novel’s
reputation. It consists of a collection of statements about the role of
the artist, art itself, the value of beauty, and serves as an indicator
of the way in which Wilde intends the novel to be read, as well as
traces of Wilde’s exposure to Daoism and the writings of the Chinese
Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi. Shortly before writing the preface, Wilde
reviewed Herbert A. Giles’s translation of the writings of Zhuangzi. In
it he writes:

The honest ratepayer and his healthy family have no doubt often mocked
at the dome-like forehead of the philosopher, and laughed over the
strange perspective of the landscape that lies beneath him. If they
really knew who he was, they would tremble. For Chuang Ts? spent his
life in preaching the great creed of Inaction, and in pointing out the
uselessness of all things.

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