Biting wit, a well-told tale, and a spiritual truth perfectly outlaid, these are the hallmarks of Oscar Wilde’s one and only excursion into novel land. The Picture of Dorian Gray initially published in 1890, Wilde played off the Faust legend to write his own tale of moral decay, beauty, and vice. Controversial upon its release, the book is bland by today’s publishing standards. Its message, however, remains as timeless as word itself.
Set at the time of the novel’s publication, the story opens with Dorian Gray posing for the artist Basil Hallward at the home of Lord Henry Wotton. Basil’s tongue sharper than any knife, the conversation he has with Lord Wotton intrigues Dorian. Coming to believe that beauty and sensuality are the only virtues worth pursuing, Dorian swears by the portrait Hallward produces that it will grow old, not himself. Emerging into society a different person, Dorian proceeds to live the life he’d sworn by, indulging in women and the excesses of luxury at will. The end of his hedonistic endeavors, however, is not the product of his dreams.
An exposition on the pitfalls of following too closely the ideology of aestheticism, The Picture of Dorian Gray examines the life of a man living as an aristocratic hedonist. His beliefs focused on what is sensual and beautiful and the behavior necessary to cultivate such a lifestyle, the tragedies around him take on a variety of abstract hues, from utter dispassion to beautiful disaster. Wilde examining the inhuman side of the concept, Gray exists at an eerie yet earthly distance to the reader, his actions at times ghoulish but always relatable. Rewards compounding the punishments, the price Gray pays for his immoderation is invaluable.
Superbly written, half the pleasure of reading The Picture of Dorian Gray is the dialogue. Conversations, particularly those involving Basil, are filled with maxims and epigrams of Wilde’s own design. Bursting with wit and charm, they make for delicious wordplay in a well-structured narrative. Wilde bringing his skills as a playwright to full bear in novel form, the story entertaining as much as it is exposes the human condition, character interaction nicely balanced with story movement. Faust the general model on which things are shaped, the end turns out as readers might expect, but not in the manner expected.
In the end, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a book that takes complete advantage of a fantasy trope to tell a cautionary tale of human frailty, and inversely, of the value of setting quality standards for one’s own personal growth. Dorian’s story is at all times remote yet empathetic, and gains a sense of anxiety with each step he takes deeper into self-indulgence. Faust applauding on the wings, the novel has stood the test of time for good reasons. The narrative presenting some of the wittiest English yet produced (moments of dialogue just sparkle) and plot complementary in engaging fashion, Wilde’s book will undoubtedly exist for another century.