Review of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

I last read this book 10 years ago. This is my third reading and it confirms my memory of the book as a flawed work of genius. It’s Wilde’s only novel and it’s quite a short one at that, but there are a lot of ideas packed into it. You could even say the book is a manifesto for the author’s beliefs about art and life. There’s a brilliant preface which talks about what art is and which famously claims that ‘all art is quite useless’.

The story is set in England in the late 19th century and follows the attractive and wealthy Dorian Gray. His portrait is painted by Basil Hallward, who loves Dorian and as a consequence has invested too much emotion in the portrait. Dorian wishes that he could always be as young and handsome as his painted self. And that’s actually what happens. While he stays youthful, his portrait becomes ugly and bloodstained to match his increasingly debauched lifestyle. He can literally get away with murder. His innocence is first corrupted (or his eyes are opened, depending on how you see it) by Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonist who in our language today, has an open marriage and whose conversation is mostly the witty epigrams that Wilde was famous for.

You can read this book in a straightforward way, as a tragic horror story in which the protagonist is his own worst enemy, paying the price for his vanity. Or you can put your own interpretations on it. Is it a warning about the double life that Victorian society was forcing upon gay and bisexual people? Is it a condemnation of how aristocratic and beautiful people have an easy ride while the poor and the unattractive have harder lives? Does the inclusion of oppressed women indicate a criticism of patriarchy? Is it a meditation on the desire for immortality through art? It could be all of these things and more.

The pacing is uneven, focusing in detail on a short period of time for the first half of the novel and then skipping over the years. Some sections are dialogue heavy, particularly any with Lord Henry in them (this can be annoying if you’re not in the mood for his amusing and suspiciously rehearsed-sounding speeches). Other sections are just descriptions. One chapter focuses on Dorian’s research into the history of jewels and tapestries, and although the language is wonderful, the reading experience is monotonous.

There is some casual racism in the description of people who are not white, who are to be found at the docks and opium dens, and there is some antisemitism towards a theatre manager. These aspects are what you would expect to find in some literature of the time and they don’t form a significant part of the story, but they might leave a bad taste in your mouth.

In summary, this is a classic, darkly atmospheric novel which continues to fascinate its readers today. It was first published in 1891. My edition is by Penguin (2003) an with introduction and notes by Robert Mighall and appendix by Peter Ackroyd.

23 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde”

    1. Thanks! ☺ yes it comes across as pretentious. Maybe that was what it was like to talk to Oscar Wilde!

  1. Great review for this book!
    I think I own an English version and a Romanian one too, but for some reason (maybe a lack of interest at the time I started reading them) I never finished either. I made the mistake of watching the movie after and I realized I wouldn’t be able to read the books because there was just too much darkness in everything.
    I despised Lord Wotton and how he corrupted Dorian, as if he was trying to get him to become a version oh himself as a way of excusing his own darkness ( if there’s two of us, then I’m not the worst) – that was how I saw it at the time, at least from what I got in the movie.
    I’m really unsure if I will read the whole book someday but it is catching my eye every time I go at the library so maybe I will get to finish it.

    1. Thanks for your comment ☺ I agree the character of Henry is unlikeable. It’s like he enjoys corrupting the young men (there’s a sense that it’s his hobby). He’s not totally to blame however.
      The novel is quite short, unlike some other classics, so I find it more readable.

  2. It’s a very long time since I read this, so while I remember aspects of the story, I have forgotten everything about the style you describe. I would quite like to reread it one day.

    1. It’s certainly worth a re-read (I’m glad I did). Maybe it’s one of those books where you notice more each time!

  3. Been meaning to read this book forever! But after reading your review, I might bring it way down my TBR πŸ˜…

    1. Ha ha, thanks Jee! It’s fairly short for a classic and so I find it doesn’t take me long to read. ☺

  4. Great review!! I haven’t read this one yet although I do want to when I get the chance. I’ve read some short stories that were by Wilde though. A long time ago but I sort of … borrowed a book we were using at school and never gave it back😲. I forgot about having it and then the books were gone when I went to give it back, nobody would help when I asked who to give it to and they didn’t take it, so I…kept it, lol
    I’ve read a picture book of this classic which made me all the more eager to read it. I planned to share that review soon on my blog, it’s called ‘The Picture of Dorian Greyhound’πŸ™„πŸ™„πŸ™„πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚

    1. LOL at Dorian Grayhound! I look forward to your review.
      Shame on you for keeping a school book πŸ˜‰ your secret is out.
      I have read some short stories too and some of his plays.

      1. I’ve set that review to go out on Sunday, lol. It’s part of classic re-tellings in a half picture book style, a bit like Ladybird books for grown-ups. There’s four of them and the books are called Classic TailsπŸ™„ πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚
        Yes, I’m not proud of the book ‘borrowing’ from school but oh-well…Technically I could always still give it back but then I wonder if they are even using the book anymore or where would it end up. My school was weird, they didn’t like to keep old school or library books, they did a purge of them every few years and just seemed to get rid of them, don’t know where they ended up but my school wasn’t big on recycling or re-sharing themπŸ™„…It’s a shame they didn’t let us just have or buy them at reduced cost, there were a few books I loved there and still haven’t found a copy to keep for myself today πŸ™

        1. Classic Tails… you’ve got to laugh at that! πŸ˜€
          I suppose that schools don’t keep books for very long, maybe they don’t even buy as many now that they have better technology, I don’t know.
          I still have a book I bought from my school library for maybe 20p. It’s actually Anthony Horowitz’s early (and not famous) book Enter Frederick K Bower – I remember borrowing it and then buying it!

          1. That’s got to have added sentimental value πŸ™‚ I’m hunting around for a few old copies of books I’d read and borrowed more than once from the school library. Thanks again for the advice on Amazon marketplace you gave me a while ago, there seem to be a lot of people selling the old books I’m interested in on there πŸ™‚

  5. I have watched the play, but never read the novel. I definitely mean to, quite often you get more nuances and details in the book. Great review and thanks for reminding me of this one!

    1. Thanks for your comment ☺ I haven’t seen a play or even a film of the book, would like to.
      It’s definitely worth a read. Not one of my favourites but I’m sure I’ll re-read in another few years!

  6. I don’t know why I still haven’t read this book but my goal is to expand on my knowledge of Classics so I think it will form a part of my immediate TBR list soon. Great review!

    1. Thanks! πŸ™‚
      This is definitely a good classic to try as it’s not too long and there are only a few characters. It’s Wilde’s only novel but it does have some similar material to his plays.

  7. I love the questions you ask to get us to add our own spin of interpretation to this classic. I have this on my TBR and hope to read it someday, it sounds fantastic. Fantastic review and thank you for sharing! πŸ˜€

    1. I’m always asking questions of everything and everyone πŸ˜‰
      I hope you enjoy the book when you get around to it. Although I have a few issues with it, I feel quite fond of it and will certainly re-read it at some point.

    1. I have to admit, I haven’t seen any film versions of this! But I can understand why it would be difficult to finish the novel, the style is all over the place.

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