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.