The proposer of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde had first encountered the book in France, when he had been so mesmerised that he had sought to translate it into French (and emulate it in lifestyle). Re-reading it many years later he found it more tedious. Whereas the language and wit had once entranced him, it now seemed heavier. Wilde could not resist being clever, and, although the epigrams still brought a smile, they conveyed little of substance, and distracted from the rest of the book. The lack of convincing characterisation was also a weakness
Nevertheless, it was an interesting comedy of manners, with some Gothic elements, which reflected Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy of art and life. It was his only novel, his first serious work, and was first published in 1890. In the light of public controversy about its immorality, it was re-published in 1891 with an introduction, six new chapters and many other amendments. Amongst other things these changes eliminated nearly all the homosexual connotations, and introduced the James Vane character. Within five years Wilde would be in prison, and within ten years dead. Some critics had argued that the novel reflected Wilde’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, but that must be wrong, as that affair did not start until 1891.
Others who were re-reading the novel also found it had paled compared to reading it in their youth. Perhaps it was a young man’s book. It no longer seemed sophisticated. It was florid, and not as tight as Jekyll and Hyde – for example, in its endless descriptions of the jewels Gray had bought. But it was enlivened by the melodrama, for example getting rid of the body of Campbell and the opium-den scene.
By contrast, those reading “Dorian Gray” for the first time found plenty of interest and intrigue to commend it. It was deeply original, and had an enjoyable freshness. It was essentially a fable, a myth. Its central Faustian story – of the picture which took on Gray’s sins and age – had great vividness and archetypal resonance. It had a film-like power, with real tension surrounding Dorian’s fear of his painting being discovered. It also had an excellent ending, with the crescendo of the knife being plunged into the painting. The enduring popularity of the book was shown by the fact that it had proved impossible to obtain the book in a second-hand hardback copy, and, indeed, one member of the group had resorted to reading the book on-line.
However, the novel’s three elements – wit, decadence, and gothic melodrama – were not fully unified. Wilde was less interested in the secondary characters as people than in them as vehicles for his views (in the absence of an authorial voice). The book was also misogynist.
Which of the characters was based on Wilde himself? An obvious candidate was Lord Henry, with his cynical wit and his love for Gray. However, one of us had gone on to read Wilde’s “De Profundis”, and had noted the similarity between Wilde’s recriminations to Bosie (Lord Douglas) and those of Basil (the artist) towards Gray in the latter part of the novel. Basil therefore reflected Wilde’s personality too (though we were unconvinced by a critic who saw the novel as a meditation on the relationship between the artist and life, and gave the epigrams of the introduction more philosophical weight than they could bear). Dorian’s hedonism also reflected part of Wilde’s outlook, and we concluded that different aspects of Wilde’s personality were reflected in all three characters.
We debated whether it was a “moral” novel. The ostensible moral – that happiness could not be gained without virtue – reminded the proposer of Diderot. Some of us felt that Wilde had put this moral into the story for the benefit of his Victorian audience, and was more attracted by pure hedonism than the plot by itself suggested. The novel’s world was one of decadence where beauty excused all. Gray was able to live in great wealth without any purposeful activity. In this context it would have been interesting to read the novel in its original “less moral” version, and it was surprising that no publisher seemed to have republished the original text. Some felt that “Dorian Gray” suffered from the Victorian constraints on actually describing any of the debauchery that was central to the plot. On the other hand, the lack of any such restraint was arguably a flaw in “The Line of Beauty” by Alan Hollinghurst, a contemporary treatment of the theme of gay hedonistic pursuit of beauty.
P.S. we read this book in conjunction with Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (see separate entry).