Oscar Wilde’s only novel, Dorian Gray was published first by Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, and then as a revised and lengthened book in 1891.
The tale is a unique blend of comedy of manners, love story, acerbic social commentary, supernatural suspense, and artists’ manifesto. The premise is simple: the dandyish Lord Henry Wotton sits in on his friend, Basil Hallward, painting the beautiful young Dorian Gray. Dorian, a little vain and spoilt, sees the finished picture and curses it because it will always remain young and beautiful while he must age. He wishes he could change places and have the portrait age in his stead, which is, of course, what happens.
Wilde said of his three protagonists, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be.” Through the course of the novel, Lord Henry fills the role of mentor to Dorian, living vicariously through Dorian’s increasingly depraved actions as he attempts to fulfill Henry’s philosophy of hedonism and sensuality. Dorian “experiments with every vice known to man,” inspired by a “yellow book” which is clearly Huysmans’ A Rebours (“Against Nature”), although the title is never mentioned.
Both Dorian and A Rebours follow a similar narrative of a young man driven mad by pursuit of sensory experience (Huysmans’ hero, Jean des Esseintes, infamously kills a tortoise while trying to encrust its shell with jewels; the episode was inspired by the actions of the aristocratic aesthete Robert de Montesquiou, who killed a tortoise by painting it with gold), but while des Esseintes retreats from society in an effort to refine his sensory experiences, Dorian finds himself frequenting the underbelly: gambling halls and brothels and opium dens.
Although a novel ostensibly celebrating hedonism, Dorian’s excesses take their toll: his portrait grows aged and hideous under the burden of his corruption, calling to mind the science of physiognomy, which interprets character by an individual’s face. Ashamed of what the portrait reveals, Dorian keeps it locked in an attic room, although as the story progresses he spends more and more time contemplating the desecration of his soul.
As Dorian’s reputation begins to suffer as a result of his hedonism, Basil arrives at his house to confront him. Enraged, Dorian shows him the portrait and when Basil reacts with horror, Dorian stabs him. After disposing of Basil’s body, and narrowly escaping being killed by the enraged brother of a woman he earlier drove to suicide, Dorian realises he must atone for his behaviour. He uses the portrait as a guide as he attempts to remedy his past, but it only grows uglier, until he realises that even his newfound goodness comes from vain and corrupt desires. In a fit of passion, Dorian takes the knife with which he killed Basil, and stabs the portrait. His servants hear a scream from the locked attic room, and when they break down the door they discover the corpse of an ugly old man, stabbed through the heart, and the unmarked portrait returned to its former beauty.
While Wilde’s novel seems to revel in Dorian’s descent into sin and hedonism, the moral is clear, with Dorian ultimately paying for his behaviour by his gruesome death. The ending itself, with the beautiful man aged and changed beyond recognition, found stabbed in a locked room which housed nothing other than his portrait, also provides what seems like a perfect opening scene for one of Wilde’s great friends, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Whether or not Dorian Gray was written as a tongue-in-cheek jibe at the Sherlock Holmes stories, which often started seeming supernatural but had a logical solution, the idea that it might be so is amusing.
On a final, more grisly note regarding life imitating art, Dorian’s death almost seemed to foreshadow Wilde’s. Although Wilde’s death certificate does not give a cause for his early demise, cerebral meningitis was diagnosed before he succumbed to it. (Dispute rages about the underlying cause, but Richard Ellmann makes a compelling case in his definitive and lyrical biography of Wilde which suggests he contracted syphilis when he was twenty.) Wilde’s death was slow and painful, and within moments of him taking his last breath, his body messily exploded. Like his hero, Wilde was transformed at the instant of death from a handsome young man into a truly gruesome corpse.
Born on this day: Ann Bannon (83, American), author; Cathy Connolly (59, American), current Democratic representative of the 13th district in the Wyoming House of Representatives; Johannes Kahrs (52, German), politician; Sky Lee (63, Canadian), artist and novelist; Jeff Trandahl (51, American), Thirty-Second Clerk of the US House of Representatives and former HRC board member; and Robin Windsor (36, English), professional ballroom dancer and TV personality, best known for Strictly Come Dancing.
Did on this day: Beverley Nichols (1898-1983, English), author and playwright.