Commentary: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray 1
Novel Assignment
4 AP
Mrs. Cox
Commentary: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Like a number of the great personages in English literary studies, Oscar Wilde was Irish. Some scholars
admonish students and critics alike to leave the biography out of any literary appreciation of Wilde. (This is
a personal belief of mine when analyzing literature.) But the reader/critic cannot avoid being struck by the
ironic connections between Wilde’s life and his art, particularly when studying The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Oscar Wilde’s life was a tragedy in many of the senses of classical tragedy: The Picture of Dorian Gray
is a comment upon it, anachronistically, to be sure, perhaps as a prophetic self-fulfillment. One of the most
talked about and most financially successful literary men of his time, with two plays in production in
London, in 1895, Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for two years at hard labor, for homosexuality. Shortly after
his release he wrote a long poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and while he was in prison he wrote a long
letter, addressed to his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, one sheet at a time, each sheet taken from him as
it was filled. It is published under the title De Profundis. Otherwise, the scandal of the trial and his
conviction and incarceration were a death sentence to his creative life. He was ruined socially, financially,
physically, and mentally. His mother and brother died while he was in prison, and he never saw his children
again; his beautiful wife and two young children fled to the Continent. Their family name was changed to
Wilde died at the young age of 44, three unhappy, unhealthy years after the state’s punishment had run
its course. After his officially imposed penance, he pursued a homosexual lifestyle with greater vigor than
ever. Because of this, his name was anathema in Ireland for many decades. Today the Wilde family retains
the name Holland; today, Oscar Wilde is synonymous with homosexuality.
Many literary historians and critics, for most of the twentieth century, have taken Oscar Wilde to task for
his lifestyle, sometimes commenting on the insincerity of his work. The insincerity they find in his works is
often a misreading of Wilde’s irony, of his bitter cynicism. When Wilde said, in his last years, that he was
dying beyond his means, he was surely sincere. And perhaps of all Wilde’s epigrams the one that best
expresses the irony of his life and the theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray is, “When the gods wish to
punish us, they answer our prayers.” The inherent humor and suggested inexplicability of life do not mask
the implicit tragic dimension of Wilde’s world view.
After the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde wrote a letter to the editor of St. James’
Gazette. He claimed to have written a moral tale:
The moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment. The
painter, Basil Hallward, worshipping physical beauty far too much [. . .] dies by the hand of one
in whose soul he has created a monstrous and absurd vanity. Dorian Gray, having led a life of
mere sensation and pleasure, tries to kill conscience, and at that moment kills himself. Lord
Henry Wotton seeks to be merely the spectator of life. He finds that those who reject the battle
are more deeply wounded than those who take part in it. Yes; there is a terrible moral in Dorian
The novel invites the reader to consider the place of art in life. Wilde ends his “Preface” by saying that
all art is quite useless. That suggests that our daily workaday lives have no uses for, and therefore no need
for, art. But does that mean that art had no use in Dorian’s life? It seems that his life in part became art,
that he used art as a complement to life. This creates a powerful conundrum, one worth considerable
thought. Consider too, that in the medieval world, as in other traditional cultures, art was a material part of
everyday life; metaphors were in effect realities, not imaginary visions. Evil was a thing of substance, as
were spirits, and art was worn as clothing, used as furniture and tools. Wilde composed the “moral” quoted
above: if art is moral, then it is useful. But Wilde’s more famous statement about Dorian Gray, which when
brought up at his trial was enough to convict him, was, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book.
Books are well written or badly written.” It is interesting to contemplate the moral in Dorian Gray and to
reconcile it with this statement.
There are a number of movie versions of Dorian Gray and variations on its themes. The movie to see is
the black and white 1945 version starring Hurd Hatfield, George Sanders, and Angela Lansbury. It
transforms to Technicolor for views of the “portrait,” and though it makes some inexplicable, and
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inexcusable changes to the text, it is a commendable effort for the genre of novel-into-film. To get the
visual flavor of Wilde and the Decadents, look at Wilde’s play Salome in an edition illustrated by Aubrey
Beardsley. To bask in Wilde’s humor, read his masterpiece play, The Importance of Being Earnest, or see
it in the theater, which is even better than reading it.
Suggested Further Readings
Bloom, Harold, ed. Oscar Wilde. Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House,
1985. Print.
Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde. Twentieth Century Views. Englewood Cliffs: PrenticeHall, 1969. Print.
---. Oscar Wilde. New York: Random House, 1988. Print.
Lawler, Donald, L. ed. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Norton Critical Edition. New York:
W. W. Norton, 1988. Print.
Assignment: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Choose one of the topics below and write a four to five page essay.
Can the supernatural element be explained, or must the reader accept this “unreal” element of the
novel? Analyze the use of the supernatural in Dorian Gray.
Comment on Lord Henry and Dorian as “artists of their own lives.”
Explain how and why Dorian has “sold his soul to the devil.”
If you can view the 1945 movie, analyze its successes and failures as novel-into-film.
Analyze some of the important symbols in the novel.
Analyze the question of “art” in the novel.
Discuss in depth the “terrible moral” in Dorian Gray.