Picture of Dorian Gray (Review)

Labels: Great Works


The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde, 1890-91
150-175 pp. (varies by publisher)

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
December 2010
Wilde's novel has intrigued, enraged, and delighted readers for 100 years. It is many things: a novel of manners, a gothic fantasy, a morality tale (or, as Victorians believed, an immorality tale), and a philosophical treatise on the aesthetic movement sometimes referred to as "art for art's sake." Finally, the very name "Dorian Gray" is a cultural byword for lasting youth.

Dorian is ageless, he never suffers the destruction of time—only his picture does. We first meet him as a young man, sitting for his portrait in Basil Hallward's studio. Also in the studio is Lord Henry Wotton, whose corrupting influence (on Dorian) Basil greatly fears, a fear well placed.

Wotton introduces Dorian to Hedonism—a belief in pleasure and sensation as the prime meaning of life. "Live! Live now," he urges Dorian. Beauty is transient: the day will come when you will be "dreadful, hideous, and uncouth."

Dorian, under Lord Henry's sway, is distraught when he sees his youth and beauty peering out at him from the finished portrait—so distraught that he makes a Faustian bargain:

How sad it is!... This picture shall remain young.... If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that— for that...I would give my soul for that!

And so for the next 20-some years, he does: Dorian exchanges his soul for lasting youth and beauty. It's quite a story!—drawing in readers and armchair philosophers. Somewhat preachy at the beginning, even silly and dated, but keep reading—there's a nice payoff. And Wilde's nuggets? Not to be missed:

  • The charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary.
  • Conscience and cowardice are really the same.
  • The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.
  • He set himself to study the great aristocratic art of doing absolutely nothing.
  • Women represent the triumph of matter over mind.
  • Men represent the triumph of mind over morals.

See our Reading Guide for The Picture of Dorian Gray.


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