I was quite intrigued to read this book as it is so associated with scandal and Wilde’s imprisonment; I was interested to see if the book was as graphic as I was led to believe or whether it was exaggerated, and also if such an infamous book would seem as shocking today as it did then.

It is the story of a rich gentleman, Dorian Gray, young and beautiful and innocent, who has his portrait painted and at the same time becomes friends with the painter, Basil Hallward, and his friend, Lord Henry Wotton. Henry introduces Dorian to new temptations and experiences and has a strong and bad influence over him. Dorian discovers that each time he acts badly or is cruel to someone, the face in his portrait alters to display the cruelty inside him, and ages and bears the weariness of his late nights and bad habits. By contrast, Dorian does not age at all and remains beautiful. Dorian glories in this and views the portrait as a reflection of his conscience and soul, leaving him free and unblemished by his life’s choices. Dorian descends more and more into carelessness, both of his health and reputation and of his friends’ reputations, destroying many of their good names as he flits through their lives. The reader sees him become worse and worse as a human being, until the final chapter when he faces his portrait and is shocked at the picture it shows him and is determined to destroy it.

This is an extremely powerful book and a wonderfully novel idea; that a picture ages and the person doesn’t; that the picture is a reflection of a person’s soul and bears the brunt of all their bad choices and decisions leaving the real person untouched and untarnished. It was also an interesting study of a person’s paranoia (and almost split personalities) and left me wondering if the picture had actually altered or whether it was just Dorian imagining it had done so as his conscience pricked him. It was also a dark and sad story of how someone who seemingly had it all and could have done so much with his life, was unable to resist temptation and how he had destroyed so many other lives along the way, and also how he managed to justify his actions to himself by putting the blame on other people.

The edition I read, the Penguin Classics edition, had lots of interesting notes and appendixes detailing the alterations that Wilde had made to the original novel in order to be less explicit and obvious, and also interesting details of Wilde’s life and his trial. This was useful to understand a little more of the fuss that was created about the novel, as by today’s standards it is not shocking or graphic or explicit at all. I found the book actually quite ambiguous as to the relationships of the characters; I can see that the type of relationship can be assumed if read between the lines but it is not spelt out as obviously as the reputation of the book leads you to believe and I think each reader could interpret Dorian’s relationships in different ways. The notes and appendixes related how the novel was used as evidence to prove Wilde’s own choice of lifestyle and relationships and I can obviously see how the book can be interpreted in this way, but I think it could equally be interpreted in other ways – and this is another factor of the book that I found interesting.

I did find the novel interesting and powerful, but also disturbing too with how cruel Dorian could be and the damage that he did to himself and others. It is quite a dark novel and I can see the reason why it is mentioned as similar in themes to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, another dark but very powerful and unusual novel. I was also intrigued by, and gave a lot of thought to, which of the three main characters was closest to Wilde’s own. Another interesting aspect of this book is the strong and varying feelings that it creates – discussing this book with others some found the themes totally disgusting and actually struggled to finish the book and felt almost tainted by reading it whereas others described it as a work of genius, some believed that Dorian had realised the error of his ways in the end and was determining to alter his life whereas others believed Dorian was incapable of any moral feelings and could never have changed. As well as being a remarkable read, I fully admire and respect the book and its author for the ability to provoke such a wide range of views and emotions.

Picture of Dorian Gray
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