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ClassicsOnline Home » WILDE, O.: Picture of Dorian Gray (The) (Abridged)
The beautiful young Dorian Gray has his portrait painted by society artist Basil Hallward. Admired by all, the dazzling, wealthy, handsome young man has everything anyone could wish for—or so it appears. Oscar Wilde’s novel is a masterly study of moral corruption, a tour de force of suspense and surprise.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Murder, intrigue, decay of the body and soul — The Picture
of Dorian Gray is far removed from the popular view of Oscar Wilde as a writer
of delicate social comedy. It is also difficult to avoid the view that Dorian
Gray, Wilde’s only novel, is heavily autobiographical, in a metaphorical, if
not literal sense. While none of its male characters can be said to be Wilde
himself, each occasionally reveals a mood, or expresses a thought, which feels
quintessentially to be of the man himself.
The main idea for the story came from an actual episode. In
1884, Wilde used often to drop in at the studio of a painter, Basil Ward, one
of whose sitters was a young man of exceptional beauty. Incidentally, Wilde
must have been a godsend to many painters of the time, as his conversation kept
their sitters perpetually entertained. When the portrait was done and the youth
had gone, Wilde happened to say ‘What a pity that such a glorious creature
should ever grow old!’ The artist agreed, adding ‘How delightful it would be if
he could remain exactly as he is, while the portrait aged and withered in his
stead!’ Wilde expressed his obligation by naming the painter in his story
First published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890, then
revised and expanded when published in book form in 1890, Dorian Gray mixes elements
of grand guignol with dastardly deeds in the mode of supposedly decadent, late
19th century French fiction. Handfuls of epigrams are tossed in, like diamonds
scattered in a coal cellar.
This tale of moral decay and social opprobrium, laced with
macabre supernatural touches, is chillingly distinct from Wilde’s plays, where
witty glitter holds together unlikely plots. Dorian Gray still has the power to
disturb, even though today’s bourgeoisie is much less shocking than in Wilde’s
Oscar Fingall O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin on
October 16, 1854. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and at Magdalen
College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1878. His
espousal of the fin de siècle Aesthetic movement, which preached devotion to
art above all else, resulted in acclaim from some, deep hostility from others.
In 1882 Wilde arrived in North America to give a lecture tour, announcing as he
landed that he had “nothing to declare but my genius.”
Wilde insisted that art had nothing to do with morality,
though paradoxically the central plot of Dorian Gray can be interpreted as
establishing precisely the opposite — a conundrum Wilde himself would have
undoubtedly have relished. The comedies Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and The
Importance of Being Earnest (1895) established his reputation as a major writer
for the stage.
But in May 1895 he was sentenced to two years hard labor,
serving the bulk of that at Reading Gaol. Wilde had been found guilty of
homosexual conduct, of which the Marquess of Queensberry, father of Lord Alfred
Douglas, one of Wilde’s closest friends, had publicly accused him. Wilde sued
the Marquess for libel, but his action collapsed when the evidence went against
He served the full term of his sentence and on release in
May 1897 went to France. By now bankrupt, he was joined in France by Douglas,
dying in Paris on November 1900 of inflammation of the brain brought on by an
ear infection. Before he died, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
Wilde’s reputation today, rests on his two theatrical
masterpieces, but The Picture of Dorian Gray stands as a major contribution to
the English novel; its brooding, dissolute central figure almost a perfect
caricature of Wilde himself.
Notes by Gary Mead
Michael Sheen is one of Britain's most exciting young
actors. Since leaving RADA, he has appeared at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in
Osborne's Look Back in Anger and as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, in the world
première production of Harold Pinter's Moonlight, taken the title role of Peer
Gynt in Ningawa's world tour production, in the Royal National Theatre’s Ends
of the Earth, and has played Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Sheen’s
film credits include Mary Reilly, Othello and Wilde.
The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a
new material his
impression of beautiful things.
The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt
without being charming.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are
these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.
are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of
Caliban seeing his
own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of
his own face in a glass.
The moral life of man forms part of the subject matter of
the artist, but
morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No
desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.
No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an
artist is an
unpardonable mannerism of style.
No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is
the art of the
musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator and not life that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion of a work of art shows that the work is
new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he
does not admire it.
excuse for making a useful thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
— OSCAR WILDE
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WILDE, O.: Picture of Dorian Gray (The) (Abridged)