A Strange Idolatry: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

Steve Carver looks at ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Oscar Wilde’s only novel.

In a news cycle that has just seen conservative commentators lose it over Harry Styles appearing on the cover of December’s Vogue wearing a Gucci evening dress under a tux, it feels in every way appropriate to celebrate Oscar Wilde’s beautiful androgyne, Dorian Gray – especially as the critical responses sound so similar. When Wilde toured America, for example, the clergyman T. W. Higginson published a high profile and much-reprinted article entitled ‘Unmanly Manhood’ in which he argued that the flamboyant author would ‘improperly influence’ the behaviour of both men and women. When The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared as a serial in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890 it caused a sensation, reviewers falling over themselves to denounce it as ‘unclean’, ‘effeminate’ and ‘contaminating’. It was ‘a poisonous book’ complained the Daily Chronicle, ‘the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.’ W.H. Smith withdrew every copy from its railway station bookstalls. Five years later, in Wilde’s disastrous legal action against the Marquess of Queensberry, Edward Carson QC conducted a savage cross-examination of the author based around his novel’s alleged ‘corrupting influence’ and ‘unnatural vice’. It was subsequently used as evidence by the prosecution in the first of Wilde’s two trials on the charge of ‘gross indecency’, which resulted in his imprisonment and early death. Last week, the alt-right political activist Candace Owen reacted with equal venom to a perceived threat to the social status quo, viewing Harry and his dress as a direct threat to western civilization and sparking a robust debate across social and mainstream media. ‘There is no society that can survive without strong men. The East knows this,’ she tweeted, concluding ‘Bring back manly men.’ (John Wayne was mentioned.) Republican broadcaster Ben Shapiro agreed, replying to Owens: ‘The POINT of Styles doing this photo shoot is to feminize masculinity.’ Higginson, Carson, Queensbury and the legion of late-Victorian critics who found Wilde and his fin de siècle gothic fantasy so threatening would no doubt agree. The beautiful boys, meanwhile, look on and enigmatically smile…

The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde’s only novel, and its crisp, aphoristic dialogue heralds his famous social comedies just as the book’s underlying philosophy brings together his earlier critical work on aestheticism. It came about after Wilde dined with Arthur Conan Doyle, the Irish politician T.P. Gill, and the Lippincott’s editor John Marshall Stoddart in August 1889, at which Stoddart commissioned work from all three of his guests. (Conan Doyle’s contribution was The Sign of The Four, the second Sherlock Holmes novel.) Wilde was then the editor of The Woman’s World magazine. As a writer, he was best known for his essays on art and his children’s stories, published collectively as The Happy Prince and Other Tales the previous year. His first offering was a fairy tale called ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’, in which the hero cuts away his soul to marry a mermaid. The soul eventually tricks the fisherman into re-joining it, the mermaid pines away and dies and her lover soon follows. Stoddart rejected this as too short and unsuitable for his audience – the story was subsequently included in Wilde’s A House of Pomegranates collection – and Wilde produced a much more adult fairy tale instead.

The Picture of Dorian Gray exists as three distinct texts: Wilde’s original Lippincott manuscript as submitted to Stoddart (unpublished until 2011); the published serial, edited by Stoddart without Wilde’s consent to tone down innuendo, allusions to homosexuality and to excise the term ‘mistress’ from descriptions of Dorian’s female lovers; and the subsequent novel of 1891, revised and expanded from 13 to 20 chapters by Wilde with a new preface. This was in part to (unsuccessfully) mollify the critical charges of ‘immortality’ by deepening characters and adding a new storyline involving Sibyl Vane’s vengeful brother, essentially playing Laertes to Dorian’s Hamlet. It is the novel with which most readers are familiar, and on which the many film versions are based, most notably the definitive 1945 adaptation starring Hurd Hatfield as Dorian, George Saunders as Lord Henry Wotton and Angela Lansbury (in only her third film role) as Sibyl Vane and, more recently, the resolutely heterosexual Dorian Gray (2009) with Ben Barnes in the title role supported by Colin Firth as Lord Henry.

The story is well known; like many gothic novels as much if not more for the Hollywood adaptations as the original text, which tend to follow Stoddart in making the narrative much less gay. The premise blends the myths of Faust and Narcissus with the gothic archetype of the Doppelgänger. Influenced by the Mephistophelean Lord Henry, Dorian falls in love with his own youth and beauty in Basil Hallward’s portrait and wishes it would age in his stead. It does, and while Society marvels at his seemingly timeless good looks, the dockside prostitutes guess the truth and nickname him the ‘Devil’s Bargain’. The increasingly grotesque portrait is thus his double, the ‘most magical of mirrors’ that ‘would reveal to him his own soul’. As the portrait shows Dorian as he really is – prematurely aged through debauchery, cruelty written all over his features – the living Dorian is the true double. He has become the Decadent ideal, a human objet d’art.

In German, ‘doppelgänger’ is a compound noun made up of ‘double’ and ‘walker’, originally meaning a supernatural evil twin and harbinger of disaster. This figure was also used by Poe in ‘William Wilson’ (1839), and Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The Picture of Dorian Gray is also a gothic immortal story, in the tradition of Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne (1811), Bulwer Lytton’s Zanoni (1842), and Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by the Irish clergyman Charles Maturin, in which the ancient and undying John Melmoth plays both Faust and Mephistopheles as he roams the world across history in search of another who will change places so he can break his satanic pact. Maturin was Wilde’s great-uncle on his mother’s side, and in exile in France at the end of his life, he went by the pseudonym ‘Sebastian Melmoth’, combining the martyred saint with his ancestor’s gothic icon. Melmoth the Wanderer was also greatly admired by Charles Baudelaire, another link in the chain of Decadent Late Romanticism which would culminate – and die – with Wilde.

As a narcissist and living work of art, in Nietzschean terms Dorian is an ‘Apollonian’ figure and Hallward also paints him as Adonis, Narcissus, Paris, and Antinous. Against nature, he has the cold edge of the purely aesthetic; he is serene in his indifference: ordered, unemotional and self-contained. But he doesn’t start out like this. Or, at least, he is unaware of his own mystical power. He is first introduced in absentia as Hallward’s muse. In describing their first meeting, the artist tells Lord Henry that:

‘When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself.’

The word Wilde most applies to Dorian is ‘fascinating’. And it is likely that he meant it in its original form. From the Latin fascinum (meaning ‘evil spell’), when ‘fascinate’ was first defined in an English dictionary – Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall (1604) – it meant ‘to bewitch’ or ‘to disfigure by enchantment [sic].

Dorian has certainly put a spell on Hallward:

‘He is all my art to me now … in some curious way—I wonder will you understand me?—his personality has suggested to me an entirely new manner in art, an entirely new mode of style. I see things differently, I think of them differently … I see everything in him. He is never more present in my work than when no image of him is there. He is a suggestion, as I have said, of a new manner. I find him in the curves of certain lines, in the loveliness and subtleties of certain colours.’

He concludes emphatically: ‘As long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me.’ Aware of the implications of this ‘artistic idolatry’, Hallward refuses to exhibit the painting, because ‘There is too much of myself in the thing, Harry—too much of myself!’ Lord Henry compares this state to a ‘romance’, hinting at sadomasochistic enslavement in the original manuscript, in which Hallward exclaims things like, ‘The world becomes young to me when I hold his hand’, until Wilde substantially rewrote this dialogue for the 1891 edition, making it more about art and less about love.

Like Hallward’s uncanny masterpiece, there’s a lot of the author in The Picture of Dorian Gray. As he wrote to Ralph Payne, a fan of the novel: ‘I am so glad you like that strange coloured book of mine: it contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps.’ Some are tempted to liken the connection between Hallward and the prelapsarian Dorian to Wilde’s fatal relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, although they did not meet until well into 1891, after the revised novel was published, and did not begin a sexual relationship until 1893. Dorian was created a priori. In that sense, ‘Basil Hallward is what I think I am’ suggests Wilde the artist and the aesthete, what Camilla Paglia called ‘an Apollonian conceptualizer’, the old student of Walter Pater and John Ruskin, believing in the autonomy of art and the primacy of beauty. This persona is then crossed with Lord Henry – ‘what the world thinks me’ – which rather speaks for itself. Lord Henry, like Wilde, is a brilliant raconteur. He is witty and affectedly Decadent and immoral; he is also seductive and corrupting:

There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence. No other activity was like it. To project one’s soul into some gracious form, and let it tarry there for a moment; to hear one’s own intellectual views echoed back to one with all the added music of passion and youth; to convey one’s temperament into another as though it were a subtle fluid or a strange perfume; there was a real joy in that … Yes; he would try to be to Dorian Gray what, without knowing it, the lad was to the painter who had fashioned the wonderful portrait. He would seek to dominate him – had already, indeed, half done so…

Wilde the artist, critic and Society provocateur is thus split between the two characters, although both are more moral than they first appear as, indeed, Wilde. As Lord Henry is the devil on Dorian’s shoulder, Hallward is the angel. It is the artist who feels empathy for Dorian’s victims, and who urges his friend to repent, quoting Isaiah: ‘though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.’ Like his painting, he functions as Dorian’s conscience. But while Lord Henry talks the talk, he doesn’t walk the walk. After joking about infidelity for years, he is genuinely sad when his wife leaves him for another man, while friends frequently remind him that they know he doesn’t believe a word he’s saying during his glittering and sinful monologues. As Hallward tells him: ‘You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose.’ Like Wilde, he is a performer, and in the tragedy of Sibyl Vane Wilde shows the difference between the character and the actor, the ideal and the reality, and the dangers of confusing the two. The story’s climax, therefore, is essentially Christian as much as it is a gothic epiphany. Wilde would later decry the ‘terrible moral’ as an ‘artistic error’ and ‘the only error in the book’, but later still, going much deeper in his 1897 prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis (literally ‘From the Depths’), he saw a more human truth: ‘Doom, that like a purple thread runs through the gold cloth of Dorian Gray.’

Dorian is as much doomed as his victims, as is the half-martyred/half-sacrificed Hallward, Victorian culture itself, and, of course, Wilde, who turned his life into theatre, made the Decadent ideal flesh and was destroyed by brute reality. For its author, The Picture of Dorian Gray was pointedly prophetic: ‘One should never make one’s debut with a scandal,’ says Lord Henry. ‘One should reserve that to give interest to one’s old age.’ There is thus a bleakness to the novel – its world-weary, pleasure-seeking elite as aimless as ghosts, their ‘New Hedonism’ leading inevitably to destruction, just as the Great War was soon to obliterate the Victorian era itself. Despite the jokes and the decadence, there is a moral subtext that Wilde can’t shake off, like his affinity for the Catholic Church (which he joined on his deathbed). As Peter Ackroyd wrote: ‘He raised a world in his own image and then condemned it for its emptiness and its follies.’

Then there is the last corner of Wilde’s personal trinity, Dorian himself, ‘what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps’; not the libertine, presumably, but the living work of Apollonian art; Hellenistic, pre-Christian. When Dorian enters the opening scene, Lord Henry first identifies him as one of his Aunt’s East End philanthropists. At this point, Dorian seems much more conventionally ‘Victorian’. He’s unaware of Basil’s infatuation and the power of his own beauty, and his aristocratic sense of social responsibility indicates a pretty conventional Christian moral compass, though he is curious, wondering to himself, ‘Would there ever be someone who would fill him with a strange idolatry?’ As a young ‘innocent’ – there is beauty but not much brain – and objet d’art (though he doesn’t know it yet), he is easily open to influence, just as the work of art achieves meaning only through the gaze of the viewer. Lord Henry, the serpent in Basil’s garden, brings Dorian into existence, as Satan did Eve, by making him self-conscious, suddenly aware both of his beauty and its inevitable decline. This is Dorian’s fall from grace. When he makes his wish, he detaches from his Christian soul, displacing it into the portrait. At a stroke, he becomes a pre-Christian idol, the artistic rendition of a Classical god. (In a later scene, a Covent Garden tradesman gives him some cherries, neither seems to know why, although symbolically it is an offering.) He also becomes Lord Henry, quickly embracing the older man’s cynical philosophy and spouting clever aphorisms. Having no real identity of his own beyond the objectified and the visual, he has assumed his friend’s. The transformation is complete when Wilde describes Dorian gesturing ‘languidly’, a key adverb for Lord Henry.

Dorian is thus also Lord Henry’s doppelgänger, and as a double he is drawn to Sibyl Vane’s stage personas, ‘all the great heroines of the world in one’:

‘To-night she is Imogen,’ he answered, ‘and to-morrow night she will be Juliet.’

‘When is she Sibyl Vane?’


But this isn’t true. Sibyl’s love for Dorian supplants her love of acting, and in that instant, she ceases to be art personified and becomes merely Sibyl, the opposite of Dorian’s transformation. The spell is broken, and Dorian is repulsed by her raw humanity. We don’t see this level of hatred in him again until his final meeting with Hallward, who he now blames for the enchanted portrait. Dorian never takes responsibility for his own actions and is held to account only by his true author, Wilde, and, by implication, God.

This is not to say that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a moral fable. It is far too complicated for that. It is an elegant essay on art, and a Decadent manifesto, following Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus and À rebours (both published in 1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, the ‘poisonous book’ that Lord Henry gifts to Dorian and to which Wilde alludes several times in the narrative. By the same token, the novel is as much a critique of Decadence as it is a panegyric, either intentionally or unconsciously signalling the death knell of the movement, the end of the Victorian century, and heralding artistic modernism and the industrial carnage of the First World War:

‘Fin de siecle,’ murmured Lord Henry.

‘Fin du globe,’ answered his hostess.

‘I wish it were fin du globe,’ said Dorian with a sigh. ‘Life is a great disappointment.’

The novel is also a sophisticated piece of homosexual erotica. Even if Dorian’s tastes swing both ways, there is no female character in the book – even Sibyl – who is not depicted as scheming, duplicitous, ridiculous or even grotesque. The beautiful people are all men. It is also a social comedy, with some hilarious dialogue, anticipating Wilde’s conquest of the theatre and reminding us that his genius was to wed Decadent Aestheticism with the British comedic tradition. There are many lines that are so barbed and brilliant that I defy any reader not to laugh out loud. It is also a gothic novel and a fairy tale – which are both sides of the same coin – full of magic and horror and the subversion of realism. The attic room in which Dorian locks his portrait thus functions as both a gothic space and an enchanted tower, while Dorian’s other nickname is ‘Prince Charming’.

Finally, it is a deeply personal testament in which Wilde explores the different facets of his own soul, sometimes by design, sometimes by accident. As he wrote in the preface: ‘Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.’ In reading it today, one finds The Picture of Dorian Gray eerily prescient, anticipating as it does the author’s own destruction, killed as much by his own ideals and affectations as by the Victorian Establishment. As Lord Henry rightly advises: ‘A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies…’

Image: Portrait photo circa 1882 by Napoleon Sarony of Irish playwright, poet, author and aesthete Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900).

Credit: Archive Pics / Alamy Stock Photo