I know I don’t normally write about the publication history of the books I review, but the background to this one is more complex than usual, and quite relevant. It was published in full in Lippincott’s Monthly magazine in 1890 (in a significantly shorter version than the final novel). Wilde predicted “I think it will make a sensation” – which was a bit of an understatement. Prior to publication he made several edits to remove some of the more explicitly homo-erotic content, but he may as well not have bothered, because critics almost unanimously put two and two together, identified Wilde with his two main characters, and realised that some of the sins which they explore included gay sex. For the avoidance of any doubts Wilde drops clunking hints such as when he says “there are certain temperaments that marriage makes more complex…they are forced to have more than one life” (61) What can he mean? Later he refers to “such love as Michael Angelo had known, and Montaigne, and Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself” (96). This was extraordinarily daring of Wilde – and his publishers – and he was of course to pay the price.
The plot is very familiar. Gorgeous, young, well-to-do and well-connected Dorian Gray has his portrait painted by a society painter, Basil Hallward. Dorian unknowingly makes a Mephistophilian pact to preserve his beauty, and for his portrait to bear the signs of aging and sin. He is taken in hand, and led astray, by Hallward’s friend, the dangerous Lord Henry Wotton. His treatment of a young actress, Sibyl Vane, who falls in love with him and who he brutally rejects, leading to her suicide, is the first time he notices a change in the painting. Gray is psychopathically narcissistic – everything is judged by its impact on him. He goes to the opera after hearing Sibyl has died, and when chastised for this says “Don’t talk about horrid subjects. If one doesn’t talk about a thing, it has never happened” (87) Accepting his fate, he hides the painting, eventually killing Hallward to avoid exposure, and dives into a life of excess, sin, and hedonism. Wilde goes as far as he can to describe this life, dropping hints about many of the elements, including some more conventional, heterosexual affairs, which frankly is fooling no-one.
There’s a unavoidable biographical element to this novel. Wilde’s own life followed the same self-destructive arc as Gray’s, although what is more remarkable is that the novel came first – Wilde was well aware where his recklessness would lead, but embraced his fate in any event. He foresees it all – the social ostracism (“when he used to reappear again in society, men would whisper to each other in corners, or pass him with a sneer, or look at him with cold, searching eyes, as though they were determined to discover his secret” (113) – the damage caused to friends and relatives – “Women who had wildly (note the choice of adjective) adored him, and for his sake had braved all social censure and set convention at defiance, were seen to grow pallid with shame or horror if Dorian Gray entered the room” (113), the damage to his health and (he believed) his soul, and yet could not steer a different course.
There are four great 19th century English horror novels (that is, novels written in English) that explore identify and sexuality – ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’, ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, and ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray.’ (In many ways ‘Dr Jekyll’ is probably the least flawed of this quartet, and I will aim to review it shortly to complete the set). All are in their different ways about the horror of the divided self. ‘Gray’ has many flaws – the sections where Wilde expanded the text for publication as a novel show strong signs of padding, for example, and the aphorisms, which individually are witty and clever, when they appear in such intensity have an artificial, false note. But despite these, this is a stunning novel, tragic in the light of what we now know about Wilde’s own fate, but also complex and brave. Superficially it is a parable about the price of sin, but in making Gray and Wotton such charismatic characters Wilde makes it clear where his sympathies and interests lie.