Oscar Wilde photograph

The Picture of Dorian Gray book review

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Stephen King wrote that in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. He might just as well have been speaking about adjectives. Too many of them can get in the way of telling a story.

Mark Twain would have agreed. He had this to say on the subject, in a letter he wrote to a student:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

I’m harping on adjectives at the moment because Oscar Wilde never met one he didn’t like. Take, for instance, the second sentence of the opening chapter to The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1890:

“From the corner of the divan of Persian saddlebags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flame-like as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid jade-faced painters of Tokio [sic] who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion”.


There’s more, but you get the picture. I wouldn’t call it purple prose, exactly – Wilde was too good a writer for that – but “florid” certainly comes to mind. He was, after all, creating a work of art; defending himself against a critical review he wrote, “My story is an essay on decorative art”.

Which raises the question, can an essay on decorative art also be a novel? Well, yes, it can, although I maintain it would be a better novel without the decoration.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein, is one of those stories most of us know without ever having read the book. An artist paints a picture of a beautiful young man. The young man, gazing at the portrait, makes a fervent wish: if only he could remain this youthful, this attractive, all his life. If only it could be the painting that ages, becomes decrepit and ugly. His wish comes true: as time passes he becomes increasingly corrupt and decadent, but his youthful appearance is unchanged. He remains as outwardly attractive as the day he sat for the painting. His portrait, however, shows the corruption of his soul.

The young man in question is Dorian Gray, who sits for a series of paintings by the artist, Basil Hallward. Hallward, a deeply ethical and serious character, has nevertheless become obsessed with Dorian. He believes the portrait he’s recently completed is his masterpiece. When his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, visits Hallward’s studio, he agrees.

“It is your best work, Basil,” he tells him, “the best thing you have ever done.”

He urges Hallward to exhibit the painting next year at the Grosvenor Gallery, but the artist refuses. “I have put too much of myself in it,” he says, confessing that Dorian has become everything to him.

“I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him every day,” he says. “He is absolutely necessary to me.”

In contrast to Hallward, Lord Henry is a dandy and a libertine; he pretends to take nothing seriously and argues that the only true aim of life is self-development through the pursuit of beauty. Upon meeting Basil for the first time, he expounds on his theory of hedonistic gratification:

“I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream – I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediævalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal – to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal it may be”.

Dorian is immediately impressed by his new-found friend and becomes a willing disciple to his corrupting influence. He begins to explore the darker, less respectable parts of London and, in so doing, falls in love with a beautiful young actress. Sibyl Vane is poor and innocent, but she has a powerful stage presence. Captivated, Dorian soon proposes marriage and follows it up by inviting Hallward and Lord Henry to the theatre to watch her perform. Unfortunately, falling in love with Dorian has turned Sibyl into a bad actress; experiencing the real thing, she feels she can no longer pretend to be in love on stage. She performs poorly that night and Dorian, angry and embarrassed, breaks off the engagement and tells her he never wants to see her again. When he returns home he’s shocked to observe that his portrait has altered: there’s a hint of cruelty to the mouth that wasn’t there before.

In a fit of remorse, Dorian decides to go to Sibyl the next day, beg her forgiveness, and renew the engagement. The next morning, however, he learns that she killed herself the night before. Dorian locks the painting away in an upper room and resigns himself to a life of decadence and debauchery. For the next 18 years he sinks ever deeper into sin and corruption. He becomes the subject of salacious gossip – it’s said he’s done unspeakable things – and yet no one, looking into his charming, youthful face can believe him guilty of such transgressions. When Basil Hallward turns up one night to confront him about the things people are saying, Dorian shows him the painting, which has become hideous, and then kills him in a fit of rage.

Eventually, Dorian vows to summon the courage to confess his crimes. The painting, however, sneers at him, revealing the hypocrisy of his repentance. In a fury, Dorian picks up the knife he used to kill Basil and slashes the painting to pieces. His servants, hearing a crash, break into the room. The painting, as youthful and fresh as the day it was painted, is hanging on the wall; their master, old, wizened and hideously disfigured, lies on the floor with a knife through his heart.

In this, his first and only novel, Wilde was critiquing two antithetical belief systems: the moral hypocrisy of 19th century society and the so-called “new hedonism”. It’s obvious, though, that his personal sensibilities were allied with the aesthetes, personified by Lord Henry Wotton. He’s the most interesting character in the book, and Wilde gives him all the best lines:

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

“I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”

And my favourite: “I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.”

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