6 Reasons Why Everyone Should Read The Picture of Dorian Gray

Photograph of Oscar Wilde (1882)
Photograph of Oscar Wilde (1882)

One week ago, I am ashamed to say, I had not read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. However, a trip to Dublin (where Wilde was born, studied at university and spent much of his life) compelled me dust down my second-or-third-hand anthology of the writer’s work and promptly address this absence in my reading. Here’s my run-down of why everyone should dive into the only novel that Wilde ever wrote:

6. The story is unlike anything else

Well, almost anything else. It certainly has echoes of the Greek mythical figure Narcissus (who fell in love with his own reflection), but The Picture of Dorian Gray is very much its own beast. It tells the story of a young, attractive socialite in nineteenth century London who is painted in a portrait. He semi-seriously prays for the painting, and not himself, to bear the burden of age and sin. As the years advance and his soul blackens, it becomes apparent that his supernatural wish has been granted. I remember watching the 2009 cinematic adaptation starring Ben Barnes as the titular character and Colin Firth as Lord Henry Wotton; the man responsible (or is he?) for leading Dorian astray. It probably wasn’t the ideal introduction to this story; the film is fairly flimsy and irons out many of the novel’s creases. Nonetheless, I vividly remember being captivated by the bare bones of the story, and how fantastically weird it was. Don’t bother with that movie (although I am told that the 1945 version is actually rather good). Instead, throw yourself into Wilde’s mesmerising original.

5. It’s short

OK, so perhaps this isn’t actually a reason to read this novel, but it certainly means there are no excuses not to (my edition is just shy of 150 pages). What is so incredible about Wilde’s writing style is its brevity. The author has a deftness of touch which means that however morbid or disturbing the subject matter might be getting, the reader can rest assured that he will not wallow in the macabre for page upon insufferable page. Instead, he manages to create the perfect balance of light and shade, his prose nimbly trotting from scene to scene.

4. It will lead to endless dinner-table discussion

In my mind, truly great art engages both the heart and the brain, and The Picture of Dorian Gray certainly fulfills this dual requirement. Whilst packing an emotional punch, the novel also invites one to question what the deceptively simple story actually means. Is Dorian’s vanity driven by his self-obsession or his fear of decrepitude? Are they actually the same thing? Wilde leaves enough unsaid to make room for the reader’s own unique stance. In my mind, the story is an allegory for the intrinsically human desire to project an idealistic ‘version’ of ourselves onto our surroundings. Despite all of our shortcomings and unsightly character traits, we strive – day in, day out – to mask these with layers of falsity. We are an innately deceitful species, desperately hiding our own decrepit ‘portraits’ from our friends, family and colleagues and instead upholding the pretence of the blemish-free Dorian. Well that’s my reading of the text, likely to differ enormously from yours. But that, of course, is the joy of this text; it doesn’t attempt to drive home a moral message, yet gently prompts discussion and debate.

3. Oscar Wilde is a wordsmith

It almost goes without saying that Wilde’s writing style is stunning. Beautifully poised, subtle and rich in meaning, it frequently contains images that have that rare ability to immerse one fully in the sights, sounds and smells of the world being described. Take, for example, the novel’s opening lines:

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

The reader’s introduction to the protagonist himself highlights Wilde’s masterful ability to encapsulate in just a few words the very essence of a character:

Lord Henry looked at him. Yes, he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world.

Instantly, we feel we know this character – actually know him – rather than him being just a name and an empty description. The author also succeeds in capturing in words that most elusive of places; the world of dreams:

There are few of us who have not sometimes wakened before dawn, either after one of those dreamless nights that make us almost enamoured of death, or one of those nights of horror and misshapen joy, when through the chambers of the brain sweep phantoms more terrible than reality itself, and instinct with that vivid life that lurks in all grotesques, and that lends to Gothic art its enduring vitality, this art being, one might fancy, especially the art of those whose minds have been troubled with the malady of reverie. Gradually white fingers creep through the curtains, and they appear to tremble. In black fantastic shapes, dumb shadows crawl into the corners of the room and crouch there.

It is a testament to Wilde’s supreme skill that his descriptions never grow stale. He is able to select the right words at the right time to evoke each and every face, room, street, ornament or sensation.

2. The preface is a fascinating read in itself

A slightly outlandish entry in this list, I admit, but a significant one nonetheless. Before I read The Picture of Dorian Gray, I don’t recall ever finding the preface to a book particularly memorable. In typical Wilde style, the preface to this novel is actually more of a mini-essay on the nature of art. It concludes with these powerful, short sentences:

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 about 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. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.

In the vast majority of cases a mere literary convention, here the preface feels urgent, important and directly bound to the main work itself. Because, of course, the thrust of the story is instigated by a work of art; a work of art that ceases to be ‘surface and symbol’. Instead, Dorian himself takes on the superficiality and, as Wilde suggests, uselessness of a painting, becoming his own artwork to be ‘admire[d] […] intensely’. Of course, The Picture of Dorian Gray is, in itself, a work of art, making this preface take on a pointed significance. It prefigures exactly what I have been doing throughout this article; ‘read[ing] the symbol’ ingrained in the text. Thus the assertion ‘It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors’ is exactly right; try as we might to uncover the innate meaning of any piece of art, we are inevitably just channeling our own opinions, beliefs and understandings.

1. It feels eerily relevant

The Picture of Dorian GreyI don’t want to over-labour the whole ‘this novel is just as relevant today as it was in 1890’ point, but there are undoubtedly some facets of modern society which are closely tied to themes in the book. The cult of the image is something which seems to have emerged as a deciding factor in the post-World War II, primarily Western world. Today, glamour magazines and adverts bombard us with Dorian-esque, unrealistic, skin-deep imagery every minute of every day. As I mentioned before, I see the novel as acutely picking up on one seemingly essential strand of human nature; the lust for our true character to be given a near-perfect outward-facing mask. This can be seen manifesting itself in everything from celebrity super-injunctions to choosing how you are represented on your Facebook profile. Read the novel yourself and I can guarantee you’ll unearth some parallels of your own.

So, those are my six reasons, but in truth the list could be far, far longer. All I would do is urge you to find and read this bizarre, engrossing, provocative novel that lingers in the imagination long after the final page.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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41 Comments

  1. Alberta
    0

    The novel is a clever tale about vanity, one which is even more relevant in modern society. Everyone should read it.

  2. Oscar Wilde definitely has a great way with words. His description of even someone talking is like poetry.

  3. Jordan David

    Many good points. Wilde surely had a way with words. I think the eerily relevant part is so true and going off what Alberta said about vanity. That rings true I think a lot more today than even back then.

  4. I read this very recently and I am not sure what to think. I thought the novel is almost perfect if Dorian had had a conversion at the end! He was absolutely hopeless, so despairing of being able to change, it made me sad. “There is hope!” I wanted to shout to him before the curtains closed on the last chapter. On the positive side, the book is beautifully written.

  5. Tyler McPherson

    I was first introduced to the character in the League of Extraordinary Gentleman. I know that is nothing like the actual character, the movie is an amalgamation of many different fictional characters, but after reading this the book does sound interesting. I may give it a read.

  6. Arlinka Larissa

    I have read a few books from the 1800s and I always find them cringe worthy. They are highly regarded books, mind you, but when it comes to words, I’m an economist, therefore many 1800s novels feel like purple prose to me. Don’t even get me started on all the dramatic on-the-nose dialogue. But then, maybe people from that time period used to talk like that.

    However, I didn’t actually hate The Picture of Dorian Gray. I have to agree with you that Oscar Wilde is an amazing wordsmith. Yes, some of the descriptions are long-winded and exaggerated, but they’re in no way annoying. The words flow effortlessly, and I found myself reading it in one sitting. Not one of my favorites, but I would definitely pick it up again in the future.

  7. Siobhan Calafiore

    Despite its complexity, The Picture of Dorian Gray is not difficult to read. In fact its a very easy read and I think thats due to Oscar Wilde’s flawless writing.

  8. shirley
    0

    I loved this novel for its concept and for its very myriad witticisms.

  9. John McDonald

    Firstly this is a great article, Samuel. Although you suggest that you are over-laboring the point that this novel is relevant to a modern audience, I disagree with you. I think you are absolutely right, and in fact, I believe this novel has become all the more relevant as this century progresses. The second half of the 20th Century can easily be considered a century of the self. I see the beginning of 21st as being no different. In fact, I believe the ties between what is being said and publicized, and what is the truth, is more disconnected today than ever. I believe this to be the case at both an individual level, evidenced through our use of social media to create our own public image, and at the larger level: corporate,institutional and governmental.

    Gray’s mirror is truly an apt analogy.

  10. I love that you included the preface in this list, as it is a great representation of the contradictions prevalent in all of Wilde’s work. I enjoyed your analysis, and especially that you stressed that different people will see and gain different things from the text. That’s one of the key elements of reading Wilde: there’s an unknowability surrounding both himself and his works, and his works purposefully prevent there being one “true” reading of the text.

  11. Zujaja K
    0

    Definitely agree about the profoundly enlightening preface, I’m glad you mentioned it!

  12. Catherine Zamora Quintana

    I never given this Novel a thought, but you actually bring good points. I like that you mention the preface because its definitely what catches the readers attention. I am adding The Picture of Dorian Grays to my reading list!

  13. Brianna Deveraux

    It’s important to keep in mind the Wilde was an evolving author in his own lifetime. The 1890 version did not include the preface that is seen in the heavily edited 1891 version. the preface was added as a response to criticism, particularly the criticism of his former tutor Walter Pater. I think that adds to the complexity of his preface and the novel as a whole. Wilde was also a follower of the aestheticism movement which brings into question and clarity into what he is really trying to do with the novel. Perhaps that’s why I love Wilde so much. He was not only challenging and reshaping the views of society, he was also pushing his own continuously.

  14. Wilde’s style provides a compelling look at the aesthetic in literature to represent human behavior, and how a person’s soul can be represented in an image. I agree with Samuel Thorogood that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a must read because of not only the authors mastery over language and the thematic complexity, but his compelling argument that Art should be for arts sake alone. The novel shows the unique position that a portrait had in the home, and the position of beholder. The viewer of the painting looks through a lens that has been created by an artist, and that artist holds a different view of the person that they are painting. The novel shows the unique power that an artist has over the subject of their art, and that reading images can be dangerous.
    I observed the many comments about the novel not being relevant to a contemporary readership and I felt that this completely missed the mark because if the novel is read with the historical context, the gender and morality messages are blatant. I agree that the list of reasons the novel is an important read could be a lot longer.

  15. Austin Bender

    I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, but I do feel better having read it. It really is a book that needs to be read.

  16. I adored this book and I definitely agree with your last point, that the cult of the image and the “near-perfect outward-facing mask” has become even more intensified in our network-based, society. If anything, this novel is particularly relevant to contemporary audiences.

  17. PerkAlert

    I like your ideas. I think one other important reason everyone should read this novel is the importance it plays in the famous trials of Oscar Wilde and the historical aftermath. Long story short, when The Picture of Dorian Gray was released in 1891, the novel received a widely negative response due to the tale’s homosexual undertones. Later, the novel was used to try and prove Oscar’s sodomy in court. As a result, this piece of literature and the events surrounding it have been significant in the history of sexual identity. Really, Oscar Wilde’s life in general (not just the trials or his major works) is very interesting to read about.

  18. You’re absolutely right. I always include some work of Wilde in my literary classes. Wilde should not be overlooked by anyone who enjoys reading. I also feel discussing author’s backgrounds, society’s persecution of them, etc…adds to the strength and poignancy of their writing and their message to us.

  19. The novel is absolutely relevant. Social media has propelled vanity to extremely high degrees in our society and, as you say, something like Facebook can be taken for an equivalent to the picture. Also, the preface is the epitome of Wilde’s wit. If you’re looking for more of the like, “The Critic as Artist” and “The Decay of Lying” are interesting extensions of his ideas on aestheticism.

  20. I really enjoyed this article, because I’ve been thinking about reading Wilde for some time now. And when I saw “some time” that’s about 5 years when he’s come in and out of my train of thought. Unfortunately, it just has not happened as I sat in a book store or lurking to buy online. Definitely might check this out. Intrigued to see how it could provide insight into the vanity that began to carve around society during this time.

  21. I think you definitely have to consider the Victorian times in which this book was written. The sensibility of the times, especially regarding art and morality indeed begin to focus on art that is simply beautiful. Should beauty or image be the goal or purpose, what are “allowable” means of achieving this goal? Sublimating one’s soul? Murder? Does one’s beauty erase misdeeds or inner darkness’s? Do they mirror each other? Which reflects the other? Do outward appearances mimic internal influences? Or the other way around? Or is there, as the novel depicts, no distinction between the two?

  22. I like your article in terms of how you emphasize the idea of decrepitude in the novel. I read it and your article refreshed me the idea of the eternity as a strong desire, in our minds, of being young forever. It is tragic, isn’t it? Do you remember Visconti’s and Mann’s masterpiece “Death in Venice”? Both depict the uselessness dream in terms of results; however,the ways to try to avoid the decadence and the fall of our senses is what catch my attention in the artist I talked above.

  23. Sonia Charlotta Reini

    This is one of my favourite books ever, and probably the only one I’ve read more than three times. I feel like every time I re-read it, I discover a whole new layer to it. Good choice!

  24. #1. I like your idea of writing about literature in lists. I like lists.
    #2. I am embarrassed to say, (especially as an English Lit grad student), that I have never read it either, so reading your article made me want to put it on the front burner, along with my assigned works from school.
    #3. Lists can be very boring, but you really delved into the book–and without giving too much away either. It encourages others to read it. Right Now!

  25. I’ve always fancied giving this one a go, and you’ve given me six more reasons. Fantastic!

  26. I’m glad you mentioned the preface. Not only is it a compelling treatise on art, but as you say it intertwines with the subject matter of the novel beautifully. If the novel didn’t implicate you on its own, the preface certainly will. It also serves the triple function of resonating with what we know of Wilde’s biography, and the struggles he faced in a culture intolerant of his lifestyle inclinations.

  27. Thank you for this recommendation! It’s always nice to hear some positive feedback about a novel that inspires readers.

  28. This novel is amazing and one of my favorites. I finished it in one sitting because I couldn’t put it down. It has so much depth and interesting themes -the more you read the more you see.

  29. I definitely agree with your reason about the prose. There really aren’t that many books that compare with the language displayed in this novel. It’s hard to find any book that is as much a joy to read and listen to than this.

    Great article.

  30. kreiman

    Definitely not over-laboring the point of relevance, though I admit this is one I have not read. (Yet). Like other “literature”, Wilde’s piece is considered such because of its ability to connect to the reader. He had an understanding of human nature that transcends generations. There have always been vain people…and likely always will be. Thank you for this essay!

  31. A great homage to Oscar Wilde’s only novel. I wish the man would of written more prose fiction! He was a natural poet and dramatist, talents that work very well in fiction.

  32. Anothy

    These six reasons cannot be any more stressed. For a novel written in the late 1800s, Dorian Gray is a fable still figuratively applicable to many modern day stories. Thorogood sure is right about the relevancy and brevity of the storyline, and Wilde’s prose makes for a thrilling and captivating read which can be done is less than a day. Thanks for the article!

  33. Another reason? Lord Henry Wotton. I can think of few characters more polarizing; you’ll either love him or hate him. Personally, I think he’s hilarious and intelligent, as he can entertain a philosophy without living it. I’ve heard many people, however, describe him as the novel’s true villain.

  34. I’m glad to see an advocate of Wilde, particularly of this book. I think your points are well-made and compelling. I actually read this in eighth grade, and it was one of the first pieces of Victorian (even classic) literature I had encountered. It left such a huge impression on me I remember it well today, and cherish the memory. I’ve seen the 1945 film, and I’m sorry to say nothing stands up the the original book, which is a piece of art in its own right.

  35. Luke Martin

    Nice article. I studies this book 2 years ago at A level. Although a teacher is not necessary with this book as it is an easy read, it was good to debate and disect ideas in class.

  36. Great article! Oscar Wilde is one of my favorite authors and I’m happy to see others enjoy his work. I think some of the viewpoints that Lord Henry Wotton are very interesting from a philosophical perspective as well. He is kind of a sophist who revels in encouraging others to pursue pleasure, and then seems to live vicariously through them. The arguments he uses to persuade his fellows (Basil and Dorian Gray) are fascinating, charismatic, and fatally flawed. He ends up being one of the greatest subtle villains of any novel.

  37. Rachel Watson

    This is a lovely article for newcomers to the novel. This story touches on many topics that could appeal to anyone, whether a student of literature or not, including images of the theatre, horror tropes, tragedy, art and aesthetics, images of London, sexuality, morality, etc.! I especially am drawn to the character of Basil and the morality triangle between him, Lord Henry, and Dorian. There is much ink left to be spilled about this compelling work.

  38. The current obsession with selfies reflects the same impulse to project a perfect image. This is a profoundly relevant novel.

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