When The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in 1891, it evoked a tremendous amount of hostile criticism, in most part due to its immoral content. Oscar Wilde was identified with the "art for art's sake" movement of the nineteenth century which did not subordinate art to ethical instruction. However, this novel is indeed a morality tale about the hazards of egotistical self-indulgence. "If it were I," exclaims Dorian, "who were always to be young and that picture that was to grow old . . . I would give my soul for that." With that spoken, the tale of this young hero of amazing beauty, Dorian Gray, begins. His pact with evil allows his portrait to take on his many sins and degradations while his physical appearance remains youthful. Over the years as he becomes cruel and vicious, even murderous, Dorian's young and perfect body is no longer enough to salvage his deteriorating mind and morality. Will justice and good prevail?
"Oh! In what a wild hour of madness he had killed his friend! How ghastly the mere memory of the scene! He saw it all again. Each hideous detail came back to him with added horror. Out of the black cave of time, terrible and swathed in scarlet, rose the image of his sin." In their ideal of an exquisitely sensitive temperament that thrills to fine shadings in sensation, the principles of the aesthetic (or "decadent") movement are well suited to the tale of terror. No story exemplifies this better than Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The sparkling wit and zest for life of Wilde's characters combine with cold-blooded acts of horror to generate a deliciously twisted sense of elegance and evil, civilization and degradation. Oscar Wilde, like Edgar Allan Poe, shows us that what we find loathsome and frightening can also be beautiful.