The first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray was published as the lead story in the July 1890 edition of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, along with five others. The story begins as Gray's portrait is being completed, and he talks with the libertine Lord Henry Wotton, who has a curious influence on him. When Gray, who has a "face like ivory and rose leaves" sees his finished portrait he breaks down, distraught that his beauty will fade, but the portrait stay beautiful, inadvertently making a faustian bargain. For Wilde, the purpose of art would guide life if beauty alone were its object. Thus Gray's portrait allows him to escape the corporeal ravages of his hedonism, (and Miss Prism mistakes a baby for a book in The Importance of Being Earnest), Wilde sought to juxtapose the beauty he saw in art onto daily life. Wilde's life continues to fascinate and he has been the subject of numerous biographies since his death. The earliest were memoirs by those known to him: often they are personal or impressionistic accounts which can be good character sketches, but factually unreliable. Frank Harris, his friend and editor, wrote a biography, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions (1916), though prone to exaggeration and sometimes factually inaccurate, it offers a good literary portrait of Wilde
A lush, cautionary tale of a life of vileness and deception or a loving portrait of the aesthetic impulse run rampant? Why not both? After Basil Hallward paints a beautiful, young man's portrait, his subject's frivolous wish that the picture change and he remain the same comes true. Dorian Gray's picture grows aged and corrupt while he continues to appear fresh and innocent. After he kills a young woman, "as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife," Dorian Gray is surprised to find no difference in his vision or surroundings. "The roses are not less lovely for all that. The birds sing just as happily in my garden."
As Hallward tries to make sense of his creation, his epigram-happy friend Lord Henry Wotton encourages Dorian in his sensual quest with any number of Wildean paradoxes, including the delightful "When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy." But despite its many languorous pleasures, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an imperfect work. Compared to the two (voyeuristic) older men, Dorian is a bore, and his search for ever new sensations far less fun than the novel's drawing-room discussions. Even more oddly, the moral message of the novel contradicts many of Wilde's supposed aims, not least "no artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style." Nonetheless, the glamour boy gets his just deserts. And Wilde, defending Dorian Gray, had it both ways: "All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment."