This Prestwick House Literary Touchstone Edition™ includes a glossary and reader’s notes to help the modern reader contend with Wilde’s many allusions and his complex approach to the human condition. Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, first appeared in 1891. Dorian Gray, a handsome young man, falls in with a group of “friends,” whose amoral philosophies he finds quite appealing. After he has his portrait painted, his frivolity and general demeanor degenerate into wickedness, but only the portrait bears the effects of his descent into decadence and serves as a powerful symbol of Gray’s internal ruin. Dorian himself, however, remains as young and unspoiled as the day he first sat for the painting. Wilde’s exploration of life without limits or consequences shocked its late-Victorian audience and remains highly un- settling to modern readers. We, like Dorian, are forced to reconsider whether total freedom and absolute knowledge are really worth their costs.
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."