Published just before he reached the height of his fame, Wilde's only full-length novel has endured as surely as the great plays for which he is celebrated. By exploring the actions of a young man who makes a pact to retain his outward beauty at the expense of inward corruption—symbolized in a portrait that ages as he remains unchanged—Wilde achieved a seminal novel that is part fable, part comedy of manners, and part treatise on the nature of art and beauty. As the figure in Dorian's portrait changes to reflect Dorian's inner decay, the stage is set for a masterful tale about appearance, reality, and the ultimate burden of conscience.
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."