The Picture of Dorian Gray is a book by the gay literary icon, Oscar Wilde, about a guy who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Allow me to explain to you with receipts why I, much like the protagonist, would sell my soul to be able to read this book again for the first time.
Taken at face value, the story is well-paced and entertaining with funny quips between the characters, a solid plot with a nice twist at the end. Dorian literally has a portrait that ages instead of him for decades, so he can get up to sinful shenanigans ranging from casual affairs and confrontations in opium dens to blackmail and cold-blooded murder.
If you peel back a layer, you’ll find subtle inuendoes sprinkled throughout the dialogue and you’ll notice the inherent homoeroticism of so many seemingly mundane situations. Artist Basil Hallward places his muse Dorian Gray on a pedestal and reveres him. He even gets possessive of Dorian, being reluctant to introduce him to Lord Henry Watton, fearing him to be a ‘bad influence’. As Henry and Dorian form a friendship that excludes him, Basil is shown to get very clearly jealous. Every character in the book who sees the portrait of Dorian declares that it was his best work. Basil, himself, states outright how beautiful Dorian is to him and how profoundly he’s been impacted by Dorian to the point where it has changed the way he sees art. It’s not explicit but it’s really hard to miss how gay it all is.
Peel back another layer by taking Wilde’s life story and the time period into consideration; he was convicted for ‘gross indecency’ and sodomy, for which he spent time in prison. He revised his novel and is reported to have made changes in the descriptions that dialed down the queerness significantly. He even defended the book when it was heavily criticized for being indecent. If you get yourself a copy of the book with an appendix and it actually has notes on the revisions he made, that will give you an idea of how ‘overt’ or ‘indecent’ his innuendos initially were and how they still retain meaning even if they’re a lot more tame in the final version.
Looking at the book in the context of the 21st century, it holds up incredibly well. Wilde was well known for his aphorisms and the book is chock full of some of his best and most famous ones including –
‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing’
‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about’
‘Experience is merely the name men give to their mistakes’
The beauty of these is that they were undoubtedly true and relatable to readers back then and they still remain true and relatable to us now, more than 100 years later. Philosophical fiction risks coming off as preachy or boring, because the characters can feel like tools that were created in service of the story happening rather than the story happening to the characters via their actions. But every character in The Picture of Dorian Gray feels human because you learn about their outlook and nature organically through their interactions with each other and the world around them. It feels like the story is a natural consequence of them being
themselves and in the process, the book manages to bring up and discuss themes like vanity, beauty, guilt, admiration, love, morality and hedonism while being interesting and immersive.
The first time I read the book, it took me a full two months because I kept stopping and chewing on the parts that hit very close to home. What’s most impressive about Wilde’s writing, for me, is his ability to convey so much depth using so few words. He leaves it up to you, as the reader, to take as much or as little meaning as you wish from his writing. If you’re in a pensive mood, you’ll be able to find the most profound observations about the human condition in the smallest of throwaway lines at a dinner where the Victorians are doing their usual thing of being rich and out-of-touch aristocrats. And, if you’re just wanting to chill, you’ll still have a laugh seeing Lord Henry with the library open, reading his fellow Victorian aristocrats to filth.
There comes a time in every reader’s life that they find a book that impacts them so deeply that they come out of the experience a changed person and this was that book for me. To this day, it remains one of the most well-written books I have ever read. People underestimate the power of language to be able to evoke thoughts and feelings in you when words are used competently and effectively. In the words of author himself, ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well-written or badly-written. That is all’.
Nothing will ever beat that first read though, the satisfaction I felt seeing all the threads being tied together and how poetically the book ends. So, I mean it when I say I would sell my soul to be able to read it again for the first time and have my mind quite literally blown. I don’t think comparing this magnum opus of Oscar Wilde’s to Shrek is the classiest way to encourage more people to read the book, instead of watching the questionably adapted movies; yet and still, I think the onion analogy sums up the experience of reading it quite perfectly. The picture of Dorian Gray, much like ogres and onions, has layers. Whether or not you choose to peel back those layers, you’re still going to find a lot of value and enjoyment from it.