This Day In Literary History
On April 24th, 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the classic novel by the legendary Irish writer Oscar Wilde, was published. Like most novels of the time, it previously appeared in a serialized format. It had been published in Lippincot's Monthly Magazine the previous year.
For its debut in book form, Wilde had tweaked the manuscript, revising some sections and adding new chapters. This was the only novel that Wilde, who was best known as a playwright, ever wrote.
A famous, anonymously published gay erotic novel called Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal (1893) would be credited to Wilde, but it was most likely a collaborative effort written by his friends, with Wilde serving as editor.
Unlike his famous satirical comic plays, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a horror novel and considered one of the all time classics of the genre. But it's really more than a horror novel - it's an intriguing philosophical and satiric study of human nature - specifically, the nature of sin.
The novel opens with sensitive artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of a handsome young man named Dorian Gray. Hallward is awestruck by Dorian's beauty and obviously infatuated with him.
In Dorian, he has found his muse. He believes that the young man's beauty is responsible for boosting his stagnant creative juices to new heights. While Hallward paints his portrait of Dorian, his friend, Lord Henry "Harry" Wotton, observes them and lectures them in his hedonistic philosophy.
To Lord Henry, the only things that matter in life are beauty and the fulfillment of the senses. The shallow, narcissistic Dorian Gray couldn't agree more. Realizing that his good looks will fade with age, Dorian proclaims that he'd sell his soul if only his portrait could age while he remains young and beautiful.
He decides to become Lord Henry's protege and explore the pleasures of the senses. His first stop is the theater, where he becomes smitten with Shakespearean actress Sibyl Vane. Dorian courts Sibyl and proposes marriage. She accepts, deliriously happy at the idea of marrying the handsome young man she refers to as her Prince Charming.
Her protective brother, James, suspicious of Dorian's character, vows to kill him if he harms her. Dorian invites Basil Hallward and Lord Henry to see Sibyl perform in Romeo and Juliet. More interested in love than in acting, Sibyl gives a lackluster performance and Dorian dumps her.
He tells her that her only beauty was in her acting, and now that it's gone, he's no longer interested in her. He leaves her heartbroken and returns home to find that his portrait has adopted a subtle sneer and aged a little.
Dorian decides to reconcile with Sibyl, but it's too late - Lord Henry informs him that she committed suicide. He dismisses the tragic act and decides to devote his life to the pleasures of the senses.
Over the next eighteen years, Dorian Gray explores every possible desire on his path of debauchery. He never ages, remaining young and handsome while his portrait becomes an aged, hideously ugly reminder of his sins that torments him.
One night, Basil Hallward pays Dorian a visit to see if the rumors of his decadence are true. He's shocked to find that Dorian hasn't aged. Dorian shows him the hideous portrait.
Blaming the artist for what the portrait and he himself has become, Dorian murders Basil in a fit of rage. Then he blackmails a chemist friend into helping him dispose of the body and takes off to France.
At an opium den in Paris, Dorian crosses paths with Sibyl Vane's vengeful brother James, who tries to shoot him. Dorian talks James into believing that he's too young to be Dorian Gray. After Dorian flees, a woman tells James that the young man was Dorian - a man who never ages.
Dorian fears for his life until James is killed in a hunting accident. Later, Dorian tells Lord Henry of his strange fate and vows to change his ways and become a good man. He begins by not breaking the heart of his latest paramour, Hetty Merton.
Wondering if his portrait has changed, Dorian finds that it has become uglier than ever. He realizes that his actual motivations for becoming a good man were selfishness and curiosity rather than genuine atonement for his sins.
Dorian knows that he can only be absolved by making a full and honest confession to the murder of Basil Hallward. But he fears the repercussions of doing so. Left with no other alternative, Dorian picks up the knife that he killed Basil with, and in a rage, plunges it into the heart of his portrait.
Aroused by the scream heard from within Dorian's locked room, his servants call the police. This is what they find:
When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.
The publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray caused a sensation and a furor in Victorian England. Although Wilde had toned down the homoeroticism prevalent in the original serialized version, it remained in the book. That wasn't the only objection.
One newspaper's literary critic denounced the novel for "its effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, its theatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophizing, its contaminating trail of garish vulgarity."
Oscar Wilde said of his novel, "I wrote this book entirely for my own pleasure... whether it becomes popular or not is a matter of absolute indifference to me."
Five years after it was published, Wilde (the married father of two children) would be publicly outed as a homosexual by the Marquess of Queensberry, the brutal, hateful father of his boyfriend, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas.
Convicted of "gross indecency" - the legal term for homosexual acts that were illegal under British law - Wilde would serve two years in prison for the crime of being gay in Victorian England.
Quote Of The Day
"There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." - Oscar Wilde
Today's video features a complete reading of Oscar Wilde's classic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Enjoy!