The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Originally published in 1891
To the high society of the 19th century, the wealthy young aristocrat Dorian Gray appears to lead a charmed existence. His angelic face inspires admiration and adoration wherever he goes, a charisma that only grows as the years go by. What no one suspects, however, is that Dorian Gray has a second, secret face – and the truths his beauty hides are terrible indeed.
I can see why The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered a classic, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it. Wilde has a deft touch with dialogue, and many of the exchanges in this book glitter with memorable wit; what the characters are talking about is generally awful. There are times Wilde seems to agree with Dorian’s ideas (at one point jumping into the narrative in the first person) while other times he beautifully highlights his protagonist’s hypocrisy. This very nebulousness of intent is part of what makes the book so disturbing, and may well be intentional.
The flaws of Wilde’s time are definitely on display. It’s good to see some period LGBTQ representation, though it’s pretty coded in parts to elude the censors of the day, but a distinct streak of misogyny – whether sincere or not – pervades the book, and the racism is worse. This is a deeply sardonic, skilfully realised cautionary fable, but I wouldn’t read it twice.