Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the more elegant novels in the Gothic canon; that it is also one of the more sinister is hardly surprising given Oscar Wilde’s curious aptitude for tempering the macabre with the sensuous and the frivolous with the fatalistic.
A considerable scandal upon its publication in the early 1890s, the novel still reads as slightly homoerotic, even if only in the most clandestine and aphotic of ways. Woven through its themes of beauty, decadence, age, and the nature of art is a thread of shimmering doom that becomes more poignant the longer one spends with Dorian Gray and the more one considers its relationship with its author.
It is a peacock’s fan of luminous wit and glimmering color, dripping with venom and smelling of strange perfumes. We are all familiar with the general flavor of things: an innocent and exceptionally beautiful youth has his portrait painted one fateful afternoon; upon viewing the piece, he is paralyzed by the sudden revelation that one day he will be old and hideous while the painting will retain its beauty and life. In a devil’s bargain, he wishes that it would be the other way around. And then, under the influence of a particularly deleterious gentleman, Dorian Gray begins to change: his innocence gives way to corruption and his beauty seems apt to languish under the spell of opium, cruelty, and languor. One day Dorian notices that the painting has begun to transform, while he himself retains all the beauty of an innocent despite the ever-swelling ocean of his sins…
Few works of literature are as effervescent as Dorian Gray and just as few are as utterly pessimistic; that it is capable of fusing remarkably disparate parts into a whole that is absolutely cohesive is a superior example of its author’s gifts. Like Wilde’s Salome, Dorian Gray is as colorful as it is bleak, and even its weaknesses, in context, seem like strengths.
Seldom is an artist’s most famous work also his most erudite and brilliant: this is one of those works. I have approached it perhaps six or seven times in the last five years, and each reading has left me more enraptured than the last—which is high praise for a novel that relies a great deal on suspense and aesthetic splendour. I consider it one of the finest things I have ever read—daring, sultry, venomous, eloquent, and radiant in its own decay.