By Tony Dobrowolski, OPFT Artistic  Associate

The birth of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s only novel was occasioned by a dinner shared by Oscar, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J. M. Stoddart, an editor for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. During the evening Stoddart commissioned novels from both writers for his publication. Conan Doyle’s contribution was The Sign of Four. Wilde’s entry was a serialized version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, albeit several months after Stoddart’s original deadline.

It was not the most easily written of Wilde’s works. He himself wrote, “I’m afraid it is rather like my own life—all conversation and no action. I can’t describe action: my people sit and chatter.” This seems somewhat overstated as he describes murder, body disposal and suicide clearly and vividly. Wilde excelled at pushing the envelope of Victorian readers’ tolerance. Even he was concerned prior to the magazine appearance of Dorian that there were passages that might offend the periodical’s audience. Stoddart, himself required edits of material he thought his readers would find beyond their limits of taste.

Reaction to the initial serial publication included criticisms like those found in theDaily Chronicle which used terms like “unclean,” “poisonous” and “heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” The Scotts Observer, while lauding the literary quality of the work found it dealt with “matters only fitted for the Criminal Investigation Department…” and compared its content to the recent Cleveland Street scandal involving a homosexual bordello in London.

Many have posited that the main characters of the novel are actually three faces of Wilde himself. Wilde said that Lord Henry Wotton was what most people thought he was. Oscar saw himself as Basil Hallward. He claimed that he would like to have been Dorian Gray—“in other ages perhaps.”

In a lecture delivered about his grandfather, Wilde’s only grandson, Merlin Holland declared that Oscar Wilde never realized (or at least admitted) how far public opinion turned against him as a result of the publication of Dorian Gray in both the serial version and the later augmented (by several chapters) book version. Oscar answered much of the work’s critics by declaring that it was, in fact a highly moral book decrying the pursuit of pleasure devoid of empathy or personal responsibility. The public, at large, felt that Oscar Wilde’s flamboyant lifestyle and increasingly careless (and public) homosexual behavior was further demonstration of the moral putrescence in the novel. It confirmed the rumors which had been circulating for some time. Oscar’s blindness to this public opinion was not corrected until he was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years at hard labor. Wilde truly believed that a work of fiction is neither moral nor immoral; it is either well-written or badly written. Unfortunately, neither the public nor the courts agreed with him.

Oscar has, undoubtedly, had the best revenge. One hundred and twenty-four years after its publication, The Picture of Dorian Gray is still read, adapted, analyzed and enjoyed, as a unique and entertaining cautionary tale of the unlimited licentiousness and its ultimate price.

References:

Ellman, Richard – Oscar Wilde – Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Ross, Alex – “Deceptive Picture” How Oscar Wilde painted over “Dorian Gray”

New Yorker Magazine – August 8, 2011

Holland, Merlin – Lecture at the Pabst Theatre, Milwaukee, WI, 1995