This was one of those rare novels which, once I started reading, I could not put down until I finished it in one day: it’s not a long book, just over 200 pages. If I’m not mistaken, this is Wilde’s only book—published in 1891, the rest of his works being plays, and was written at a time when homosexual behaviour was persecuted in the UK: Oscar Wilde was convicted in 1895 to two years in prison with hard labour for acts of gross indecency with men.
The protagonist of Wilde’s novel is a young man named Dorian Gray. The novel begins by expressing the beauty of Dorian Gray as seen by the two older gentlemen who enter his life: the artist Basil Hallward who paints Dorian’s portrait and is infatuated by him, and a gentleman named Lord Henry Wotton. The author enters the minds of both elder gentlemen and through their speech and thoughts expresses the love they share for Dorian which at times is so passionate it goes beyond mere friendship and hints strongly at homosexual attraction. As the novel develops, however, Dorian is kept by the author from falling in love with the two men (probably at the behest of his editor and publishers, and to adhere to the Victorian sense of propriety) and is portrayed in heterosexual relationships through which we see the influence of Lord Henry on young and impressionable Dorian, and how, with the passage of time, his treatment of those who come in contact with him becomes deleterious and poisonous with disastrous results.
Throughout the novel, the author, I feel, uses Lord Henry to express his own views on life, only with Lord Henry he let’s go of all inhibitions and restraints: lets him run freely. The author uses Dorian and the shaping of his character and the consequences of his actions, as a result of him adhering to Lord Henry’s philosophy of life, to reveal what Wilde believes would be the consequence of a world where people would have no restraints whatsoever. It’s as if the author is holding up a mirror and contemplating the consequences of his own life. It’s somewhat ironic that the events in Wilde’s subsequent life come to justify his fears. Perhaps the message in Wilde’s novel is that one has to have boundaries, limitations.
Dorian in the novel is penalised for his use of drugs, his harsh treatment of his lovers, his lack of compassion for his fellow man, his dangerous rage which leads to the murder of even his closest friends.
Another tragic irony is that this novel was used in court to support the Marquees of Queensberry’s case against Wilde when he charged the author of having homosexual relations with his son.
This was an extremely well written novel, reveals Wilde’s wit, gives a rare insight to the author’s deepest thoughts and anxieties, and is a work that keeps the reader glued to the pages as the tension builds up, the protagonist gradually sinking further and further into a pit of self-degradation with results which are often unexpected and particularly disturbing and harsh. Perhaps this can explain why this work was so badly received with very hurtful reviews when it first came out, and how in future generations, with the benefit of a free, fairer and more tolerant spirit it has come to occupy such a renowned position in the English classical novel collection.