Oscar Wilde is known for his work in the literary style termed aestheticism, and it’s easy to see why with a book like The Picture of Dorian Gray. Peppered throughout are bouts of detailed imagery, rife with literary and art allusions and Wilde’s witty banter. But there’s also a look at the human psyche, with emphasis on morality and human conscience, that lifts Wilde’s book out of the rut of the purely detail-oriented.
For those wondering why I am including the book on this site, the horror of Dorian Gray pokes its head out slightly through most of the novel. This is no monster/slasher horror, of course, and action is minimal at best – but there is an omnipresent tenseness of character, especially between Dorian Gray and his close friend Basil, that elevates the book from becoming a rather bland character study of a man turned evil.
In the novel, the title character wishes to have a magnificent portrait of himself age while his physical body shows no sign of growing old. This in fact happens to Dorian, who quite suddenly begins to sin after he causes his beau to commit suicide. Dorian’s good friend Lord Henry has a lot to do with this, as he fills Dorian’s head with a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about life that leads Dorian astray, especially after Dorian reads a rather immoral book. As Dorian’s life spirals out of control, he murders his friend Basil in a rage and becomes paranoid that everyone will see his portrait and realize his true self. Towards the end of his life, however, Dorian attempts to make a change in order to amend his portrait, and more importantly, his sins, but realizes that it is his vanity that urges him on.
Wilde’s writing style is elegant and prosaic, but he falls into a pattern of long, monotonous sentences that seem decadent at first but, in reality, say very little. It seems that it is Wilde’s focus on art and aestheticism that leads him down this path, as he tries to describe every scene in as much wordy and flowery language as possible. A good wordsmith he is, but Wilde’s ability to keep the reader focused is faulty and one must skim through his prose to uncover what he’s trying to say. At certain points, Wilde slips into garrulous written diarrhea, dropping allusions to Shakespeare or his idol, Théophile Gautier, into whatever he can relate them to. It’s interesting at first, but then Wilde devotes a whole chapter to explaining Dorian’s change in tastes, and it becomes difficult to wade through unnecessary quotations and descriptions.
Yet Wilde crafts some varied characters, mostly due to the fact that there’s only three or four main ones in the book. Lord Henry is despicable and becomes almost more hated than Dorian, as he is the most significant cause of Dorian’s change from good-natured young man to sinful murderer. In fact, Dorian is less a villain and more a tragic hero; his redemption comes from his own conscience poking through the gloom of his persona. Basil is the favorite of the story, and it comes as a shock when he is murdered – it’s obvious that Dorian will have the urge to murder him, but it still surprises one that Wilde kills off one of the kindest characters.
And even though there is a very loose plot, Dorian Gray remains interesting because of Wilde’s minor subplots. There’s very little in the way of a main conflict; instead, Wilde chooses to develop the widening rift between Dorian’s moral thoughts and his more harmful choices. The novel is almost like a fable: it sets up a few characters, lets them make a choice, and then presents a moral at the end.
Dorian Gray was first thought to be violent, mindless, and most of all amoral. It was criticized for its acceptance of sinful actions and blasphemous depictions. Yet the novel seems more a critique on the human conscience, showing the failings of a man who accepted beauty over goodness and the consequences of ignoring the conscience. Instead of praising sin, it denounces it through the deaths of the only good characters – the horror lies in the killer remaining alive and well, until the fatal and sudden conclusion of the book, where Dorian finally gets what he, and his soul, deserved all along.