A review by sherbertwells
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

dark mysterious reflective sad medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


“You and I are what we are, and will be what we will be. As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that…the books that the world calls immoral are books that snow the world its own shame” (206)

Only in a hypochondriac society could an “unclean” book like The Picture of Dorian Gray flourish. To middle-class Britons, the end of the century looked like the end of the world: the urban poor huddled in filthy slums, while the rich marinated in a hell of staunch nationalism and French perfume. Foreigners streamed in from every corner of the globe, while Her Majesty’s African and Asian subjects conspired to bite the hand that fed them. War loomed on every horizon.

 In bookstores and magazines, tales of invasion and corruption began to appear alongside moralizing sermons and adventure stories. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shocked readers by presenting an upstanding doctor with a horrible dark side. Bram Stoker’s 1897 story Dracula revived Old World fears of parasitic aristocrats and repressed sexuality.

And just when things couldn’t get any worse, a poisonous novel appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. The story was pure filth, declared critics. It was decadent! It flirted with unspeakable sins!

But The Picture of Dorian Gray demanded the public eye.

The worst fears of the Victorian Era—the poor, the rich, the French, and most of all the English —come alive in Oscar Wilde’s fin-de-siecle classic. But the title character, a callow dandy who descends into sin and depravity, is not the monster of his age. He is its apotheosis.

“The wonderful beauty that had so fascinated Basil Hallward, and many others besides him seemed never to leave [Dorian]. Even those who had heard the most evil things against him, and from time to time strange rumors about his mode of life crept through London and became the chatter of the clubs, could not believe anything to his dishonour when they saw him. He had the look of one who had kept himself unspotted from the world” (124)

He begins as an innocent, “a brainless, beautiful creature,” but soon falls under the poisonous influence of Lord Henry Wotton (7). He becomes a charmer, an imperialist, an addict and even a murderer. He apes France and steals from India. And once he has amassed his fortune, he begins to believe that his downfall is just around the corner. In short, he is the very essence of Late Victorian England.

But the characters that surround him also deserve analysis. Basil Hallward in particular is a lot more than meets the eye. Since I had absorbed the plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray long before picking up the book—it’s required reading this week for my online GSA—I thought I knew what to expect from the painter. Wasn’t he the fan favorite, the archetypical Victorian queer martyred for ‘the love that dare not speak its name?’

Yes and no. While it’s true that Hallward suffers in The Picture of Dorian Gray, he is also a full and rounded character. He has a career as an artist, filled with highs and lows that Gray, shallow as he is, declines to witness. He also maintains a very interesting friendship with Lord Henry, his philosophical rival. It’s not clear that these characters have much in common, aside from liking art, going to Oxford around the same time and being less-than-straight. In another story, they would be at each others’ throats. My hypothesis is that Lord Henry serves as Hallward’s confidant, and if the painter were to drop him like the dead weight he is, Hallward would be left utterly alone.

But Basil Hallward is just one aspect of a fascinating and colorful classic. The Picture of Dorian Gray is not just a queer story, nor is it merely an examination of a paranoid era. My own analysis of the book is probably just a reflection of my modern sensibilities. It will be a million different things to a million different readers. I suggest picking up the story and reading it yourself: who knows what you will discover between its pages?

“All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril” (4)

Expand filter menu Content Warnings