The Picture of Dorian Gray is a mesmerizing read dominated by two amazing personalities. Dorian Gray is certainly interesting, but I was much more impressed by his friend and mentor Lord Henry Wotton. Dorian is a perfectly nice, well-meaning young man when we first meet him in the studio of the painter Basil Hallward. Hallward in fact is so drawn to the youth that he draws his greatest inspiration from painting him and just being with him. It is the influence of Hallward's friend Lord Henry which leads to Gray's downfall. There are few characters in literature as decadent, witty, and somehow enchanting as Lord Henry. He is never at a loss for words, fatalistic observations of life and people, sarcastic philosophical musings, and brilliantly devious ideas. Among his world of social decadents and artistic do-nothings, his charm remains redoubtable and highly sought-after. Gray immediately falls under his spell, soon devoting himself to living life to its fullest and enjoying his youth and beauty to the utmost. He solemnly wishes that he could remain young and beautiful forever, that Hallward's exquisite picture of him should bear the marks of age and debauchery rather than himself. To his surprise and ultimate horror, he finds his wish fulfilled. Small lines and creases first appear in the portrait, but after he cruelly breaks the heart of an unfortunate young actress who then takes her own life, the first real signs of horror and blood manifest themselves on his portrait. His love for the ill-fated Sibyl Vane is a sordid, heartbreaking tale, and it marks the culmination of his descent into debauchery. He frequents opium dens and houses of ill repute, justifying all of his worst actions to himself, while the influence of Lord Henry continues to work its black magic on his soul. He hides his increasingly grotesque portrait away in an upstairs room, sometimes going up to stare at it and take pleasure in the fact that it rather than he bears the stains of his iniquities. In time, his obsession with his secret grows, and he is constantly afraid that it will be discovered by someone. For eighteen years he lives in this manner, moving among the members of his society as a revered figure who magically retains his youth, but eventually he begins to see himself as he really is and to curse the portrait, blaming its magic for his miserable life of ill-begotten pleasures and loss of moral character. The final pages are well-written, and the climax is eminently satisfying.
Exhibiting the undeniable influence of the French Decadence movement of the late 19th century, this wonderful novel serves as a morality play of sorts. One can understand why its unique nature upset a British society emerging from the social constraints of Victorianism, but this reader is hard pressed to see why this novel proved so damaging to Wilde's eventual imprisonment and punishment. Dorian Gray is no hero, nor does his ultimate internal struggles and yearnings for rebirth inspire one to engage in the sort of life he himself eventually came to regret. The only "dangerous" character in this novel is Lord Henry; his delight in working his evil influence on others as a type of moral experiment and the silver-tongued charm he exploits to aid him in such misbegotten quests have the potential to do harm to a vulnerable mind such as that of Dorian Gray. Lord Henry's evil genius makes him much more interesting than his disciple Dorian Gray. By today's standards, this book is not shocking, and indeed it is much more dangerous to censor work such as this than it is to read it. This book in eminently quotable, and it still manages to cast a magical spell over readers of this day and age. Quite simply, The Picture of Dorian Gray deserves a place on the shelf of the world's greatest literature.