Horror has come a long way in the last few hundred years, it’s an interesting topic to consider how horror as a genre has evolved over the years and one best considered by looking at the past. Over the next several months I will be reviewing classic horror titles such as Frankenstein, Dracula and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, along with many others.
Today’s book of choice is will be The Picture of Dorian Grey, a favourite of mine.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, The Picture of Dorian Grey is about the titular Dorian and his fall from grace. The story is an exploration of how an innocent may fall into depravity and how that kind of lifestyle will change a person and ultimately how they can, in some cases, be redeemed but not always.
Overall, I think this story is a great example of horror, there’s the supernatural element in the form of the painting, which doesn’t just age instead of Dorian but also shows the physical signs of his soul becoming poison. But the real horror is the heart of men, how overindulgence and self-serving natures can make men real monsters.
As there are several versions of this novel published and the plot is a ‘fluid’ thing which changes slightly from edition to edition. I will focus on the 1891 version here as it was the longest and most detailed.
The Picture of Dorian Grey is set in London at the end of the 19th century. The bulk of the story takes place in London and the city is a perfect mirror to the story. London is shown as a shining example of modern man on the surface but dig a little deeper and reveal the more unsavoury nature.
The story begins with Dorian listening to Lord Wotton’s view that beauty is the only worthwhile pursuit in life. This leads Dorian, who is modelling for a painting at the time of the conversation, to wish that the painting of himself would age instead of him so he could be beautiful forever.
Dorian becomes close friends with Lord Wotton, who continues to influence him to indulge his hedonistic tendencies.
Dorian meets Sibyl Vane, an actress who he entices but ultimately rejects because of Lord Wotton’s dismissive attitude towards her. He is cruel to Sibyl and when he returns home, he notices that his portrait has changed, it is sneering reflecting his earlier cruelty.
Sibyl kills herself due to Dorian’s cruelty and rejection and Dorian’s response to this is to decide that lust and beauty are all that matter to him now. He spends the next 18 years being hedonistic, indulging his whims and petty cruelty’s. Eventually, he meets with Basil, the artist who painted him and shows him the painting which has become so hideous that Basil cannot recognize it. Dorian then kills Basil who he blames for his fate. He blackmails a friend to dispose of the body, said friend then kills himself.
Dorian visits an opium den where James Vane Sybils brother attacks him in vengeance for his sister’s death. Dorian, however, convinces James that he cannot be the one he is after because he is too young, James falls for this hook line and sinker and stops his assault. Dorian leaves and a lady tells James that he’s a fool and that Dorian is a monster since he has not aged in 18 years. So, James’ hunt for Dorian begins anew. It doesn’t last long, however, and James is killed in a hunting accident.
Dorian has a sudden character change and decides to attempt to mend his ways, though this seems to be more out of fear as by this point the painting is an abomination.
He tries to be nice to his current girlfriend, Hetty, and wonders if his painting will start to look less horrendous because he’s being nice. Naturally, the painting just gets worse since Dorian’s motivations are self-serving.
Dorian decides that confessing his crimes might be the thing to absolve him and somehow thinks that destroying the painting will help. He stabs the painting. The servants and people outside hear a scream and the police are summoned. They enter the room with the painting and find an old man, stabbed, and the picture restored.
I love that the monster in the story isn’t an external creature or threat but rather Dorian’s own selfish, hedonistic nature which is given a physical representation through the painting. There was no outside evil, beyond Lord Wotton who’s early influence encouraged Dorian’s initial cruelty and presented the world view that beauty is all that matters. Once that idea had cemented itself in Dorian’s impressionable mind, he ran with it. Even his attempt at redemption was false as it was only done to serve his vanity.
While I feel that the story served it’s purpose and sent it’s message strongly, I don’t think Wilde felt the same. The story saw various versions, partly due to censorship and I’m not confident that even now this was ever the story Wilde wanted to tell.
Dorian was a great character, I was less impressed with the other characters who seemed all too happy to off themselves when Dorian was cruel, admittedly Dorian was very cruel but this still feels like an overreaction. However, the benefit of this is that it kept the focus on Dorian and allowed us to see how he responded to the cause and effect of his cruelty.
The plot of the story is relatively straight forward and simply structured. This is not a criticism, the story is well told through the plot and keeping it simple served the story well, allowing it to remain focused always.
The story tackles a few different types of fear, the first being a societal fear, the social pressure Dorian feels at the beginning of the story that subsequently turns his entire personality in a very unpleasant direction. That’s not to absolve Dorian of responsibility, but it does make one interested in what he might have been like had Lord Wotton not interfered with the impressionable young Dorian. The second fear is more internal, the fear of our natures, Dorian took very little to fall from grace and then struggled and ultimately failed at redemption. The story is an interesting take on human nature both on the singular level with Dorian and the societal nature of Lord Wotton’s peer pressure.
While I may love this story the readers in the 19th Century weren’t so keen, the reviews at the time found it scandalous and nauseating. However, a lot of the criticism was aimed at the author rather than the book itself. So, it’s overall hard to say what worked when the novel was written as people were too busy being annoyed at Wilde and offended.
Does it Hold Up Today
I think so.
This is a wonderful story and while aspects of it may seem a little dated now (It was first published in 1890, give it a break) fundamentally it holds up. Due to its examination of man’s nature (a timeless thing I’m sure) the story still speaks to readers today, warning of the dangers of hedonism, overindulgence, petty cruelty and ultimately our own darker urges. It talks about the weakness of human character and the dangers of letting your vices win which is something that still affects us to this day and will probably do so until humanity is gone from this world.
The fact that this novel has been adapted so many times into various movies, television shows, and other mediums confirm that the story of Dorian is one that still resonates with people.
If you haven’t read it I strongly recommend giving it a go if you’re an avid horror fan, interested in the human psyche/soul or just a fan of great writing.