Oscar Wilde, The Portrait of Dorian Gray


Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1999


When we look back on English Victorian society nowadays, we mostly think of a tight corset of social rules and moral codes. But at the end of the 19th century, this society was not just shaped by strictness, but also by enormous decadence – by collecting treasures from the British colonies, having sophisticated conversations about art and making constant efforts to stay young and beautiful. This contrast is impressively analysed in Oscar Wilde’s only novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1891).


The novel combines social criticism with mythical elements. It revolves around a young man called Dorian Gray and a portrait of him, painted by the artist Basil Hallward. Looking at the picture and realising just how incredibly beautiful he is, Dorian profoundly wishes that he could stay young and attractive forever and that the picture could instead age on his behalf. Over the course of the next years it turns out that his wish actually comes true. Despite his excessive lifestyle and scandalous adventures with the rich Lord Henry, his body stays the body of a gorgeous twenty-year-old Dorian. Gray eventually becomes a ruthless, cruel caricature of himself - his dream of eternal youth inevitably drives him mad and he makes him a persecuted murderer.


The Irish author Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) uses the example of Dorian Gray to show how fatal a hedonistic, superficial lifestyle truly is. He presents a critical image of the English upper class that revels in its own high morals but at the same time these people spend their lives with meaningless occupations. Beauty and supposed virtue are praised, but no one is interested to see what is behind the curtain.

By using the mystical element of the ageing portrait, Wilde creates a tangible metaphor for the hypocrisy of the society he lives in. The entire novel thus works as a mirror for a highly superficial and decadent society. 


It is not surprising that “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was adapted in plays, films, operas, musicals, audio dramas and comics countless times. After all, Wilde’s novel addresses a problem that has only gotten worse during the last decades. The obsession with youth and beauty seems to have a shocking impact on all areas of life - getting jobs, having successful relationships, being recognised by one’s peers. Just like Dorian Gray many of us seem to hit on the idea that our exterior is our most important feature and therefore we do everything humanly possible to keep looking like twenty-year-olds. 


And that’s not all. Just like in Victorian society, our 21st century society worships those who have travelled the furthest, own the most property and know the most popular people. While it was desirable in Dorian Gray’s circles to own treasures from the orient, it is now fashionable to travel through Laos or Nepal. However all of this has nothing to do with someone’s true personality and that kind of thinking is disastrous for a society. That is what Wilde’s novel illustrates and it is truly worth thinking about, just like it was one hundred years ago.


Christina Schlögl 

Signet Sunflower Foundation