Part humorous fable, part mystery, part gothic suspense, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is another example of the late 1800s fascination with the soul, the senses, and science.
Dorian Gray is a mere teen when the story begins, the muse of a local gifted artist, who paints Dorian's portrait in hopes of capturing his youth and beauty. Dorian's charm is also appreciated by Lord Henry, a rascally fellow, able to twist phrases and morals with his sly tongue. His winsome ways captivate Dorian, but Dorian soon finds himself pulled in the direction of a beautiful actress as well. These two loves tear Dorian in different directions, resulting in unexpected turns of events that send him down a road of sin and pleasure, though never with the rewards of true happiness. As his actions lead to even more drastic results, he finds himself fearing every shadow and questioning his own sanity.
These events do not occur in a vacuum. With Dorian's sliding moral state, the portrait of his beauty begins reflecting the dark decay in his soul. Even as his own face refuses to age or show corruption, the painting becomes uglier by the day. Dorian is both fascinated and appalled by this. When, at last, he faces the consequences of his own selfish choices, he makes one final decision to try to destroy the evidence.
I laughed aloud at many parts, particularly early in the book, then found the tone growing eerie and black. What a thought-provoking book! And one that kept my attention throughout. This is no glossed-over portrait of Mr. Gray, but a grisly depiction of evil--even when it masquerades in a cloak of civility.
Oscar Wilde joined other writers of his day--H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Joseph Conrad--in wrestling with concepts of the soul and the senses in the light of scientific discoveries. What about the conscience? Where did theology and psychology fit in? What about free will? In the last few pages, Wilde paints his own sobering portrait of a man who has tried to live as though the soul and senses have no effect on each other.
This now ranks as one of my favorite classic novels. The results of Dorian Gray's experiment serve as a mirror for all those who consider themselves holy, heathen, or hypocrite.