A lush, cautionary tale of a life of vileness and deception or a loving portrait of the aesthetic impulse run rampant? Why not both? After Basil Hallward paints a beautiful, young man's portrait, his subject's frivolous wish that the picture change and he remain the same comes true. Dorian Gray's picture grows aged and corrupt while he continues to appear fresh and innocent. After he kills a young woman, "as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife," Dorian Gray is surprised to find no difference in his vision or surroundings. "The roses are not less lovely for all that. The birds sing just as happily in my garden."
As Hallward tries to make sense of his creation, his epigram-happy friend Lord Henry Wotton encourages Dorian in his sensual quest with any number of Wildean paradoxes, including the delightful "When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy." But despite its many languorous pleasures, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an imperfect work. Compared to the two (voyeuristic) older men, Dorian is a bore, and his search for ever new sensations far less fun than the novel's drawing-room discussions. Even more oddly, the moral message of the novel contradicts many of Wilde's supposed aims, not least "no artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style." Nonetheless, the glamour boy gets his just deserts. And Wilde, defending Dorian Gray, had it both ways: "All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment."
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. First published in 1890 in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine and the following year in novel form, The Picture of Dorian Gray categorically changed Victorian Britain and the landscape of literature. An ostentatious, self-confessed aesthete, known for his wit and intellect, Wilde not only had to endure his prose being labeled "poisonous" and "vulgar," but also suffer its use as evidence in the ensuing trial, resulting in his eventual imprisonment for crimes of "gross indecency." Frankel's introduction provides a deft preliminary analysis of the novel itself—exploring etymology and extensive editorial alterations (both accidental and deliberate)—and offers valuable insight into the socio-cultural juxtaposition of aristocratic Victorian society and the London underworld. The original typescript provides the unique opportunity to examine what was considered acceptable in both the US and UK at the time. Intriguing annotations allude to Wilde's influences and enterprising range of reference, incorporating art, poetry, literature, Greek mythology, philosophy, and fashion (certain to inspire further reading; an appendix is provided). Comparisons are drawn between Dorian Gray and Wilde's other literary output, as well as to the work of Walter Pater. Numerous illustrations subtly compliment Frankelÿs inferences. A fine contextualization of a major work of fiction profoundly interpreted, ultimately riveting. (Mar.)