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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray caused quite a stir following its publication in 1890. Victorian readers were shocked by its promotion of a hedonistic lifestyle and its unabashed references to sexuality.

Dorian Gray is a ravishing young man whose portrait is painted by Basil Hallward. When Dorian is introduced to Lord Henry, the artist's friend, he becomes seduced by his new friend's hedonism and dives headfirst into a life of debauchery. The Picture of Dorian Gray was so controversial that the bookseller W.H. Smith withdrew Lippincott's magazine, where it was first published, from its bookstalls.

Published during a time when the prevailing belief was that art should reflect and enforce morality, The Picture of Dorian Gray challenged this notion by championing Aestheticism—the idea that art should be judged solely for its beauty. Although initial reviews were awful and sales poor, Wilde's only novel is now one of the best-known works of British literature to emerge from the end of the 19th century.

1. When Wilde submitted The Picture of Dorian Gray to Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, the editor thought it was indecent and deleted 500 words.

The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared as a short, 13-chapter novel in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. Without consulting Wilde, the magazine's editor deleted 500 words of so-called offensive material. Most of the deleted material was related to sex—of both a homosexual and heterosexual nature. The editor explained that the original manuscript contained "a number of things which an innocent woman would make an exception to."

2. Some reviewers of The Picture of Dorian Gray thought Wilde should be prosecuted for immorality.

Wilde's novel was published during a time when "obscenity prosecutions" were on the rise in England. While Wilde managed to avoid prosecution specifically for The Picture of Dorian Gray, he was prosecuted for homosexual acts only a few years later. After his trial and conviction, his publisher stopped selling The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it would not be printed again in England for another 20 years.

3. Wilde's wife complained that nobody would speak to them following the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Picture of Dorian Gray caused quite an uproar for what one reviewer called "its effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, its theatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophizing, its contaminating trail of garish vulgarity." Though his wife was unhappy with all the negative attention, Wilde did not appear to care much what other people thought, saying, "I wrote this book entirely for my own pleasure. ... Whether it becomes popular or not is a matter of absolute indifference to me."

4. Wilde toned down the most controversial material when revising The Picture of Dorian Gray for publication as a book.

To prepare it for publication as a book, Wilde expanded The Picture of Dorian Gray from 13 chapters to 20. In response to criticism, he also toned down some of the sexual content—particularly those passages alluding to homosexuality. He did, however, make a dig at his critics in the preface: "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all."

5. The French novel Dorian Gray reads is À Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, a novel that greatly influenced Wilde.

The character Dorian Gray reads an unnamed French novel that is said to corrupt him, leading him to a life of sin and hedonism. Wilde revealed at his trial that this book was closely based on À Rebours (Against Nature). He had called the book "one of the best I have ever seen." Like The Picture of Dorian Gray, À Rebours explores themes of decadence and Aestheticism and contains references to homosexuality.

6. Wilde said the three main characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray are all reflections of himself.

He wrote in a letter, "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps." One critic notes that Dorian's behavior "symbolizes Wilde's unconscious (i.e., unacknowledged) attitudes."

7. Lord Henry from The Picture of Dorian Gray was partly inspired by Wilde's friend Lord Ronald Gower.

Lord Ronald Gower was a Scottish politician, sculptor, and writer who was widely known to be homosexual. He shared with Lord Henry an enthusiasm for the Aesthetic movement—the belief in "art for art's sake." Gower lived with Frank Hird, a journalist whom he had adopted as his son but was believed to be his lover. Wilde reportedly joked about the pair, "Frank may be seen, but not Hird."

8. Wilde had a love affair with one of his readers—a young aristocrat who read The Picture of Dorian Gray 14 times before meeting the author.

Wilde gave a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray to his friend Lionel Johnson, who lent it to his 20-year-old cousin Lord Alfred Douglas. Lord Douglas became "passionately absorbed" in the novel, reading it 14 times before finally being introduced to Wilde. Captivated by Lord Douglas's beauty, Wilde offered to tutor him for his university exams. This led to a love affair, which later resulted in Wilde's conviction and imprisonment for "gross indecency."

9. A mental disorder—Dorian Gray Syndrome—was named after the novel's main character.

"Dorian Gray Syndrome" is a disorder marked by an "obsessive preoccupation" with physical attractiveness and eternal youth. According to the researchers who coined the disorder in 2001, men with this illness frequently take a medication that halts the balding process and stimulates new hair growth.

10. The Picture of Dorian Gray is Wilde's only novel.

Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan opened in February 1892. It was enormously popular and well-received, encouraging Wilde to focus on playwriting for the rest of his career. He wrote several more plays after that—including A Woman of No Importance and The Importance of Being Earnest—establishing him as one of London's most popular playwrights.

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