Editor Nicholas Frankel is right to argue that familiarity with Oscar Wilde’s original manuscript of The Picture of Dorian Gray deepens its vision, suggesting that the 1891 novel is a far less morally reassuring tale than readers have thought.
The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition by Oscar Wilde. Edited by Nicholas Frankel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 296 pages, $35.
By Bill Marx
Victorian sci-fi or modernist fantasia? Given that Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray recently inspired a superficial horror film as well as a grueling vision of nihilistic decadence (a 2002 AIDS-inspired update by Will Self entitled Dorian – an Imitation), it makes sense that in the popular imagination the novel is viewed as plush, adolescent snark, a once shocking tale of degeneration capped by a moral message that condemns the aesthetic creed of art for art’s sake that Wilde championed. British novelist Anthony Powell sums up this dismissive view of the novel when he claims that “Dorian Gray, of which its author thought so much, has sunk to being a book every intelligent school boy gets over at fifteen . . . .” The book that lampooned the Victorian cult of sublimation looks like child’s play today.
Those who suspect Wilde’s novel offers rewards for adults owe a debut of gratitude to Nicholas Frankel, whose edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray presents a restored and augmented version of the book, making available for the first time in over 120 years the daring (for the time) draft Wilde initially sent to J. B. Lippincott & Company for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. Despite the publication’s reputation for risk-taking, its editors excised much of the tale’s overt sexual material, not only cutting allusions to homosexuality among Dorian and his friends, but references to the central character’s mistresses.
The editorial caution was understandable. After all, the criminalization of homosexuality as “gross indecency” was only five years away: a number of critics dismissed the censored version of Dorian Gray with cries of “vulgar,” “unclean,” and “poisonous.” Intimidated by those angry reactions, Wilde didn’t revise the earlier editorial changes and then made more sanitizing adjustments for the book version, upping the quotient of wit and underlining the moral condemnation.
Frankel doesn’t speculate about what Wilde was thinking when he submitted his first version—surely the writer could have guessed what the public reaction to his yarn’s purple prose, omni-sexuality, and fierce images of violence would be. For all of his insights into British hypocrisy, Wilde could be amazingly oblivious about the impact of his work on a society that was hellbent on defending its smug privilege to condemn.
But Frankel is right to argue that, while it does not radically change the book, familiarity with Wilde’s original intention certainly deepens its vision, suggesting that Dorian Gray is a far less morally reassuring tale of terror than readers have thought. Yes, the additional sexual material shows how blatantly the book flaunted Victorian standards, but the risque ententes look tame today. The real interest in this version of Dorian Gray lies in what it reveals about Wilde’s purpose for writing a fantastical tale of a man who, in order to remain beautiful and young, lives a life of utter debauchery, the evidence of his ethical decay and heinous crimes invisible outside of the hideous degeneration of his portrait. Why would the dashing champion of aestheticism condemn the single-minded pursuit of pleasure?
As Frankel points out in his introduction, Wilde’s draft plays down the didactic warnings about the wages of pleasure that he overemphasized in later versions, partly as self-protection against his critics. Though not entirely consistent in its rejection of morality, the uncensored Dorian Gray insinuates that the homicidal fault lies in its conventionally minded anti-hero:
Dorian has, in truth, misconstrued the nature of the portrait from the start, gazing at it as if it were a mirror of his true being or soul. Had he understood the portrait from a more purely “Wildean” perspective, seeing it (like any artwork) not as a truth-telling entity so much as a purely imaginative one, he would never have come to be so haunted or possessed by it, allowing it to dominate his existence at the expense of what makes him human.
Wilde felt that the “moral was too apparent” in the novel. Reading his untouched manuscript indicates how he struggled (albeit unevenly) to focus his condemnation on Dorian’s demeaning confusion of art with life rather than on the immorality of the pursuit of the aesthetic. The sad irony is that public pressures forced Wilde to undercut the freedom of mind espoused by his view of creativity. The upshot is that what has been taken to be a heavy-handed warning against excess now looks intriguingly modernist in its refusal to take a moral stance—there are fascinating, if faint, anticipations of a strong Nabokovian denial that writing has any point beyond pleasure. The moral value of the story remains unsaid—it is an imaginative residue of the experience of appreciating what Wilde calls his “decorative art.”
Along with contributing to our understanding of the social and political challenges posed by a “wicked” novel that shook up Victorian society, the annotations in this edition educate, surprise, and in some cases highly amuse. Mixed in with boilerplate references to how Dorian Gray fits in with Wilde’s other writings and his life are short entries on the story’s playful use of images of bees and peacock tails, as well as pithy notes on what cigarette smoking and the verb “curiosity” signify in terms of the story’s treatment of homoeroticism. There are many illustrations of Wilde, artist depictions of Dorian Gray and his enchanted portrait, and visuals of Victorian paraphernalia, such as a “Gladstone bag.”
The major missing element in the additional material is a fuller consideration of the continuing cultural influence of the novel—Frankel mentions Albert Lewin’s entertaining 1945 film adaptation featuring George Sanders and Hurd Hatfield, but he doesn’t go into other movie versions and he says little about the literary influences of the story, from H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau to Will Self’s post-modern update. But that is marginal matter compared to the enormous satisfaction of finally having, after a century, the whole fascinating picture of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.