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The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray
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message 1: by Brian Bess (last edited Sep 24, 2012 10:41AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brian Bess | 276 comments Mod
I decided to re- read Dorian Gray for an upcoming book club discussion but I knew that I wanted to read the annotated edition because I cannot resist special editions—books, films, and music— with all the accompanying special features. I had not realized the extent to which Wilde’s original version differed from the final published edition. This edition gives me everything I would ever want to know about Dorian Gray, including not only everything he wrote that was edited out later but extensive footnotes, illustrations, photographs and paintings of innumerable peripheral points of interest.

The Picture of Dorian Gray bears similarities in my mind with other notable philosophical metaphysical fantasies of the nineteenth century—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and one less well-known than those others but perhaps an even more direct influence on Wilde—Balzac’s Le Peau de Chagrin, or The Magic Skin. In that novel, a man purchases a magic wild ass’s skin that is supposed to grant his every wish. He, of course, indulges in every kind of debauchery and decadent, hedonistic activity he can imagine and discovers that the skin magically shrinks and his life span is correspondingly shortened with every wish fulfilled.

All of these novels were published before Wilde wrote his philosophical fantasy and they all influenced him, along with other tales of magic portraits by Hawthorne, Poe and Gogol. Wilde used the device in a particularly unique way. The portrait is kept in a locked room in an attic as any reminder or repository of our darkest impulses would be, in a back chamber of the subconscious. In the final published version of the novel, there are connotations of homosexuality and bisexuality among the characters of the impossibly handsome Dorian, the effete artist Basil Hallward and the caustic, witty, married (and bisexual) Lord Henry Wotton. Each of these characters depict aspects of Wilde himself, with Lord Henry being the primary expounder of Wildean bon mots and witty aphorisms--“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” etc.

In the original, uncensored version one can easily see from our ‘unsuppressed’ 21st century perspective that Wilde is writing about characters that are gay or bisexual. Even though Wilde was writing between and through the lines about these matters of sexual identity, it wasn’t subtle enough to not be used as evidence against him in his trial for ‘gross indecency’ a few years later.
From the perspective of someone outside Wilde’s era, the novel is a strange, nightmarish parable of sexuality, youth, immortality and moral conscience. Without the sexual components, the novel is a strange neutered fable and attempts to heterosexualize it, as in the famous 1945 film version, only produce strangely asexual men with nebulous fetishes.

It is Wilde’s only novel and it is a brave, noble attempt. Its weaknesses, of which Wilde was aware, stem from his experience writing for the theater. There are pages of dialogue that could have easily been lifted from a page of script in which not a line of descriptive narration appears. On the other hand, there is an entire chapter in which there is no character interaction whatsoever, no dialogue, merely an extensive, descriptive catalog of the cultural stimuli that contribute to Dorian’s dissipation.

Upon reflection, one wonders if Wilde would have felt the need to write this novel in a less sexually repressed era. In our current day there would be thousands of opportunities for objective purgings of the darker impulses to be manifested not only through painting but numerous other visual media. Wilde would be one of many gay authors. The novel cannot be separate from the time in which it was created, however, and in the England of 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray was an extremely daring shot in the face of Victorian social and cultural customs.

message 2: by Rachel (new)

Rachel (rachel_hooper) | 8 comments I am about halfway through this book. I've never read any of his work before, but I'm enjoying it. This book has been on my "to read" list for a long time. I'm glad I'm finally getting to it!

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