Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of those books that’s been nothing but trouble since it was first published. It has been banned, demonized, and was once used as evidence in a trial held against Wilde.
It’s also a bloody brilliant, terrifying gothic novella with a story that cuts to the heart of some aspects of the queer community to this day which makes it the perfect story to dig into for Horror Pride Month.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, Dorian Gray is a young man whose beauty is so breathtaking that an artist, Basil Hallward, has taken him as a bit of a muse. Hallward invites his friend Lord Henry Wotton to meet Dorian, and the young man becomes fascinated by the Wotton’s hedonistic ideas about life and his devotion to aestheticism.
In a fit of despair over the fact that his beauty will fade, Gray offers to sell his soul in order to retain his outward appearance. He further wishes that Hallward’s remarkable painting will age in his place.
Dorian soon discovers that his wish has, in fact, been granted and he gives himself over to the hedonistic life that Wotton had described, though he takes it to heights the older man had never considered.
As his deeds darken, the painting morphs and changes to reflect the diseased nature of his actions.
I won’t spoil the ending just in case you’ve never read it, but needless to say it does not end well!
The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in 1890 in Lippincotts’s Monthly Magazine, a Philadelphia-based periodical.
The version was heavily edited, removing an estimated 500 words from its thirteen chapters that included anything remotely alluding to “homosexual behavior” and all references to certain characters as “mistresses.”
Reviews were so harsh pointing to the immorality of the story that the magazine was pulled from any number of shelves.
Naturally, Wilde was displeased, and a year later, he published an expanded version in novel form complete with a Preface that addressed critics of the story. He painstakingly explained the place of art and beauty in society. He also, within the story, played down some of the more overt queer elements.
It did little to save the novel’s reputation, however. His problem, ultimately, was that the critics were expressing their own disgust with Wilde much more than his writing. It simply would not have mattered how much he obscured the queer elements of Dorian Gray. The public had already made up their mind.
To put this in perspective it had been only a matter of decades since the laws had been changed that would have seen gay men put to death simply for engaging in consensual sex with one another. At the time, the laws stated that men could be sentenced for ten years to life, and these men were equated to those engaged in bestiality.
It would be 120 years before a fully uncensored version of the original version The Picture of Dorian Gray was published, but it would only be five before Wilde found himself on trial and sentenced to two years hard labor for his own queerness.
The judge at the trial reportedly gave him the harshest sentence he was allowed, and then remarked that he only wished he could sentence him longer.
Adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray
Despite, or perhaps even because of its infamous reputation and its continued presence on banned books lists, the novel has inspired numerous adaptations.
On film alone, The Picture of Dorian Gray has spawned over 20 versions of the tale beginning with a silent Dutch film in 1910.
A multitude of Dorian Grays followed. Sometimes Dorian was a man, sometimes Dorian became a woman, and while some of those characters, based on a man who clearly enjoyed sex with both men and women, have been queer-coded along the way, many were portrayed as very, very straight.
In fact, the closest we’ve seen to an actual representation of the pleasure-seeking decadence of Mr. Gray has been Reeve Carney’s portrayal on Penny Dreadful.
It wasn’t only filmmakers, however, who sought to bring the horrors of Dorian Gray to life.
The book has served as inspiration for multiple plays for stage and radio. The Picture of Dorian Gray has been a ballet and more than one opera, as well!
What is it about this story that captures the imagination?
The tragic protagonist? The search for immortality and a life without consequence? The reputation of his creator? The inherent queerness in the story?
For my part, I think it’s all of these things. We have all sought out that taste of immortality; there are things that each of us wishes we didn’t have to carry in our own conscience daily.
Dorian Gray Lives on Today
Fortunately for us, Dorian Gray is fiction. Unfortunately for us, the spirit of Dorian Gray has been very much a part of the LGBTQ community for quite some time, now, and especially among gay men.
I thought long and hard before I decided to write this. A part of me says that I am not the first to say it, so why bother? Another says I’m only asking for push-back from my own community.
And yet, I feel we cannot highlight this enough.
There exists in our community an idea of what is good, what belongs, and what does not. It is enforced by a culture that puts a premium on a perfection that is, quite honestly, born of ingrained elitism, systemic racism, and misogynist attitudes.
If you need any proof of this, one only needs to spend a little time browsing social media profiles and dating apps. What rises to the top? Who is king?
Would you be surprised if I said it is white gay males with perfect bodies who proudly proclaim “No fats, no fems, no blacks” while also demanding equal treatment under the law for themselves? These men, who only seem to want to date their doppelgangers, enforce their reign by relying on the inherent idea that they, by being thinner, more masculine, and yes, whiter are somehow better.
It’s an idea enforced by a society where the masculine is good and the feminine is bad, where white is superior and black and brown is inferior. They’ve no reason to question their thought process because everywhere they look they are told they are right.
They have forgotten that by being gay, they are still “other.” They have forgotten that being white and gay demands that we stand up for those who are not within our own community because if we let one of us fall, then we all lose.
This alone would be enough, but then we couple it with excess.
Day after day, I see friends post that they wish there was a space where they could be out and proud outside of a bar. I see them look for spaces that are open and welcoming where abstaining is not punished.
This excess has become synonymous with our community, not only by those on the outside looking in, but also by those who have chosen it, held onto it, and who push it on those newly outed queer family members.
When asked about his novel and if he saw himself within its pages, Wilde once replied, “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.”
There is nothing wrong with the admiration of beauty. There is nothing wrong with giving over to excess from time to time, and there is certainly nothing wrong in holding onto the un-scarred outward flesh of youth.
It is when we turn these things into weapons against others in our own community that we fail.
Perhaps it is time for all of us to revisit The Picture of Dorian Gray.