Oscar Wilde, defending his own book from its detractors, hailed his own work a classic. I agree. This book is a delight, and certainly one of the best horror novels ever written. Smart, witty, diabolical, and even sometimes charmingly earnest for a book absolutely dripping with irony. The prose is beyond brilliant; Oscar Wilde knew how to turn a phrase. Much of the time, the novel feels like a play, but Wilde’s dialogue, especially that of Lord Henry Wotton, carries these chapters well.
But what a dark journey! A pretty young man wishes on his own portrait that it should age and he should not. And so it happens. Dorian continues living his life–a rather debauched one, it turns out–and the painting suffers all the ill effects. No matter, he locks the hideous thing away and continues on a magnificent downward spiral into doom that leaves no trace.
It is a clever premise, especially as it plays out in scenes such as those when Dorian falls in love with a woman for her success at playing various Shakespearean roles. He falls in love with her as the characters, not as herself. This echoes the earlier love of surface, of Art itself, more than the love of the soul. Funny that Wilde, who was known for being an aesthete early in his life, would paint such a scathing picture of people so in love with Art that it corrupted them completely, but I think there’s more to this book than the simple message that “sin is bad for your soul.” This is a novel of homoerotic betrayal and suppression, where a young man makes a bad choice to chase artifice (Lord Henry, who loves nothing more than to say clever stuff he doesn’t even feel he needs to believe himself) over substance (Basil Hallward, who paints the portrait itself and clearly loves the hell out of Dorian).
More than that, it’s just damn good at being creepy and fiendish. I can see in this everything from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to the stories of Poe to American Psycho to the Last Werewolf. The characters are complex and convincing, the writing is some of the sharpest I’ve ever seen, and the story is a knockout. A great novel!