The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray was Oscar Wilde's only novel (he's mostly famous for his plays, poetry, and short stories), but what a novel it is! In the century or so since its initial publication in 1890, the fate of poor Dorian Gray has taken hold of the popular imagination. Dorian's story plays upon the timeless theme of selling one's soul in exchange for earthly pleasures (see other classics like Goethe's Faust or the musical Damn Yankees), and the inevitable disaster that results. Wilde's version of this narrative is particularly notable for its embrace of the hedonistic lifestyle of the Decadents, a late nineteenth century artistic movement that prized beauty and aesthetic experience over everything else. Dorian Gray and its protagonist have become synonymous with the pursuit of pleasure, regardless of its moral consequences.
The novel raised quite a blizzard of scandal in its day, and had critics denouncing Wilde for what they perceived to be his own innate immorality – and as a result, he responded with the famous "Preface" to the novel (published in its second edition) that explained his artistic beliefs. (Check out more discussion of the Preface in "What's Up with the Epigraph?") Altogether, The Picture of Dorian Gray reveals Wilde's philosophy more than any of his other works; reading it is an essential key to understanding his artistic mission as a whole.
Why Should I Care?
Botox, liposuction, lip plumping injections, silicone, hair plugs… If you think about it, we go to extraordinarily bizarre measures just to hang on to fading youth and beauty. Our society is so obsessed with youth that there's a multi-multi-million dollar industry simply devoted to making us look younger (or weirder, as the case may be). And why? Because we live in a culture where youth is idolized and age is the enemy of the people – the goal these days seems to be not just to stop aging, but to get younger.
We're not the first culture to embrace this cult of youth, though. As we see in The Picture of Dorian Gray, our predecessors in the nineteenth century also longed for undying youth and beauty. In fact, the quest for the Fountain of Youth is one of the oldest stories there is; apparently, humanity in general has had a hard time getting over the fact that we all grow old and die. For this reason, Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel never ceases to be relevant – until we finally discover the secret of real eternal youth, we'll always be interested in Dorian's quest for it.