Pictures of Dorian Gray, Images of Oscar Wilde; Part One: The Power of Image

Posted by on May 17th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Oscar Wilde’s only full novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is now accepted as a classic of Victorian literature, but in its own time, the book was almost as controversial as its author.  It tells the story of a young man, Dorian Gray, who becomes fascinated by his friend Lord Henry Wotton’s hedonistic philosophy and sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty.  Dorian devotes himself to the exploration of life from every angle—pursuing every desire, relishing every pleasure; no joy too high, no vice too low.  While he retains a glamor of innocence, he watches his portrait—painted by another friend, Basil Hallward—degenerate and degrade.  It grows old and ugly and haggard.  Every flaw and stain on his character is made visible there.  At last Dorian can stand the sight of it no longer, and tries to destroy the painting—killing himself instead.

Dorian Gray was condemned, by those who condemn such things, as immoral, decadent, morbid, and obscene.  It was not long before Wilde himself faced a similar judgment—not merely from the clergy and the critics, but from the courts.  In 1895 he was charged and convicted of “gross indecency”—which is to say, he offended the Crown with his preference for sleeping with boys rather than girls.  He was sentenced to two years in prison, and died shortly after his release, impoverished and disgraced.

oscar_wilde_portraitIn this nine-part essay, I examine various efforts to visually represent Dorian Gray, especially in comics, and I consider the multiple depictions of Wilde in cartoons going back as far as 1882.  These two projects have more in common than it might first seem.  Wilde was especially interested in the idea of “image”—that is, in visual and narrative presentations of the self.  Hence his emphasis on surface, style and physical beauty: but also, his fascination with secrecy, concealment and double lives.  These themes, which occupy so prominent a role in Wilde’s fiction and drama, were also the dominant notes of his life.  And in both spheres he played freely, dangerously, with the distinction between reality and representation, between life and art.

Both Dorian Gray and his creator saw that images have power, that art can create its own kind of reality.  It is interesting, then, to see how artists have struggled to convey that sense of power in their depictions of Dorian Gray, and how they have used it, often politically, in their portrayals of Oscar Wilde.

Next:  Four Dorian Gray Comics

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2 Responses to “Pictures of Dorian Gray, Images of Oscar Wilde; Part One: The Power of Image”

  1. […] Wilde’s Picture of Dorain Gray Over at The Comics Journal, Kristian Williams begins a nine part essay examining various attempts at portraying Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Grey” in cartoons and especially comics. For those of you in need of a contemporary comparison, Wilde’s Dorian and other writings caused more of a scandal in Victorian England than Adam Lambert and Lady GaGa could hope for today.or George Rekers would like to avoid. I think this promises to be an interesting article. Start reading here. […]