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When The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in 1891, it evoked a tremendous amount of hostile criticism, in most part due to its immoral content. Oscar Wilde was identified with the "art for art's sake" movement of the nineteenth century which did not subordinate art to ethical instruction. However, this novel is indeed a morality tale about the hazards of egotistical self-indulgence.
"If it were I," exclaims Dorian, "who were always to be young and that picture that was to grow old...I would give my soul for that."
With that spoken, the tale of this young hero of amazing beauty, Dorian Gray, begins. His pact with evil allows his portrait to take on his many sins and degradations while his physical appearance remains youthful. Over the years as he becomes cruel and vicious, even murderous, Dorian's young and perfect body is no longer enough to salvage his deteriorating mind and morality. Will justice and good prevail?
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Review: A lush, cautionary tale of a life of vileness and deception or a loving portrait of the aesthetic impulse run rampant? Why not both? After Basil Hallward paints a beautiful, young man's portrait, his subject's frivolous wish that the picture change and he remain the same comes true. Dorian Gray's picture grows aged and corrupt while he continues to appear fresh and innocent. After he kills a young woman, "as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife," Dorian Gray is surprised to find no difference in his vision or surroundings. "The roses are not less lovely for all that. The birds sing just as happily in my garden."
As Hallward tries to make sense of his creation, his epigram-happy friend Lord Henry Wotton encourages Dorian in his sensual quest with any number of Wildean paradoxes, including the delightful "When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy." But despite its many languorous pleasures, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an imperfect work. Compared to the two (voyeuristic) older men, Dorian is a bore, and his search for ever new sensations far less fun than the novel's drawing-room discussions. Even more oddly, the moral message of the novel contradicts many of Wilde's supposed aims, not least "no artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style." Nonetheless, the glamour boy gets his just deserts. And Wilde, defending Dorian Gray, had it both ways: "All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment."
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