Dorian Gray is an exceptional young man who enamours everyone he meets with the air of innocence and purity belied by his beauty. And indeed, until he meets Lord Henry Wotton, he is boyishly innocent, the perfect subject for a perfect portrait that his artist friend, Basil, creates in his honour.
But when Lord Henry informs him that his beauty will not last—that he is destined for inevitable age and ugliness—Dorian cannot bear the thought of the beautiful painting outlasting him. In a fit of passion, he wishes for the picture to take on the ugliness of time and sin while he remains forever young and outwardly pure.
When his wish is realized, it opens the door to a secret life of depravity hidden beneath a gentleman's face. It almost seems as if he can escape the cost of sin . . . but though Dorian may fool the world, he cannot fool the painting.
I'll start by stating the cold hard truth: I would recommend this book to a scant and select few. In fact, for the vast majority of the story, I was grappling with the sheer immorality of the protagonist and the ethical ambiguity of the book's prominent characters. In selling his soul for eternal youth, Dorian seems to escape scot-free from the costs of sin. He remains young, beautiful, and innocent to the eye, allowing him to roam all avenues of wickedness and pleasure in a Godless, virtueless lifestyle.
I was distressed, truth be told, and not only by Dorian, but by the false philosophical spoutings of Lord Henry as well, whose toxic influence first exposes Dorian to the downward spiral of self-indulgence, idolatry, and sin. Interestingly, I saw a parallel between these characters and the account of Eve in the Garden. Young Dorian is innocent and happy in his life until a serpent-like Lord Henry comes and hisses in his ear, shattering his purity with thoughts and desires of greed and selfish pleasure.
There was no going back. Dorian's story is a slow-starting landslide that builds momentum as the plot progresses, until even he is sick with himself but unable to break free of his own evil ways. We see a troubling snowball effect of escalating sin upon sin, and though the plot itself wallows in a mire of poisonous false teachings, the underlying theme rings true: sin comes with a cost.
There are a handful of redeeming qualities. For one, the book is skilfully, eloquently written. It does feature one character who, for the most part, is morally sound, and presents a much-needed voice of virtue to counter the opposite views. Dorian displays at times a seemingly-genuine desire to reject immorality in favour of goodness, though, admittedly, his sincerity in those moments is at times . . . questionable. It's also worth mentioning that Oscar Wilde doesn't show immorality explicitly—he makes it clear that the characters are living depraved lives and hints at the forms it might take, but achieves the effect through suggestion and allusion.
The greatest redeeming quality of this novel, however, is the theme that soars above the moral vacuum—loud, clear, crucial, and tinged with tragedy—the inescapable reality of the grave price of sin.