When The Picture of Dorian Gray came out in 1890, it wasn't very well received by critics. By now, its story has become famous. The late 19th century probably wasn't ready for the obvious homoerotic content. It's a novel focused on male beauty written in a world more comfortable with female beauty. The beautiful Dorian Gray is the object of fascination by many in this novel, but especially by the two major side characters: Basil Hallward and Henry Watton. Both admire his beauty, though for different reasons. Basil is a painter and sees him as the perfect model. Henry sees him as a blank slate to be filled with his own philosophical ideas. It is the combination of the admiration of both of these men that turns Dorian Gray into the monster he becomes.
Basil Hallward, the painter, represents the artistic view of beauty. He wants to transform Dorian Gray's beautiful image into masterpieces of art. The only problem is his feelings for Dorian get in the way. He paints one portrait so well that he doesn't want to show it to the world. He confides to Henry that the painting had too much of himself in it. The world would know the painter had strong feelings for the subject, and to reveal these feelings would likely kill his career and reputation. Instead, he gives the portrait to Dorian to keep.
Lord Henry Watton, on the other hand, is a jovial pessimist. He takes great interest in Dorian as well, but because he sees Dorian as innocent and naive, a vessel to be filled with new ideas. Henry takes great joy in seeing those ideas change Dorian. Dorian, as we first meet him, seems little more than the empty shell, beautiful on the outside,that Henry imagines him. Until Henry suggests it, Dorian never considers the idea that beauty is not everlasting. It fades with time. Worst of all, it fades after a very brief amount of time. Dorian begins to wish that he could keep his beauty and that the painting Basil had drawn would age in his stead. Eventually, during a strange trip through a dark place, he gets his wish. Wilde never explains the magic behind this connection between Dorian and his painting, but he doesn't need to. Too many stories today make the mistake of wasting precious story time explaining how and why. It's a fantasy - that's all.
Society's obsession with beauty often blinds it to the flaws of the beautiful. That may be the point Wilde is making here. This isn't a mind-blowing idea, but Wilde's flairs of imagination are what make the story so exceptional. Dorian is idolized by his two closest friends. Henry in particular sees him as harmless. Others in society also obsess over him, but it's clear he has made some enemies. Not out of jealousy, not all of it, but because he has developed a corrupting influence. Acquaintances have killed themselves or had to drop out of higher society due to some scandal or other. No doubt many of Dorian's friends have grown addicted to drugs. Wilde describes much of this through rapid-fire exposition. One section of the novel goes on for a little too long, when Wilde describes all of the luxurious things Dorian has become obsessed over. Jewels and fashion, things of material beauty.
This is a novel with a wickedly fast pace due to Wilde's use of dialogue. His characters have quick wits, sometimes too quick, which helps the novel flow along at a brisk pace. When nobody is talking, we are usually in Dorian Gray's head, seeing his views change and watching him consider the consequences of his evil actions. The portrait does not shield him from his own soul, it turns out, and it's changes begin to make him fearful of himself. For a novel written over 120 years ago, this is very readable to modern audiences. It plays out much more like a play than a novel. Lord Henry's humorous wit is as much fun to read as seeing Dorian's evil ways spread. The novel's energy makes it feel fresh, so don't be so hesitant to dust off that old tome (or download the free Kindle version) and dig in. It makes for a very fun ride.