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The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde

(Harvard University Press; US: Aug 2012)

Dorian Gray, the title character in The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, is a beautiful young man who, almost accidentally, seems to sell his soul so that he will always appear young and beautiful. While Dorian doesn’t age or lose his Adonis-like good looks, his portrait, painted by artist Basil Hallward, does age. From the first cynical line to the bloodstains of murder to the last hypocritical curved wrinkle, all of Dorian’s misdeeds mar Basil’s masterpiece. And because Dorian can do anything he wants and still look young and innocent, he does everything he wants—breaks hearts, ruins reputations, blackmails former friends, and commits murder.


While Dorian seems quite capable of wreaking havoc on his own, a friend, the manipulative Lord Henry Wotton, does steer him toward the path of vice and debauchery. As important as Lord Henry is to Dorian, even he doesn’t know about the picture. That is Dorian’s secret, particularly after he realizes “there would be a real pleasure in watching it [the picture]. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul.”


This is the basic plotline of all three versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray—the 13-chapter text that was published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in July 1890, the 20-chapter novel that was published in 1891, and The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray, which presents the original manuscript Wilde submitted to Lippincott’s in the spring of 1890.


While the basic plotline may be the same, “Uncensored” was added to the title for a reason. As the two introductions, one general and one textual, to The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray make clear, the editors of Lippincott’s made substantial changes to Wilde’s original manuscript and, among other things, deleted or rephrased much of the overtly homoerotic language. Most likely, as was typical during this time period, Wilde was not consulted about these changes. The next version, the novel published in 1891, was based off the Lippincott’s text but was greatly expanded and included elements that were not in either the original typeface or the Lippincott’s version. 


The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 2012 and should not be confused with The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition, published in 2011; both are edited by Nicholas Frankel.

The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray is from the same typescript as An Annotated, Uncensored Edition but does not include annotations. Certainly, there is a time and place for The Annotated, Uncensored Edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray—for scholars, for graduate students, for educators, for those who want to study more than read for pleasure. And Frankel directs readers who are “interested in seeing precisely which parts of Wilde’s text were found objectionable by its first editor and his associates” to the annotated edition.


Frankel does provide an overview of what he calls the more “substantive” changes—changes to phrasing, deletions or additions of text, etc.—in the 2012 Uncensored, but this overview is in the introduction, not in the novel itself, leaving the story in a natural uncluttered state. One that is conducive to reading and enjoying, because The Picture of Dorian Gray is just as spine tingling, relevant, and original now as it was in 1891.


From the compelling story to the musicality of the prose to the symbolism, The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray is a great read—is it as great as the 1891 version?—that, it seems, has been debated.  Frankel notes in the textual introduction “Although some scholars have argued that the twenty-chapter version of 1891 represents the greater artistic achievement, most now accept that when Wilde revised and expanded the novel, many of the changes he made were…‘dictated by expediency and not by artistic considerations’”.


In short, some suspect Wilde wanted to focus less on sexuality in the 1891 version because he was afraid his double life—in one he was married with children and in the other he had intimate relationships with men—was about to come to light. Of course, within five years it did, and Wilde was sentenced to “two years’ hard labor after being convicted of ‘gross indecency’”.


I won’t get into a debate about which version has more literary merit—both novels are better than the majority of what is coming out of the major American publishing houses today—and each version certainly has its strengths. The 1891 edition, for example, provides a strong critique of British imperialism, which was a little unusual for the time while The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray is “more scandalous and daring than either of its two subsequent published versions”. 


Wilde’s conviction and subsequent two-year imprisonment ruined his life. Almost overnight, he went from being the toast of London to being completely ostracized. And The Picture of Dorian Gray was used as evidence against him in two of his trials.


Now, more than 120 years after Wilde submitted the work to Lippincott’s, having an accessible version of the original manuscript partnered with two intriguing introductions and the Preface to the 1891 edition is, in Frankel’s words, simply a “reason for celebration”. Not because one text is better than the other or because one should replace the other. Simply because anything by Oscar Wilde deserves to be treasured.

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