First aired on The Sunday Edition (5/6/11)
The Picture of Dorian Gray is infamous Irish playwright Oscar Wilde's only novel. The story of how the portrait of a beautiful young man becomes ugly with age (while the subject remains young and unchanged) caused an uproar when it was published in 1890. It was reviled for its allusions to homosexuality, sexual promiscuity and personal self-indulgence — all unacceptable in polite Victorian society.
However, what was published wasn't the whole story. It turns out that the version made available to the Victorian public was substantially edited, first by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart, then by Wilde himself. Only 500 words were eliminated from the novel, but with those words went the most "graphic" aspects of Wilde's work, taking The Picture of Dorian Gray from an R-rated romp to a PG-13 show.
Wilde's unexpurgated text is now available, thanks to Nicholas Frankel. The associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University has put Dorian Gray back together in an extensive, unedited version (complete with copious illustrations and footnotes).
Don't get too excited. Wilde's writing was evocative and embarrassing by Victorian standards, but in today's sex scandal-rife age, the original Dorian Gray seems almost innocent. For example, one of the removed passages was of Dorian lamenting "there was something tragic in a relationship that was so passionate and so sterile" (with sterile being an euphemism for homosexual).
As in the author's own life, the overt exhibitions of homosexuality in the novel were vague and undefined. At the time Dorian Gray was published, it was known that Wilde took many male lovers, but he had a family at home (a wife and two young boys) and constantly denied that his art was autobiographical. And who could blame him? Thanks to tough legislation about sexual activity, Wilde began to fear for his life and worked hard to separate his life from his art.
The edits seem tame by today's standards, but they represent a slice of history that has resonance today. In a time when the "It Gets Better" campaign swept a nation, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was officially repealed as a policy in the American military, and the son of a prominent musical duo can come out as transgendered, allowing Wilde's words to be published as they were originally intended isn't terribly controversial. According to Frankel, "It seems time to have Oscar Wilde speak directly to us and not have his language couched or censored."
We like to think Wilde would agree.
The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition
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"The Picture of Dorian Gray altered the way Victorians understood the world they inhabited. It heralded the end of a repressive Victorianism, and after its publication, literature had — in the words of biographer Richard Ellmann — "a different look." Yet the Dorian Gray that Victorians never knew was even more daring than the novel the British press condemned as "vulgar," "unclean," "poisonous," "discreditable," and "a sham." Now, more than 120 years after Wilde handed it over to his publisher, J. B. Lippincott & Company, Wilde's uncensored typescript is published for the first time, in an annotated, extensively illustrated edition..."
Read more at Harvard University Press.