On August 30, 1889, Philadelphia publisher Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, invited a few guests to dinner at the Langham Hotel in London. Among them were two promising young writers: Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. Doyle recounts the events of what he calls "a golden evening" in his autobiographical Memories and Adventures (1924). Stoddart was considering an English publication of Lippincott's with a British editor and British contributors. As a result of that evening, Doyle contributed to Lippincott's his second Sherlock Holmes story, "The Sign of Four." Wilde published his first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the magazine's July 1890 issue.
Initial response to Wilde's novel was negative if not abusive. The St. James Gazette of June 20, 1890, refers to the "garbage of the French Décadents" and the "prosy rigmaroles" of the story. The Daily Chronicle of June 30 calls it a "poisonous book." The Scots Observer of July 5 asks, "Why go grubbing in muck-heaps?"
Wilde responded to the criticism of his work with numerous letters to editors and added a preface to the book version that came out in the spring of 1891. He also extensively revised Lippincott's version, adding six new chapters (3, 5, 15, 16, 17, and 18), softening the homoerotic references, and dividing Chapter 13 of the original text into Chapters 19 and 20 of the book. Contrary to the reviews' charge that the novel was immoral, Wilde was concerned that the novel was too moral, that it was didactic in its portrayal of the wages of sin.
The revised version evoked less negative response, possibly because most of the uproar about the work had faded. W. B. Yeats, the Irish poet and dramatist who would receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, had some reservations but called it a "wonderful book" in the United Ireland of September 26, 1891. Arthur Conan Doyle was supportive of Dorian Gray in a letter to Wilde. In his response, in April 1891, Wilde wrote, "I cannot understand how they can treat Dorian Gray as immoral. My difficulty was to keep the inherent moral subordinate to the artistic and dramatic effect, and it seems to me that the moral is too obvious." Over the years, writers as diverse as James Joyce and Joyce Carol Oates have praised Wilde with some reservations. The Picture of Dorian Gray is now considered to be at least a pivotal work, if not a classic.
Sources from which Wilde drew for his novel include the Faust legend and the Narcissus myth from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Critics cite various sources for the changing portrait motif. One is that the writer sat for a painter named Basil Ward, who, after finishing the portrait, remarked that it would be delightful if Wilde could remain as he was while the picture aged; however, there is no historical indication that Wilde ever sat for a Basil Ward. Another version of this story links the concept of a portrait aging to a Canadian artist named Frances Richards.
Several critics have noted that the politician and novelist Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81) anonymously published a book called Vivian Grey in the 1820s and that this novel anticipates Wilde's work. Several other nineteenth-century novels make use of a magic picture, or doppelganger (a ghostly double of a living person). Wilde's work is so creative, however, that these influences appear to be only coincidental.
The structure of Dorian Gray is balanced between Lord Henry's early influence on Dorian (the first ten chapters) and Dorian's life as an adult (the last ten chapters). Each section begins with an expository chapter. Wilde uses devices such as dinner parties to provide temporary relief from intense action. Note also that Wilde's talents as a dramatist often are applied to the novel.
Major symbols in the novel include the portrait, which dominates the story as it reflects Dorian's increasing fall into debauchery. The "yellow book" reflects Lord Henry's continuing influence and seems to be a demonic force of its own. The theater run by Mr. Isaacs is a fantasy world for Dorian, who seems incapable of dealing with Sibyl as a real person. The white narcissus reflects Dorian's adoration of self. Lord Henry plays Dorian like a violin, which is mentioned early in the book and becomes a symbol of manipulation. The opera, where the singer Patti performs, is the essence of Aestheticism, while Daly's opium den represents the depths of depravity and excess.
Major themes include the Faust legend, the balance of body and soul, the dual nature of man, self-discovery, narcissism, friendship, the fall of man, sin and redemption, and the dangers of personal influence or manipulation. Beyond all of these critical approaches, the story can simply be enjoyed on its own as a well-written tale of suspense and surprise.