Altered Images: Revision and Obfuscation in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

©2006 Ross E. Lockhart

In autumn of 1889, the publisher J.M. Stoddart traveled from Philadelphia to London to meet with some of the day’s most fashionable authors and solicit material for his popular periodical, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. One of the most notable products of this excursion was the publication, in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s, of Oscar Wilde’s enduring meditation on aestheticism, morality, and art, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Perhaps inspired by Dorian Gray’s initial commercial success, even amid hostile critical reactions, Wilde almost immediately set to revising the piece, making several textural changes and expanding it from a novella into a short novel through the addition of six new chapters. Wilde also attached a collection of aphorisms which would serve as both witty introduction and self-defining aesthetic manifesto. This revised version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, published by Ward, Lock, and Company in April of 1891, has come to be considered the authoritative (and, consequently, the most widely read) version of the novel, and even today remains the most accessible vision we have of the mysterious and tragic fall of Dorian Gray.

But Wilde’s revisions inspire numerous questions: To what ends did Wilde modify his manuscript? Was he attempting to hide something? Did Wilde, like his fictional painter Basil Hallward, initially reveal too much of himself in his art? Fortunately, the original Lippincott’s version of The Picture of Dorian Gray has been preserved and made available through the work of Alfred J. Drake, Ph.D. and the Victorian Prose Archive, allowing readers to directly compare the conflicting documents, the two differing pictures, and interpret for themselves what, if anything, Oscar Wilde was attempting to obscure.

The changes Wilde made within the first chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray alone are, in many cases, dramatic enough to considerably alter a reader’s perceptions, removing key insights into the motivations and desires of Basil Hallward. However, many of Wilde’s alterations are simple things, such as the clarifying substitution of “the painter” (Dover 1) for “he” (Lippincott’s 3) in an early reference to Hallward or the material transformation of Lord Henry’s ever-present tasseled cane from “Malacca,” or rattan, (Lippincott’s 8) to the perennially stylish “ebony” (Dover 7).

Wilde’s decision to cut down the following long-winded and theatrical elaboration in which Lord Henry apes Lady Brandon’s earnest description of one of her party guests comes at a price. The 1891 version of Dorian Gray loses a particularly humorous lampooning of both the British aristocracy and the American lack of the same:

something like ‘Sir Humpty Dumpty-you know-Afghan frontier-Russian intrigues: very successful man-wife killed by an elephant-quite inconsolable-wants to marry a beautiful American widow-everybody does nowadays-hates Mr. Gladstone-but very much interested in beetles: ask him what he thinks of Schouvaloff. (Lippincott’s 7)

This cut, however allows Wilde to fit in Lady Brandon’s description of Dorian that much earlier, and therefore works in favor of moving along the story as a whole. Had the routine remained intact, it may have also accented Lord Henry’s character at a story moment when Hallward, and his initial perceptions of young Dorian Gray are tantamount.

It is Basil Hallward’s character itself that is significantly toned down in the 1891 version, reducing to mere subtext what reads as an overt and lustful obsession with young Dorian in the 1890 text. Some changes are small, in fact practically unnoticeable, such as Hallward’s intimation to Lord Henry, “You know how I love secrecy” (Lippincott’s 5), which is diluted into the less-confiding “I have grown to love secrecy” (Dover 3). Likewise, Wilde’s deletion, just two paragraphs later, of Hallward’s act of “shaking his hand off” before he and Lord Henry stroll from the studio into the garden might just as easily be seen as a deliberate attempt to downplay the physicality of the painter’s relationship with Lord Henry as it could be about the mere removal of stray paint from the artist’s fingertips.

What leaves less doubt about Hallward’s character and, ultimately, his very masculinity, is the following deletion from his dialogue. Where the 1891 text has Hallward saying “You know yourself, Harry, how independent I am by nature. I have always been my own master; had at least always been so till I met Dorian Gray” (Dover 5), the original version includes the following revelation, tucked neatly between the two sentences: “My father destined me for the army. I insisted on going to Oxford. Then he made me enter my name at the Middle Temple. Before I had eaten half a dozen dinners I gave up the Bar, and announced my intention of becoming a painter” (Lippincott’s 6-7). Clearly, this revelation suggests that, in rejecting his father’s wishes that he pursue a manly vocational path, namely the army or the legal profession, in favor of Greek-modeled Oxford academia and a profession as uncertain and aesthetically-driven as painting, Hallward has chosen a lifestyle and path that would have been considered, at the very least, unmanly, and perhaps even effeminate.

Later in that same paragraph, Wilde excises Hallward’s confession that he, at first, feared that his initial attraction to Dorian Gray would likely evolve into sexual obsession, removing the line “I knew that if I spoke to Dorian I would become absolutely devoted to him, and that I ought not to speak to him” (Lippincott’s 7). This line of Hallward’s had originally followed “I had a strange feeling that Fate had in store for me exquisite joys and exquisite sorrows” and preceded “I grew afraid, and turned to quit the room.” As you can see, the missing line would have heightened Hallward’s conflict over his compelling physical attraction to the young man who would soon become his muse and, ultimately, his murderer.

Conflicted or not, Hallward indulges his attraction to and interest in Dorian Gray, and confides to Lord Henry a few paragraphs later that he has been seeing the young man on a daily basis. Here, again, Wilde has removed from the 1891 version an exchange which would have cast an undeniable light onto Hallward’s sexuality and motivations. “I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him every day,” says Hallward. “Of course sometimes it is only for a few minutes. But a few minutes with somebody one worships mean a great deal.” When pressed by Lord Henry, who doubts if Hallward really means to say that he worships Dorian, Hallward responds, simply and plainly, “I do” (Lippincott’s 9). In the sanitized scene from the 1891 edition, what follows the first sentence and replaces this telling exchange is a far less convicting confession. “He is absolutely necessary to me,” (Dover 7) claims Hallward, a statement that can be easily dismissed as a need far more professional than prurient.

In the above examples, indicators of Hallward’s sexual preferences are open to debate, and a reader can easily second-guess the implications of Wilde’s alterations, surmising that what questionable content there is in the 1890 version could be considered far closer to covert than overt. However, the following excised section, where Basil Hallward details to Lord Henry the various poses and scenarios in which he has painted Dorian’s picture, would have effectively revealed Hallward’s Uranian sensibilities:

He has stood as Paris in dainty armor, and as Adonis with huntsman’s cloak and polished boarspear. Crowned with heavy lotus-blossoms, he has sat on the prow of Adrian’s barge, looking into the green, turbid Nile. He has leaned over the still pool of some Greek woodland, and seen in the water’s silent silver the wonder of his own beauty. But he is much more to me than that. (Lippincott’s 9)

It is through this list of hyper-masculine classical archetypes: Paris, Adonis, Antinöus (slave and lover of the Emperor Hadrian, here anglicized as “Adrian”), and Narcissus that Wilde reveals the most intimate desires and sexual fantasies of his doomed painter. Each of these mythical figures could be considered a poster boy for the ideals of Greek love so readily admired and espoused in Oxford’s neo-Hellenistic movement, but there is more at play here than mere hero-worship. This list recalls a nearly identical one presented (although Dorian Gray substitutes Paris for the handsome shepherd Endymion) in a sequence saturated with lustful pagan idolatry in Wilde’s short story “The Young King.” This recycling suggests that Wilde wishes to assign his own lusts and sensibilities to Basil Hallward, and perhaps if Lord Henry could be said to correspond to Wilde’s outward, witty, aphorism-spouting public image, then Hallward almost certainly represents Wilde’s private, sensual, and possibly even needy side.

“I give myself away” (Lippincott’s 10), confesses Basil Hallward in an intimation cut from the 1891 edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray. This line initially followed Hallward’s confession to Lord Henry that he finds “strange pleasure” (Dover 9) in revealing things to Dorian which he knows he will later regret. In a clear case of life imitating art, Wilde himself was exposed within the pages of Dorian Gray, and in spite of his attempts to obfuscate these revelations through careful editing, they served as damning evidence during Wilde’s trial, conviction, and subsequent imprisonment. Wilde, like the fictional Hallward, may very well have given himself away, but in doing so he gave to future generations an incredible literary gift: the two conflicting versions of what stands as the ultimate meditation on aestheticism, morality, and art, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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