Today avatars and simulated selves carry out complex lives online, and we commonly regard such activities as peculiar to the computer age. But are they? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writer after writer developed the theme of the Double Life or the Secret Self. Think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story “The Man With the Twisted Lip” (in which the upper-class Neville St. Clair regularly disguises himself as a crippled beggar to earn money to support his stylish wife and establishment). The famous Victorian sex diary “My Secret Life” and the Jack the Ripper murders testify, in their differing ways, to a similar division between public respectability and private obsession.
“He’s a regular Jekyll and Hyde” remains a description of anyone with two radically different sides to his personality. But Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” may be even more troubling than Stevenson’s masterpiece. Everyone knows its central premise: The beautiful Dorian Gray remains, as we now say, forever young, while his hidden portrait ages and grows increasingly horrifying, a vivid representation of the elegant sensualist’s every sin and evil act. In pages redolent of fin-de-siecle languor and sparkling with bons mots, Wilde’s only novel raises several seriously troubling questions: If one could live a life of absolute freedom, would the result be happiness or a nightmare? How much of our complex selves do we deny or sacrifice to conventional morality? What, most simply, is this book really about?
To Nicholas Frankel, editor of “The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition,” the novel is a lightly coded text about homoeroticism, what Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover, famously dubbed “the love that dare not speak its name.” The centrality of the sexual is, Frankel maintains, much clearer in the original typescript, which forms the basis for this edition. Scholars have long been aware that Wilde — responding to reviews that warned of the story’s “uncleanness” — toned down the sexual elements in the 1890 Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine version and added some new plot elements for the 1891 book publication, notably the sentimental chapter in which the actress Sybil Vane gushes to her mother about her handsome but unknown admirer and the scenes late in the novel set in the opium dens and murderous streets of London’s East End.
But, as Frankel emphasizes, the Lippincott editors had already slightly bowdlerized Wilde’s original story, deleting words such as “mistress” and excising whole sentences and paragraphs, making the book 500 words shorter and less overtly offensive to contemporary morality. This Harvard edition of the untouched typescript is thus a necessary acquisition for any serious student of Wilde’s work.
Yet the label “uncensored” is somewhat deceiving, leading a naive reader to think he or she is being given the whole and complete novel, rather than a preliminary (though perhaps artistically superior) version of it. Wilde simply added too much to the 1891 book edition for any other text to replace it as standard, even if some of the later material about crime and poverty seems out of place. Besides, one really does want as much of the witty, Mephistophelean Lord Henry Wotton as possible.
However, Frankel’s is also an “annotated” edition, which means that this slightly oversize volume proffers an abundance of explanatory material. There are pictures and title page illustrations, period references are identified, and nearly every page is provided with a mini-essay on some aspect of the book’s artistry. For instance, Frankel repeatedly points out verbal echoes and parallels from Wilde’s other works, in particular “The Importance of Being Earnest.” That play is also a study of double lives, of how the stern and upright country gentleman Uncle Jack takes on the identity of his wicked, bachelor brother Ernest whenever he goes up to London. Yet in that case, Wilde produced the airiest and most perennially delightful comedy in modern drama, while in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” he treats a very similar theme as gothic melodrama and mystery, and arguably as tragedy.
Frankel, who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, takes particular pains to identify books that influenced Wilde’s novel. These include, most prominently, Charles Maturin’s “Melmoth the Wanderer,” in which the protagonist sells his soul to the devil for an extended life; Balzac’s “The Wild Ass’s Skin,” wherein a man acquires a magical piece of leather that allows him to gratify every desire (while shrinking each time he is granted one of his wishes); Walter Pater’s “Studies in the History of the Renaissance” with its concluding call to pack one’s days with fresh sensations and to “burn always with this hard, gemlike flame”; and J.K. Huysmans’s “A Rebours” (“Against the Grain”), the supposed model for the curious yellow-backed book that inspires both Lord Henry and Dorian. “One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some medieval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner.” In the text here presented, Wilde actually gives that poisonous novel a title, “Le Secret de Raoule, par Catulle Sarrazin.” More wisely, he left it unnamed in the book version.
In the long ninth chapter, Dorian — very much like Des Esseintes in “A Rebours” — extols his morbid tastes in literature, painting and history, as well as his theories of psychology (prefiguring Freud). “To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion.” In particular, Dorian loves the worst excesses of the Italian Renaissance, especially tales of papal Ganymedes, Borgia incest and his own ancestor Elizabeth Devereux, of whom “strange stories . . . were told about the death of those to whom she granted her favours.”
As entertaining and informative as his marginalia can be, Frankel is unavoidably selective in his annotations. For instance, he duly identifies Vernon Lee (the pen name of Violet Paget) as the author of “Euphorion,” a source for several of the more scandalous Renaissance anecdotes. But I’ve long wondered if Wilde might also have been influenced by Lee’s “Amour Dure,” one of the most haunting Victorian tales of the uncanny. The story, which first appeared in Murray’s Magazine in 1887, describes a sexually irresistible beauty who corrupts and destroys every man who loves her and whose portrait exerts a mesmerizing power.
Of course, a great work of art inevitably raises as many questions as it answers. That’s why it remains a classic, a book that generation after generation returns to. If you’ve never read “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” I’d still suggest you start with the 1891 version, widely available. But after this enthralling novel has left you shaken and disturbed, look for deeper understanding in Nicholas Frankel’s superb annotated edition.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday. Visit his book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.