Is The Picture of Dorian Gray Horror?

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The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is universally considered a literary masterpiece, although at the time of its publication it received mixed reviews--editor John Drew notes that "its reception by critics anticipated the exaggerated hostility with which Dorian Gray would later be greeted" (Drew viii).  Today, many readers still debate the true meaning of the book, and question whether it should be included in the horror genre.  Indeed, the book's literary success may contribute to these questions of genre, fueling the debate concerning popular versus literary fiction.  Do an online search for Dorian Gray's genre and you will find it described as Gothic, philosophical, romantic, comedic, and even a treatise about aestheticism.  In terms of themes and tone, though, the novel definitely falls into the category of horror.


On its website, the Horror Writers Association states that "horror fiction has a rightful place in our educational system...classics like The Picture of Dorian Gray...can be labeled as horror" ("What is Horror Fiction?" par 9).  Of course, this claim does not prove that the book is horror, and even states that it "can be" labeled as horror--not that it "must be."


So perhaps the first question that should really be answered is: what is horror fiction?  The dictionary definition of horror is "inspiring or creating horror" or "an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear."  At the time of its publication, Dorian Gray was definitely shocking, and possibly revolting to the Victorian morals of the time.  The underlying homoeroticism and blatant hedonism was an affront on the values of society.  However, even today we can see that the tone of the novel is to shock its reader.  Indeed, while there is humor in the book, the underlying tone is one of menace, terror, and despair.


For example, in the story of Dorian's parentage we have "a beautiful woman risking everything for a mad passion...a child born in pain...the mother snatched away by death" (Wilde 38).  The fear of death and aging, a recurring theme in the book, is one of humanity's most universal fears.  Wilde often uses the language of horror throughout the book.  Upon seeing the effects his cruelty to Sybil have had on the painting, Dorian "drew a large screen right in front of the portrait, shuddering as he glanced at it.  'How horrible!'" (Wilde 81).  At the end of the book, when Dorian stabs the painting, the servants hear a "cry so horrible in its agony" that they are afraid to leave their rooms (Wilde 188).


Besides the language and emotion of horror, Dorian Gray also tackles themes common in horror fiction.  Noel Carroll asserts that "most suspense in horror fiction...has two logically opposed outcomes such is morally correct but unlikely and the other is evil and likely" (138).  Gina Wisker discusses what she calls object horror, which "deeply destabilises (sic) our sense of security in terms of what is real, what matters, and what we can trust about ourselves and others" (186).  Dorian Gray deals with what is real versus what is unreal--is Dorian really immune to aging, with the portrait bearing the scars that should be marking his face and soul?  Is the damage physical, metaphysical, or both?  Dorian himself struggles with reality, falling in love with Sybil only to realize he was in love with the characters she portrayed on stage, not with her as a person.  The morally correct thing for Dorian to do is destroy the painting, but even at the end that outcome seems unlikely--Dorian's motivation is not to absolve himself of sin, but rather to "kill the past...kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings he would be at peace" (Wilde 188).


In its language and themes, Dorian Gray presents the best of what horror fiction can achieve--a work of art that still generates comment and debate today, more than a hundred years after its publication.


Works Cited


Carroll, Noel.  The Philosophies of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart.  New York: Routledge, 1990.

Drew, John M. L. (editor).  The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.  Wordsworth Classics Edition.  Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1997.

"What is Horror Fiction?." Horror Writers Association. N. D.. Horror Writers Association. 24 Aug 2009

Wilde, Oscar.  The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Lisa M. Miller and Joan Langham, editors.  Clayton, DE: Prestwick House Literary Touchstone Press, 2005.

Wisker, Gina.  Horror Fiction: An Introduction.  New York: Continuum, 2005.



Mike Arnzen said:

I agree! Wholeheartedly! I like how you use the conventional themes of the genre to explain your reasoning (and it was a pleasure to read Wisker and Carroll cited here). One of the things I wonder about is whether or not the emotional distance that the book seems to have from its material saps its power to horrify. This emphasis on thought over emotion is what often causes people to read it as 'liteary' as opposed to 'horror' -- when, really, who says horror can't be literary (and vice versa)? Not all horror is felt in the gut, is it? Questions to ponder, when you're not otherwise painting....

Marcus Christian said:

This is a well thought out response. I agree, even though there aren't blood and guts or ghosts and ghouls throughout the text, its themes really do answer the question. Yes, this is a horror text.

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