"Enthralled by his own exquisite portrait, Dorian Gray exchanges his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Influenced by his friend Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life; indulging his desires in secret while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only his portrait bears the traces of his decadence."
Wilde is well-known, even by those who have never read a single one of his works, for his witty epigrams, his controversy, and his pretentious foppery, but the superficial knowledge of these things, as I have discovered, can never really tally with that of which Wilde is in fact capable.
To begin with, The Picture of Dorian Gray does not do much to convince readers (especially Wilde virgins) of the genius for which the author is so greatly reputed. While it is irreverent and witty, this is more of the Jane Austen style of witticism rather than being of the variety that will have you rolling in the aisles. The humour present in the work also matches well with that found in Restoration comedies and comedies of manners, but in conjunction with this, there is also the impression that Wilde is deliberately out to offend, which is a proposition that can leave a bit of a bad taste in your mouth.
Another Wildean weakness is his repeated attempt to philosophise. His lengthy expositions simply cannot match the ancient philosophers that he apparently tries to emulate and they thus fall flat. The highly metacritical purpose for which Wilde is aiming merely serves to appear pretentious and affected, although it does comply with his preface. The reader is therefore not seduced yet, and this continues: while there are occasional phrases of excellent poetic value, on the whole Wilde's dialogue wanders, the reader is easily distracted as a result, and Wilde's work consequently seems overrated. He is aphoristic and trying too hard, and yet at times strikes a strangely relevant chord: the notion that "[a]s long as a woman can look 10 years younger than her own daughter, she is satisfied" is oddly reminiscent of certain modern TV shows.
The Vane family is initially a million times more engaging than Dorian and his dandyish counterparts, and it appears that Wilde is better when being more down to earth, versus aiming at being a pompous philosopher. This is further consolidated by his mad and purposeless ramblings later on in the novel, which make it easier to see why abridged versions of the work exist. However, despite the author's unsettling anti-Semitism, and despite the manifold other possible criticisms, by this point we have forgiven Wilde completely. His Poe-like tale of conscience has an exact and penetrating ability to captivate the audience, with the story quickly gaining momentum. We are absorbed by Dorian's descent into madness and Wilde's foreshadowing; we gasp at the characters' fates and marvel at the role of the portrait, which is highly similar to Charlotte Gilman Perkins' yellow wallpaper. The single object in combination with the character of Dorian and his relationships with others is a potent mix, and it is this mix that woos the previously unaware reader over to Wilde. An explosive opus that makes us love Wilde despite his flaws.
Other works by Oscar Wilde
The Happy Prince and other stories (1888)
Lady Windermere's Fan (1892)
A Woman of No Importance (1893)
An Ideal Husband (1895)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
De Profundis (1897)
The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898)