The gay strain in Wilde’s work is part of a larger war on convention. In the 1889 story “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” a pseudo-scholarly, metafictional investigation of Shakespeare’s sonnets to a boy, Wilde slyly suggests that the pillar of British literature was something other than an ordinary family man. In the 1891 play “Salomé,” Wilde expands a Biblical anecdote into a sumptuous panorama of decadence. Anarchists of the fin de siècle, especially in Germany, considered Wilde one of their own: Gustav Landauer hailed Wilde as the English Nietzsche. Thomas Mann expanded on the analogy, observing that various lines of Wilde might have come from Nietzsche (“There is no reality in things apart from their experiences”) and that various lines of Nietzsche might have come from Wilde (“We are basically inclined to maintain that the falsest judgments are the most indispensable to us”). Nietzsche and Wilde were, in Mann’s view, “rebels in the name of beauty.”
The story revolves around a portrait of Dorian Gray painted by Basil Hallward, a friend of Dorian’s and an artist infatuated with Dorian’s beauty. Through Basil, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton and is soon enthralled by the aristocrat’s hedonistic worldview: that beauty and sensual fulfillment are the only things worth pursuing in life. Newly understanding that his beauty will fade, Dorian expresses the desire to sell his soul, to ensure that the picture, rather than he, will age and fade. The wish is granted, and Dorian pursues a libertine life of varied amoral experiences while staying young and beautiful; all the while, his portrait ages and visually records every one of Dorian’s sins.
Wilde’s only novel, it was subject to much controversy and criticism in its time but has come to be recognized as a classic of gothic literature.