Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray stood out not for its philosophy of art, but its perceived immorality. Ultimately, it also proved to be Wilde’s downfall. The novel’s suggestion of homoerotic male relationships ties in naturally with its thematic admiration of youth and beauty.
Wilde’s work also exposes the superficial nature of society, pointing to the negative consequence of influence. By doing so, it emphasises the importance of individualism. So, here are twelve disturbing books like The Picture of Dorian Gray.
1. ‘Faust’ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
In Goethe’s novel, a scholar makes a deal with Mephistopheles, a demon often featured in German folklore. It seeks to bestow onto the scholar both knowledge and pleasure so forceful that the human will wish for it to last forever. Consequently, falling straight into the demon’s clutches. It’s a tragedy of pride, self-delusion, yearning, and infernal ruin. It conveys the same desire, both evident and implied, that we see woven into Wilde’s prose.
2. ‘Nausea’ by Jean-Paul Sartre
Categorized as existential fiction, Nausea features a protagonist troubled by his own existence. Antoine works through his feelings about the world and the people around him, but the sensations he experiences cumulate into nausea so visceral that it overwhelms him. The novel reflects the individual’s sense of confinement in a ruptured society, amplifying Dorian’s philosophical struggles with psychological ones.
3. ‘In a Shallow Grave’ by James Purdy
In Purdy’s novel, instead of internal decrepitude, the protagonist suffers from outward disfigurement. Worse still, Garnet’s appearance serves to distance him from the love he seeks so desperately. His body has been defiled by war, burned to a crisp by erupting shells.
A single look in his direction causes people to retch. And yet, he clings to a romantic connection that might spread roots beneath the surface. Like The Picture of Dorian Gray, it’s a tale of individuality and transformation, as well as an obsession with looks, which inevitably dictate one’s worth.
4. ‘Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall’ by Neil Bartlett
The novel presents the tensions that exist in the gay world, the moody backdrop of which is slashed by a literal, recurring knife. The weapon alludes to the unprovoked violence against gay men, who engage in the ritual worship of youth and beauty in The Bar.
The pairings within the story possess an eeriness that translates both into literal and figurative violence. What’s more, the passion that acts as the novel’s focal point is later influenced by the appearance of a pseudo-parental figure, whose claim to the protagonist is rather dubious.
5. ‘The Marbled Swarm’ by Dennis Cooper
Cooper’s novel navigates the veiled passageways and secret rooms that accommodate the disturbed mind of the narrator. The mystery is ever-evolving, and its cannibalistic theme is as transgressive today as The Picture of Dorian Gray must have seemed in the 19th century.
Similarly absorbed by appearances, the story embraces aesthetics with an ardor that eclipses Wilde’s subtle insinuations. We’re ambushed by art and high society, forced into a system of intimidation and surrender. And so, within the novel’s social context, its thoughts outpace those of Wilde.
6. ‘Like People in History’ by Felice Picano
One of the less obvious options on this list, Picano’s novel centers its narrative on the wealthy and beautiful character of a gay man named Alistair Dodge. He manages to get away with unspeakable betrayals, all seemingly thanks to his charisma, youth, and beauty. The blend of these attributes allows him to abandon his morals.
What’s more, Picano’s work doesn’t shy away from the terror caused by the AIDS epidemic, both in terms of the unsettling lack of action on the part of the society, and the graphic decomposition of the victims.
7. ‘The Monk’ by Matthew Gregory Lewis
Much like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lewis’s novel is a Gothic portrayal of a shocking subject. Ambrosio, the titular monk, suffers from the rift between the spiritual and corporal aspects of his existence. Repression leads to overindulgence, which seems appalling because of its culmination in murder, rape, and obsession. Its heavy reliance on scandal and titillation forces the novel to operate as a form of social commentary, not unlike Wilde’s work.
8. ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Often thought of as a mere thriller, Shelley’s novel actually functions as a transgressive reflection on society’s shallowness. Frankenstein criticises our presumption that, as humans, we have authority over life. In the same way that Lord Henry desires to mold Dorian into the realisation of a type, Frankenstein finds himself trying to quell the unruly nature of the Creature. In this respect, both novels dissect the theme of art and its imitation of life.
9. ‘The Demon’ by Hubert Selby Jr.
Harry White falls victim to an obsession, which feeds his violent need for fulfilment and retribution. The novel presents the slow unfurling of his psyche, illuminating the mechanisms that drive people to extremes. It’s a gritty story about madness, delusions, and the tangles of torment that seduce us. In short, The Demon captures The Picture of Dorian Gray’s anxiety and debauchery and spins it into a shocking tale of horror and woe.
10. ‘Hunger’ by Knut Hamsun
Published the same year as The Picture of Dorian Gray, Hamsun’s autobiographical novel shocks with its focus on the poverty and despair experienced by a writer searching for the ultimate form of individualism. Namely, his artistic self-expression. The novel serves as a psychoanalytic study of obsession, alienation, and masochism. Like Wilde’s work, it leads us to the edge of propriety, and deposits us in the crannies of the human soul.
11. ‘Dancer from the Dance’ by Andrew Holleran
Holleran’s novel takes a look at a particular aspect of the gay community, which is the worship of beauty and youth. The hedonism that trudges through the pages of the book is always weighed down by the men’s need to conform to the surface-level desires that dictate their happiness. These, by nature, are never fulfilling, and leave the men harrowed by the passing of time. As a result, the men’s source of torment aligns with Dorian’s.
12. ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Telling the story of Jay Gatsby and his obsessive pursuit of the American dream, Fitzgerald’s work manages to capture a time of general hedonism in America. Gatsby’s fixation on gaining wealth and fame is interwoven with his yearning for Daisy, and so the fundamental obsession within the story blurs the lines between desire and self-realisation. In turn, this link reminds us of the complicated face of longing found in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
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