Oscar Wilde and “The Picture of Dorian Gray”


When The Picture of Dorian Gray was serialized in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, it was decried as immoral. In revising the text the following year, Wilde (Photo to Left) included a preface, which serves as a useful explanation of this philosophy of art. The purpose of art is to have no purpose. In order to understand this claim fully, one needs to consider the moral climate of Wilde’s time and the Victorian sensibility regarding art and morality. The Victorians believed that art could be used as a tool for social education and moral enlightenment. The aestheticism movement, of which Wilde was a major proponent, sought to free art from this responsibility. The aestheticists were motivated as much by contempt for bourgeois morality and sensibility which is embodied in Dorian Gray by Lord Henry Wotton, whose every word seems designed to shock the ethical certainties of the middle class----------as they were by the belief that art need not possess any other purpose than being beautiful.

The first principle of aestheticism, the philosophy of art by which Oscar Wilde lived, is that art serves no other purpose than beauty. Throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray, beauty reigns. It is a means to revitalize the wearied senses, as indicated by the effect that Hallward’s painting has on the cynical Lord Henry. It is also a means of escaping the brutalities of the world: Dorian distances himself, not to mention his consciousness, from the horrors of the actions by devoting himself to the study of beautiful things (music, jewels, and rare tapestries). In a society that prizes beauty so highly, youth and physical attractiveness become great commodities. Lord Henry reminds Dorian of as much upon their first meeting, when he laments that the young man will soon enough lose his most precious attributes. For although beauty and youth remain of utmost importance at the end of the novel---------the portrait is, after all, returned to it’s original form---------the novel suggests that the price one must pay for them is exceedingly high. Dorian gives nothing less than his soul. Oscar Wilde, like his fictional creation, committed a similar mistake when he sacrificed his career, his reputation, and his livelihood for a beautiful, young boy who would later lead him to ruin.
I t is no surprise that a society that prizes beauty above all else is a society founded on a love of surfaces. What matters most to Dorian do Henry, and the polite company they keep is not whether a man is good at heart but rather whether he is handsome.

In the early chapters of The Picture of Dorian Gay, we are introduced to a young and naive character, Dorian gray Wilde’s descriptions of the young man create a picture of an innocent yet easily influenced Dorian, who is just beginning to learn what the adult world is all about. He is happy and handsome, yet when he is introduced to Lord Henry, he begins to experiment a little bit more on the side of sin. He becomes obsessed with youth and beauty, and he says that he “would give everything, even (his) very soul” to remain attractive and young. After this declaration, the reader is introduced to a changed Dorian Gray and his new philosophies about life, which begin to sound a lot like Lord Henry’s thoughts. Dorian “””falls in love””” and then he breaks a girl’s heart, causing her to end her life. His beautiful portrait begins to alter, and he locks the picture away. At this point in the novel, the reader is brought forward in time, and Dorian is now closer to middle age. Oscar Wilde uses very dark words to set a dreary mood and also a very different sort of image than from the beginning of him novel. Dorian’s life over the past years is described in detail, marking his drastic change and the hold the devil has over him. It appears that Dorian’s conscience and his very soul has left his body forever, leaving him a sinful and very conceited person. People despise him, and some even leave a room when he enters. It is very clear that Dorian Gray has morphed into someone who is his opposite from earlier in his life. Oscar Wilde makes the reader feel utter despair, because it seems that Dorian has changed far too much to be able to change for the better. Near the end, hope seems to surface, only to disappear into sadness when Wilde has Dorian stab the painting, therefore stabbing his very soul, and killing himself.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of moral corruption by the means of aestheticism. In the novel, the well meaning artist Basil Hallward presets young Dorian Gray with a portrait of himself. After conversing with cynical Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian makes a wish which affects his life forever. “ If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that I would give everything| Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that”. As it turns out, the devil that Dorian sells his soul to is Lord Henry Wotton, who exists not only as something external to Dorian, but also as a voice within him. Dorian continues to lead a life of sensuality which he learns about in a book given to him by Lord Henry. Dorian’s unethical devotion to pleasure becomes his way of life.

Each of the three primary characters is an aesthete and meets some form of terrible personal doom.

Basil Hallward’s aestheticism is manifested in his dedication to his artistic creations. He searches in the outside world for the perfect manifestation of his own soul, when he finds this object, he can create masterpieces by painting it.

Lord Henry believes that, “it is better to be beautiful than to be good”. Basil Hallward accuses him saying, “You never say a moral thing and you never do a wrong thing”. However, Lord Henry does take the immoral action of influencing Dorian. Because Lord Henry is responsible for influencing Dorian Gray, he is partly the cause of the death of Dorian.

Off all the protagonists, Dorian’s downfall is the most clearly recognized. A young man who was pure at the beginning of the novel becomes depraved by the influence of Lord Henry, including the murder of his dear friend Basil Hallward. However, there is still a spark of good left in Dorian. This trace of goodness is not enough to save Dorian, for he has crossed too far towards the perverted aide of aestheticism and cannot escape it.

Dorian becomes so disgusted with this portrait of his soul and his conscience, that he slashes the canvas, killing himself. For Dorian, this is the ultimate evil act, the desire to rid him of all moral sense. Having failed the attempts to escape through good actions, he decides to escape by committing the most terrible of crimes. Aestheticism has claimed its final victim.

“Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks of me: Dorian Gray what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps”. Because of the endings he creates for these characters, Oscar Wilde proves that he does not envision himself in the immoral characters, Oscar Wilde proves that he does not envision himself in the immoral characters of this story nor is he attempting to promote their lifestyles. Of all the characters whom he creates, he sees himself as Basil, the good artist who sacrifices himself to fight immorality.

“ It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had prayed for”. Contrary to Wilde’s claim in the preface that, “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book”, this novel has a deep and meaningful purpose. “The moral is that an absence of spirituality, of faith, of regard for human life, separates individuals like Wilde’s Dorian Gray from humanity and makes monsters of them.” With The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a novel including a moral dialogue between conscience and temptation that is powerfully conveyed. Though it is made to seem an advocate for aestheticism on the surface, the story ultimately undermines that entire philosophy. Wilde demonstrates that “art cannot be a substitute for life”. It is fantastic tale of hedonism with a moral to be learned and remembered.

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