The cult of beauty in Oscar Wilde
An important personality of Aesthetic Movement is Oscar Wilde, who believes that beauty and aesthetic values are superior to moral or social issues.
He is convinced that an artist must constantly search after sensation. His work “The picture of Dorian Gray” marks his view of art and the artist. When it is first published in 1890, it is attacked by critics who judges it immoral.
To reply to these accusations the next year Wilde publishes another edition, with the addition of six chapters and its famous “Preface” which becomes the Manifesto of the Aestheticism.
The novel set in London at the end of the Dorian Gray is a beautiful youth that has his portrait painted by Basil Hallward, in whose studio he meets the cynical Lord Henry Wotton and becomes his close friend. Under his influence, Dorian follows pleasure and sensation. For a while he falls in love with Shakespearean actress, Sybil Vane, but he then cruelly accuses her of being no actress, and she commits suicide.
Meanwhile the portrait that is endowed with supernatural qualities, becomes the mirror of Dorian’s inner life, so whatever he does is reflected in the portrait, while he retains his beauty.
The portrait becomes more and more hideous, so he decides to lock it away in a room for which he only has the key. Dorian’s life becomes dissolute.
On the eve of his thirty-eighth birthday he receives a visit from Basil, who tries to convince him to change his lifestyle. Dorian shows him his disgusting portrait but, realizing he has revealed his inner self, he stabs him with a knife.
The portrait becomes revolting so Dorian decides to slash it with the knife. Inhabitants of the house hear a terrible cry and when they enter the room they find Dorian lying on the floor but they can identify him only by his rings: he has become a ghastly man, with all his sins on his face, while the portrait shows the youthful and beautiful Dorian.
At the end of the novel every excess is punished. When Dorian destroys the picture, he cannot avoid the punishment for all his sins, that is, death.
The horrible, corrupting picture could be seen as a symbol of the immorality and bad conscience of Victorian middle class, while Dorian and his pure, innocent appearance are symbols of bourgeois hypocrisy. Finally the picture illustrates Wilde’s theories of art: “Art survives people, art is eternal”
Two novels are associated with: The picture of Dorian Gray: “ A Rebours” by J.K. Huysmans, and “Il piacere” by Gabriele D’Annunzio.
Both of them, like Oscar Wilde, consider beauty as most important ideal and ultimate aim of life.
The hero of “A Rebours”, Des Esseintes, comes from rich noble family. He is disgusted by the society of his time and chooses to live alone in a isolated house and surrounds himself with objects of art.
In the end, however, the life he has choosed leads him to neurosis, and the only solution for him is to return to the society that he had rejected.
“Il piacere” also presents a young aristocrat, Andrea Sperelli, who basis his life on his aesthetic creed and his hedonism leads him to physical and moral corruption.
A Faustian pact
The picture of Dorian Gray is considered a work of classic Gothic fiction with a strong Faustian theme: Faust or Faustus is the protagonist of a classic German legend.
Though a highly successful scholar, he is dissatisfied and makes a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge.
The name has been reinterpreted through the ages.
Faust and the adjective Faustian are used to mark an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to obtain power and success.
In Wilde’s work, Wanton’s arguments sound like the voice of temptation, with his suavity, persuasiveness, traditionally associated with the devil of the Faust myth, where Wotton plays the part of the devil or devil’s servant Mephistopheles, and Dorian plays the part of Faust.