Circularity in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Dubliner Oscar Wilde, born in 1854, studied classics at Trinity College and completed his studies at Magdalene College, Oxford (where he also attended some of Walter Pater’s lessons). Thanks to his approach to life and his works (these two elements are always woven in Oscar Wilde), he’s surely the most representative author of English Aestheticism.
This movement, born not in a programmatic way, but as a common feeling, spread around Europe in the late XIX century, had its motto set in the sentence ‘Art for Art’s sake’: art doesn’t have any moral or political aim, it’s a form of expression of the inner world of the artist. In other words, the artist should create art aiming at pleasure and perfect form/style, not being worried about how the public could react to the ideas she proposes. If this feeling leads ‘the creator of beautiful things’ (as Oscar Wilde defines the artist in the Preface to The picture of Dorian Gray), the artistic creation will reflect life in its essence and will satisfy the senses of the public who enjoy it. This theory has his roots in a Greek philosophical doctrine, Hedonism, which was recently brought to light by Walter Pater in his novel Marius the Epicurean, who certainly influenced Oscar Wilde’s novel.
One step beyond Pater, in the first half of the century, John Keats had been the forerunner of the ideological principles of Aestheticism: with his elegant and elevated lyrics he stated the connection between art ( the material) and beauty (the ideal) which lasts forever; moreover,he thought the poet’s main characteristic was the capability to live in uncertainty, mystery and doubt, so that he didn’t have to explain things in a moral or social way but to explore the mystery of life. These sources of inspiration, along with a cultural basis provided by the French Decadents, brought Oscar Wilde to create a new code of analysis of the reality in which art, life and beauty play the main roles.
The aim of this project is to demonstrate how the decadent lesson was assimilated and re-elaborated by a man whose elegance, witty language and ideals are reflected in The picture of Dorian Gray.
The concept ‘Art for Art’s sake’ was to Oscar Wilde a moral imperative, not merely an aesthetic one.The trinity art-life-beauty is well expressed in this motto. Formally, it is possible to notice the word ART being repeated. It is an evidence of the importance the author gave to this form of expression. The circular structure is reflected in The picture of Dorian Gray in the plot and the ideas exposed.
The Preface embodies Wilde’s view of the art and the artist. It starts with the sentence “The artist is the creator of beautiful things” and ends with the sentence “All art is quite useless”. Here, the circular structure is set as first page to the programmatic novel and, through the synthetic analysis of the figure of the artist and the role of art in modern society, Oscar Wilde sets a general rule for his poetic works.
Wilde perceived the artist as an alien in a materialistic world, he wrote only to please himself and was not concerned in communicating his theories (which he declares through his aphorisms).
In the same way, the plot starts with the image of Basil Hallward portraying the young and beautiful Dorian Gray: the first image Oscar Wilde shows is set on a hot summer afternoon, with its looming and oppressive atmosphere in the middle of which jumps out the elegant, perfect and beautiful portrait of Dorian Gray. The end of the novel is, once again, inside an apartment and the horrible image of the corpse of the awful, wrinkled, old, dead Dorian Gray is in contrast with the beautiful portrait which introduced the story.
The plot follows Dorian Gray’s life from his youth (when he gets to London he is 20) until his maturity (chapter XII is about the day before Dorian Gray’s 38th birthday) and there can be easily found the circular structure coming obsessively through Dorian’s life.
Dorian consecrates himself to a life full of sensual and overwhelming pleasures but the young boy falls in love just two times during his life. The first girl he’s in love with is Sibyl Vane: Dorian’s approach to this girl is innocent and pure; when Sibyl, who embodies Art, lets Dorian down because of a bad performance, he accuses the young girl of his suffering and repulsion towards the emotions he felt and pushes her to commit suicide. When, in the end of the novel, Dorian falls in love with a young girl met in the countryside, he’s starting a process of purification, not being able to hold the weight of his sins anymore. As a demonstration of love, he decides not to run away, saving her from the corruption he would surely have led the girl to. So the theme of love in the novel starts with a pure relationship and ends with the saving of this pureness, highlighting the noble and raising power of this feeling.
Dorian Gray is a modern Faust who sells his soul in order to gain endless youth and beauty. But The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe was written during the Renaissance and underlined the bad consequences of pushing too far away from the boundaries established by religion and tradition to satisfy one’s ambitions of supreme knowledge. Dorian Gray, and his literary brother, Dr. Jekyll, embodies the modern man dealing with the Devil. Moreover, while Dr. Jekyll needs a mirror to become aware of his double identity, Dorian Gray is conscious of that change by looking himself in the portrait. Once again, the circularity is vivid in Dorian Gray’s story: his changes, his sins, his passions were born in his soul and his figure (even if drawn upon a canvas)records them and shows him the corruption he leads his soul to.
As we all know, a circle needs a center and this center in the novel is ideologically and formally put in the middle of the book: chapter XI is purely descriptive but is the line which splits up the young Dorian and the mature one, the chapter in which all his passions are listed and analyzed in the way they influenced the boy. A book (probably identifiable with À rèboursby Joris Karl Huysmans, 1884) poisons the young Dorian Gray who never wants to free himself from it.
In these pages Oscar Wilde describes how curiosity and an endless desire of knowledge have an influence on Dorian Gray not only studying his psychology, but, according to the trinity art-life-beauty, analyzing the material impulse Dorian Gray lets himself to. Quoting Petronio and his Satyricon, the boy expresses the will of being the master of a new form of hedonism, theorized by Lord Henry Wotton but embodied by the objects and Dorian himself. Religion, perfumes, music, jewels, tapestries, portraits of his ancestors are tools Dorian uses to forget and escape his condition constantly recorded on his portrait and, at the same time, a way to make real what Lord Henry Wotton taught him.
This chapter is also interesting to understand the concept of ‘Art for Art’s sake’: Dorian uses art as a way to forget but his soulis corruptedand he cannot escape his tragic end; art, in fact, is enjoyable because of its beauty, it can give relief and save men from the fragility of human condition but art can’thave any effect on human intentions and neither reproduce them.
That is why Oscar Wilde decided to live his life as a work of art: both in his works and in his real life he wanted to enjoy beautiful experiences being always conscious life can’t last forever as art and beauty do.