The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde 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 dreadfully 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” (Wilde 109). 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 (Bloom 107). 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. The novel underscores its disapproval of aestheticism which negatively impacts the main characters. 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 (Bloom 109). He refuses to display the portrait of Dorian Gray with the explanation that, “I have put too much of myself into it” (Wilde 106). He further demonstrates the extent to which he holds this philosophy by later stating that, “only the artist is truly reveled” (109). Lord Henry Wotton criticizes Basil Hallward that, “An artist should create beautiful things but should put nothing of his own life into them” (Wilde 25).
Ironically, the purpose of Basil Hallward’s existence is that he is an aesthete striving to become one with his art (Eriksen 105). It is this very work of art which Basil refuses to display that provides Dorian Gray with the idea that there are no consequences to his actions. Dorian has this belief in mind when he murders Basil. Here we see that the artist is killed for his excessive love of physical beauty; the same art that he wished to merge with is the cause of his mortal downfall (Juan 64). Lord Henry Wotton, the most influential man in Dorian’s life, is an aesthete of the mind.
Basil is an artist who uses a brush while Wotton is an artist who uses words: There is no good, no evil, no morality and immorality; there are modes of being. To live is to experiment aesthetically in living to experiment all sensations, to know all emotions, and to think all thoughts, in order that the self’s every capacity may be imaginatively realized (West 5811). Lord Henry believes that, “it is better to be beautiful than to be good” (Wilde 215). Although he attests that aestheticism is a mode of thought, he does not act on his beliefs. Basil Hallward accuses him saying, “You never say a moral thing and you never do a wrong thing” (5). However, Lord Henry does take the immoral action of influencing Dorian. Although Lord Henry states that, “all influence is immoral” (Wilde 18), he nonetheless drastically changes Dorian Gray. As Dorian acts on the beliefs of Lord Henry, the portrait’s beauty becomes corrupted. “Lord Henry presents Dorian with the tenants of his New Hedonism, whose basis is self-development leading to the perfect realization of one’s nature” (Eriksen 97). If Lord Henry’s aesthetic ideas have validity, Dorian Gray’s portrait should not become ugly, but rather more beautiful. Since the picture becomes loathsome, it is evident that Lord Henry’s beliefs are untrue (West 5811). Dorian becomes so disgusted with the horrible portrait that he slashes the canvas, and the knife pierces his own heart. Because Lord Henry is responsible for influencing Dorian Gray, he is partly the cause of the death of Dorian (5810). While Lord Henry is indirectly the cause of Dorian’s death, he too causes his own downfall. Lord Henry changes Dorian with the belief that morals have no legitimate place in life. He gives Dorian a book about a man who seeks beauty in evil sensations. Both Lord Henry’s actions and thoughts prove ruinous, as his wife leaves him and the remaining focus of his life, youthful Dorian Gray, kills himself in an attempt to further the lifestyle suggested to him by Lord Henry. Eventually, he is left destitute, without Dorian, the art he so cherishes, because he tried to mold it, as dictated by aestheticism. Of 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. “He grew more and more enamored of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul” (Bloom 121). He begins to lead a life of immorality, including the murder of his dear friend Basil Hallward. “There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of beautiful” (Wilde 196). However, there is still a spark of good left in Dorian. He lashes out at his twisted mentor, Lord Henry, declaring, “I can’t bear this Henry! You mock at everything, and then suggest the most serious tragedies” (173). This trace of goodness is not enough to save Dorian, for he has crossed too far towards the perverted side of aestheticism and cannot escape it. “Dorian experiments with himself and with men and women, and watches the experiment recorded year by year in the fouling and aging corruption of his portrait’s beauty” (West 5811).
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 attempt 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” (Hart-Davis 352). Because of the endings he creates for these 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” (Wilde 242). Contrary to Wilde’s claim in the preface that, “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book” (vii), 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” (West 5831).
W.H. Auden feels that the story is specifically structured to provide a moral. He compares the story to that of a fairy tale, complete with a princess, a wicked witch, and a fairy godmother. This leaves “room for a moral with which good every fairy tale ends.” Not only is the novel seen as existing on the pure level of fairy tales, but it is claimed to contain “ethical beauty” (Auden 146). 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 brings the question of “to what extent are we shaped by our actions” (26). He also demonstrates that “art cannot be a substitute for life” (Eriksen 104). It is a fantastic tale of hedonism with a moral to be learned and remembered.
- Auden, W.H. “In Defense of the Tall Story.” The New Yorker. 29 November 1969. pp.205-206, 208-210.
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