Essay about Oscar Wilde's Hedonism

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Literature is an art that allows an author to exhibit the undesired primal aspects of humanity. The Picture of Dorian Gray written by Oscar Wilde is a prime example of this. Published in London in 1890, the gothic literature carries heavy themes of aestheticism, the superficiality of beauty, homosexual undertones, and hedonism which directly attacked Victorian society’s repressive nature for gross indecency causing multiple controversies surrounding the novel’s release and its author. The novel follows the moral downfall of Dorian Gary after accidentally selling his soul to the devil for physical immortality with a painting portrait of himself taking the burden of his sins. Dorian is influenced by the hedonistic philosophies of Lord Henry leading him to damage his friendship with Basil to the point of murder and to be the contributing factor to Sibyl Vane’s suicide while still maintaining his youthful looks and status in society as a seemingly respectful young man. Showcasing the duality in humanity’s morality. The novel accurately exposes the internal battle within individuals aspiring to fit into their role in society by conforming to the norms of consummation, virtuousness, and honesty versus falling into our temptations and primal sexual desires. This is displayed through the characterization and relationships of the three main characters, Dorian, Basil, and Henry along with allusions.

Wilde explores the ideals of honesty and modesty within the Victorian era through the character, Basil Hallward. Basil is an artist infatuated by the beauty of Dorian Gray and holds allusions to the music composer, Schumann, who fell head over heels for his art ending in his insanity foreshadowing how Basil’s love for Dorian will lead to his downfall. Early on in the novel, Basil deals with Henry’s astonishment at his declination to send his portrait of Dorian Gray despite Basil's dream of further building his reputation as a talented artist and clearly having the skills to “make the old men jealous,” stated by Henry. (pg6) Although embarrassed with his reason, Basil declares to Henry that he has put too much of himself into the painting. Through their discussion, we learn that Basil seeks recognition for his talent however controls himself on what he deems acceptable to put out to the world. He places high standards on himself and follows Wilde’s ideals of aestheticism. Disliking the fact that his painting is more than a stunning artwork but instead hides his idolization of Dorian. Even after his discovery of the painting's monstrous state later on, he begs Dorian, “It is never too late, Dorian. Let us kneel down and try if we cannot remember a prayer.” (pg 151) Even in his incredulity, Basil retains the ability to hope and believe in the redemption of others. Basil symbolizes the ascetic lifestyle and self-discipline from temptations. He represents the good in humanity through the use of characterization and allusions.

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The novel further explores humanity's greed and temptation through the character, Henry Wotton. Henry is a composed witty talker that carries a philosophy of misogyny and hedonism despite not taking part in the actions he speaks of. His words poison Dorian’s beliefs and are the driving force that is vital to Dorian’s demise. As described by Basil, “You are an extraordinary fellow, you never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong time. Your cynicism is simply a pose.” (pg 8) However despite his wisdom, “Crime belongs exclusively to the lower order” (pg 203) showcases the limitation of his understanding of the human nature. Residing in the upper class of society as seen as his him referred to as lord and his use of formal diction, Henry retains his ignorance and is blinded to his influence upon Dorian. Henry represents the upper class of society. He looks down on those less fortunate than him and is carelessly influential to the lower class corrupting naive souls such as Dorian however Henry himself remains in moral life.

Through the two-faced depiction of Dorian Gray, Wilde challenges the preconceived notion of Victorian-era literature and humanity of that time. At the beginning of the novel, Dorian Gray is characterized as “some brainless, beautiful creature” (pg7) by Henry, heavily reflecting Wilde’s ideals of aestheticism. Valued by Basil despite as alluring however meaningless. It is only after his encounter with Henry that Dorian’s morals deteriorate and the depth of humanity’s inclination toward temptation and sin is explored. A method Wilde portrays his transformation into hedonism is with Sibyl Vane. A lower-class woman whose only worth to Dorian is her beauty and potential in lustful activities. After her newfound emotions towards Dorian, her performance has added meaning to it. To impress Dorian which conflicts with the principles of aestheticism. She frets and thus performs terribly. Losing value to Dorian. This causes her to be easily swayed and cast aside by Dorian once she served her purpose. No longer being beautiful proves the novel’s theme of beauty superficiality and misogyny. This superficiality of beauty is followed by Dorian's wish to protect his fleeting beauty. “If it were I who was to be always young and the picture that was to grow old! For that- 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.” (pg28) The physical appeal of a person holds the utmost importance while a person’s personality or actions are inconsequential. Even throughout the novel, Dorian is never ostracised or held accountable for his actions. Midway into the narrative, after mistreating Sibyl Vane, Dorian feels guilt for his actions and promises to rewrite his wrongs to her and marry her in a letter where “when Dorian had finished the letter, he felt that he had been forgiven.” (pg94) This letter unfortunately never reaches Sibyl as she is found deceased. Learning this, Dorian reverts back to his old self and even claims to Henry, “I thought it was my duty. It is not my fault that this terrible tragedy has prevented my doing what was right.” (pg97) Similar to an addict straying away from a drug, once his motivation is broken, Dorian falls back into a life of sin while he becomes closer with Henry showcasing his interest in participation in upper-class corruption. Dorian shares allusion with the character Faust from classic german legends of a man dissatisfied with life leading with a pact to the Devil, gaining unlimited knowledge and pleasures in exchange for his soul. Dorian symbolizes humanity. Pure at birth and seeks acceptance to fit into society by retaining his beauty. A shallow aspect valued heavily by society even to this day however even with the slightest push, he can easily fall back into the pits of hedonism and temptation.

The Picture of Dorian Gray illustrates humanity constantly dueling between their inclinations of cynic behaviors and their endeavor for high morals portrayed by Henry's and Basil's influence on Dorian similar to the angel and devil of the shoulder trope. This is showcased through Basil’s characterization of the virtuous side of humanity that can place trust in one another while Henry’s philosophy exposes humanity’s oppressed temptations of sin. Dorian sits in the middle of the two symbolizing humanity as a whole. Chaste at birth but exposed to the wrong crowds, the mind is easily corrupted and poisoned. The Picture of Dorian Gray brilliantly enlightens readers by providing an optimistic yet double-sided perspective of humanity as beings not entirely good or bad but creatures with the ability to control their temptations and desires.

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