The Picture of Dorian Gray, a Gothic novel by Oscar Wilde, was first published in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine during a period characterized by an emphasis on high moral sensibility and religious and scientific values. Upon being met by poor critical reception, the story engendered extreme controversy for including homoeroticism; offended book reviewers condemned its immorality, and some even believed that the author merited prosecution for violation of the laws regarding public morality. However, some of the criticism was personal with many reviews attacking Wilde for his hedonistic lifestyle and own moral beliefs. In the revised version, Wilde included a preface addressing the criticisms and explicating the role of an artist, the purpose of art, and the value of beauty: art may include vices and virtues but is not meant to instruct the audience on right or wrong. The preface establishes a foundation for how the book will take its course, the concept of aestheticism with no moral purpose mirroring how the titular character mindlessly pursues beauty above all else—a decision that instigates his soul’s perversion.
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray adopts the “cult of beauty and pleasure” (Lusme), becoming a representation of the Aestheticism movement. Characterized by a hedonistic attitude, the movement encouraged the pursuit of pleasures and indulgences and emphasized beauty for beauty’s sake. Rejecting the traditional intellectual obligations of art, it exalted self-expression and the pursuit of aestheticism instead of the need for a deeper academic meaning (Lusme). Wilde’s aestheticism was the “deepest and most lasting of his passions” (Ross). Similarly, the character Lord Henry exemplifies the standard features of the movement; he lacks want of intellectual pursuits and claims that “pleasure is the only thing worth having a theory about” (Wilde). Attracted to the beauty of Dorian Gray, both he and Basil demonstrate an appreciation for the aesthetic that fueled the movement. However, Basil possesses a more innocent admiration for Dorian whereas Lord Henry’s is tinged with greater sinister implications. Notwithstanding, the more moral artist demonstrates the ideals of the movement of which Lord Henry is the paragon figure: he “puts too much of [himself]” (Wilde) in the portrait of Dorian, his form of self-expression revealing his obsession with the man. Basil intended to exalt the man’s beauty rather than an intellectual ideal. It is this superficiality that makes Dorian Gray especially vulnerable to corruption.
A self-centered and hedonistic aristocrat, Lord Henry “propels Dorian towards a life of self-absorption” (Alexandra), his influence engendering the character’s continued corruption and his ultimate demise. Through the leading character’s degrading soul and egotistical decisions, Wilde explores the pleasures and dangers of a lifestyle based on Aestheticism. Acting as a cautionary tale, Dorian indulges in decadence and explores a life free of visible consequences: no matter how cruel his actions are, he remains youthful and attractive (Alexandra). However, as much as Lord Henry advocates for losing oneself in idle pleasures, the aristocrat lacks the heart to wholly commit to what he preaches. Lamentably, this makes him naive to the depth of his influence on Dorian Gray whose increasing carelessness for morality eventually results in his karmic downfall. While the man abandons himself to hedonism, society fails to believe the terrible crimes he’s committed because of his innocent appearance; however, his increasingly appalling portrait exposes his true nature. This echoes the focus “on the individual will, imagination, and desire for self-realization” (Howes). Additionally, the theme of art as self-expression demonstrates its connection to reality—art reveals the truth about human nature. While the implications of his ways are superficially disguised by his striking appearance, Dorian’s hidden portrait depicts the truth. The despairing hedonist cannot undo its honesty, which represents the remainder of his moral conscience. Its grotesque appearance only probs at his mind and Dorian, a man who has sought beauty and pleasure, is exposed to the truth of his ways. When he can no longer bear its veracity, he annihilates the portrait to “kill the past” (Wilde), transferring to his physical body the eighteen years of horror it had hitherto avoided. The painting connects the soul and the body (Ozmen), which highlights the inevitability of the repercussions of a person’s actions.
Moreover, his behavior engenders appalling results for others. Almost immediately, Dorian falls in love with the actress Sibyl Vane. Gorgeous, talented, innocent—she’s won over the hearts of her audience and ultimately the infatuated Dorian. Her demeanor echoes his: naive and unaware of her attractiveness. His search for pleasure leads to a short love affair, however, his fascination for her is due to her beauty. In a way, he perceives her as a reflection of himself—a walking work of art. The man desires to position her on a “pedestal of gold” and have the world “worship the woman who is [his]” (Wilde). Overall, his affection is not fueled by genuine care for the actress but by arrogance. Thrilled about having such a creature idolize him, he desires to possess a woman with glorious talent, her attraction inflating his ego. Furthermore, Sibyl’s guileless nature allows her to fall head over heels for Dorian, and her acting performance sustains severe damage. Now that she has felt love so intensely, she cannot pour her whole being into cultivating a pretense. This again reflects the theme of art for only beauty and self-expression; an artist’s work suffers if she cannot convey herself with it. Nevertheless, Dorian rejects her under Lord Henry’s influence now that her beauty has been lost to him and this engenders her death. On his painted counterpart is a dark sneer; the portrait reflects his cruelty. From then on, his behavior only worsens, advancing from “merely appreciating Lord Henry’s wit and oddities to employing his own adages” (Pierlot). In being led to pursue pulchritude at the cost of other qualities, he initiates a path of self-destruction, becoming less and less capable of regaining his morality.
His untainted youthfulness only encourages further separation from his soul, the art liberating him (Jawich). His attractive appearance liberates him from moral bounds. Adhering to the philosophy that enjoyment must be sought after, the titular character continues to immerse himself in sensual and pleasurable activities (Alexandra). Driven to sin by an infatuation with beauty, the aristocrat is so obsessed with hedonism now that he lacks the emotional capability of a normal human being. Concerned for the young man he’d put on a pedestal, Basil confronts him and condemns Dorian’s increasingly reprehensible behavior—a choice that results in him being stabbed to death. The narrative articulates a “doctrine of pleasure that absolves individuals from the ordinary responsibilities for their actions” (Gillespie). Suffering from a troubled conscience, Dorian attempts to escape it from more sybaritic behavior: going to an opium den. With a soul so corrupted now, he cannot healthily cope with his emotions and instead turns to drugs to numb his feelings. Having spent so long searching for immediate gratification, he cannot properly handle such situations. Dorian’s continuing habits engender a perpetual cycle. The hedonistic lifestyle mirrors the effect of a drug: the high is fleeting and he must further immerse in ignoble actions to regain it.
Ultimately, Dorian confronts the loss of his soul but is incapable of seeking redemption due to his selfish and unempathetic nature. More specifically, his desire to reform hails provenance from his hatred of the unsightly portrait. His morality is so distorted now, Dorian believes that abstaining from breaking his latest lover’s heart–a small act of basic human decency–will reverse all the damage suffered by the painting. He has not profoundly amended his ways and instead continues to seek immediate gratification. Moreover, Lord Henry asks about the portrait during a conversation, to which Dorian confirms it has been lost. This marks his admittance of his soul’s absence, which the portrait has served as a manifestation of. Now the character has evolved from “his hesitant and instantly regretted exploration of sin to his eventual identification with sin itself” (Pierlot). So poisoned by his hedonistic lifestyle, the character has reached a point where he cannot bring himself to truly repent. Having never “done anything” (Wilde) throughout his life, Dorian seeks shortcuts–even in redemption–from indulging in opium to repress guilt to ending his affair with Hetty Merton. None of the actions the aristocrat takes require significant effort; he does not genuinely work to improve his character. Overall, this is why his attempts do not work for Dorian cannot fake morality. With a propensity to evade consequences, he instead dismisses the deaths he’s caused and fails to accept responsibility. Dorian Gray’s hedonistic ways and pursuit of empty pleasure and beauty have engendered his moral decay, leaving him a shell of the youth he once was. In the end, the only way he achieves redemption is through destroying the portrait and therefore accepting its grotesqueness onto himself. As illustrated by the character’s failure to “achieve this blessed state” (Parini), perfection is impossible to those who sin and the soul is forever stained.
A subject of dissension, A Picture of Dorian Gray was the product of Aestheticism concepts, serving as a novel of expansive ideas and eloquent language. The titular character Dorian Gray is a paradigm of the movement’s fixation on beauty and lack of moral or intellectual purpose. Mired in an obsession with superficiality, the character’s propensity to seek immediate gratification induces further corruption. The book, frowned upon by Victorian society for its depiction of hedonism, received significant backlash from reputable reviewers. While meant as a work of art with no intent of a moral purpose, Dorian Gray maintains a warning against corruption through an infatuation with beauty.
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