The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is the story ofmoral corruption by the means of aestheticism.
In the novel,the well meaning artist Basil Hallward presets young DorianGray with a portrait of himself. After conversing with cynicalLord Henry Wotton, Dorian makes a wish which dreadfullyaffects his life forever. “If it were I who was to be alwaysyoung, and the picture that was to grow old! For that Iwould give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the wholeworld I would not give! I would give my soul for that”(Wilde 109). As it turns out, the devil that Dorian sells hissoul to is Lord Henry Wotton, who exists not only assomething external to Dorian, but also as a voice within him(Bloom 107). Dorian continues to lead a life of sensualitywhich he learns about in a book given to him by LordHenry. Dorian’s unethical devotion to pleasure becomes hisway of life. The novel underscores its disapproval ofaestheticism which negatively impacts the main characters.
Each of the three primary characters is an aesthete andmeets some form of terrible personal doom. Basil Hallward’saestheticism is manifested in his dedication to his artisticcreations. He searches in the outside world for the perfectmanifestation of his own soul, when he finds this object, hecan create masterpieces by painting it (Bloom 109). Herefuses to display the portrait of Dorian Gray with theexplanation that, “I have put too much of myself into it”(Wilde 106). He further demonstrates the extent to which heholds this philosophy by later stating that, “only the artist istruly reveled” (109). Lord Henry Wotton criticizes BasilHallward that, “An artist should create beautiful things butshould put nothing of his own life into them” (Wilde 25).Ironically, the purpose of Basil Hallward’s existence is thathe is an aesthete striving to become one with his art (Eriksen105).
It is this very work of art which Basil refuses todisplay that provides Dorian Gray with the idea that thereare no consequences to his actions. Dorian has this belief inmind when he murders Basil. Here we see that the artist iskilled for his excessive love of physical beauty; the same artthat he wished to merge with is the cause of his mortaldownfall (Juan 64). Lord Henry Wotton, the most influentialman in Dorian’s life, is an aesthete of the mind. Basil is anartist who uses a brush while Wotton is an artist who useswords: There is no good, no evil, no morality andimmorality;there are modes of being. To live is to experimentaesthetically in living to experiment all sensations, to know allemotions, and to think all thoughts, in order that the self’severy capacity may be imaginatively realized (West 5811).
Lord Henry believes that, “it is better to be beautiful than tobe good” (Wilde 215). Although he attests that aestheticismis a mode of thought, he does not act on his beliefs. BasilHallward accuses him saying, “You never say a moral thingand you never do a wrong thing” (5). However, Lord Henrydoes take the immoral action of influencing Dorian. AlthoughLord Henry states that, “all influence is immoral” (Wilde 18),he nonetheless drastically changes Dorian Gray. As Dorianacts on the beliefs of Lord Henry, the portrait’s beautybecomes corrupted. “Lord Henry presents Dorian with thetenants of his New Hedonism, whose basis isself-development leading to the perfect realization of one’snature” (Eriksen 97). If Lord Henry’s aesthetic ideas havevalidity ,Dorian Gray’s portrait should not become ugly, butrather more beautiful.
Since the picture becomes loathsome,it is evident that Lord Henry’s beliefs are untrue (West5811). Dorian becomes so disgusted with the horribleportrait that he slashes the canvas, and the knife pierces hisown heart. Because Lord Henry is responsible forinfluencing Dorian Gray, he is partly the cause of the deathof Dorian (5810). While Lord Henry is indirectly the causeof Dorian’s death, he too causes his own downfall.
LordHenry changes Dorian with the belief that morals have nolegitimate place in life. He gives Dorian a book about a manwho seeks beauty in evil sensations. Both Lord Henry’sactions and thoughts prove ruinous, as his wife leaves himand the remaining focus of his life, youthful Dorian Gray, killshimself in an attempt to further the lifestyle suggested to himby Lord Henry. Eventually, he is left destitute, withoutDorian, the art he so cherishes, because he tried to mold it,as dictated by aestheticism. Of all the protagonists, Dorian’sdownfall is the most clearly recognized. A young man whowas pure at the beginning of the novel becomes depraved bythe influence of Lord Henry. “He grew more and moreenamored of his own beauty, more and more interested inthe corruption of his own soul” (Bloom 121).
He begins tolead a life of immorality, including the murder of his dearfriend Basil Hallward. “There were moments when helooked on evil simply as a mode through which he couldrealize his conception of beautiful” (Wilde 196). However,there is still a spark of good left in Dorian.
He lashes out athis twisted mentor, Lord Henry, declaring, “I can’t bear thisHenry! You mock at everything, and then suggest the mostserious tragedies” (173). This trace of goodness is notenough to save Dorian, for he has crossed too far towardsthe 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 thefouling and aging corruption of his portrait’s beauty” (West5811). Dorian becomes so disgusted with this portrait of hissoul and his conscience, that he slashes the canvas, killinghimself. For Dorian, this is the ultimate evil act, the desire torid himself of all moral sense. Having failed the attempt toescape through good actions, he decides to escape bycommitting the most terrible of crimes.
Aestheticism hasclaimed its final victim. “Basil Hallward is what I think I am:Lord Henry what the world thinks of me: Dorian Gray whatI would like to be – in other ages, perhaps” (Hart-Davis352). Because of the endings he creates for thesecharacters, Oscar Wilde proves that he does not envisionshimself in the immoral characters of this story nor is heattempting to promote their lifestyles. Of all the characterswhom he creates, he sees himself as Basil, the good artistwho sacrifices himself to fight immorality. “It was his beautythat had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he hadprayed for” (Wilde 242).
Contrary to Wilde’s claim in thepreface that, “there is no such thing as a moral or immoralbook” (vii), this novel has a deep and meaningful purpose.”The moral is that an absence of spirituality, of faith, ofregard for human life, separates individuals like Wilde’sDorian Gray from humanity and makes monsters of them”(West 5831). W.H. Auden feels that the story is specificallystructured to provide a moral. He compares the story to thatof a fairy tale, complete with a princess, a wicked witch, anda fairy godmother. This leaves “room for a moral with whichgood every fairy tale ends.
” Not only is the novel seen asexisting on the pure level of fairy tales, but it is claimed tocontain “ethical beauty” (Auden 146). The Picture of DorianGray is a novel including a moral dialogue betweenconscience and temptation that is powerfully conveyed.Though it is made to seem an advocate for aestheticism onthe surface, the story ultimately undermines that entirephilosophy.
Wilde brings the question of “to what extent arewe shaped by our actions” (26). He also demonstrates that”art cannot be a substitute for life” (Eriksen 104). It is afantastic tale of hedonism with a moral to be learned andremembered. Works Cited Auden, W.
H. “In Defense of theTall Story.” The New Yorker. 29 November 1969.pp.205-206, 208-210. Bloom, Harold. Oscar Wilde.
NewYork: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985. Ellman, Richard.Oscar Wilde.
New york: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1987.Eriksen, Donald. Oscar Wilde.
Boston: Twayne Publishers,1977. Hart-Davis, Rupert. The Letters of Oscar Wilde.New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.
Juan,Efifanio. The Art of Oscar Wilde. New Jersey: PrincetownUniversity Press, 1967. Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of DorianGray. New York: Random House, Inc.