The Picture of Dorian Gray and Wilde’s Aesthetic Philosophy

First published in an 1890 addition of the literary journal Lippincott’s Magazine, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s only full-length novel, was received with a furor of unrest and disapproval. The book seemed to confirm the public’s most sordid suspicions of Wilde’s notorious dandyism: its blistering paradoxes, blithe praises of selfish hedonism and its homoerotic undercurrents all appeared just too immoral to a Victorian age still stuffy and self-righteous. However, rather than bemoan the disapprobation, Wilde accepted it as but verification of the book’s overriding theme; the disapproval confirmed for him his fundamental distaste of the naïve society he inhabited, an age prone to discuss beauty in terms of morality, as good or wicked, godly or satanic. Perhaps disgusted by the simpletons who could not read beyond the story’s clinquant prose and scandalous epigrams, Wilde added to the second book-addition of the novel a preface noting that “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book.”

However, more than a rebuff to critics, the assertions that books have no moral undercurrents and that “all art is quite useless” can be accepted as a lens through which to understand Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy about the role of the artist in society. He believed that art was intended to be nothing but abstract and imaginative – not a means for life or death or guidance. Characterizing how his work had been at the onset of the novel, Basil Hallward, the tragic painter who worshiped the beauty of a fallen man, captured Wilde’s concepts of aesthetic beauty, “And it had all been what art should be – unconscious, ideal, and remote” (119). Importantly, before he had become entranced by, captive to, the beauty of the novel’s protagonist, Dorian Gray, Basil had created art from within himself, made only to be beautiful. In his portrait of Dorian, Basil betrays Oscar Wilde’s belief that there is no morality in beauty and that art is to “conceal the artist.” Thus, borne out of idolatry, the portrait, changing to the tune of its model’s decaying soul, functions to explore the consequences of an aesthetic philosophy about the uselessness of art that is violated by both its painter and model.

On the surface, the function of the portrait is simpler, intended to be but a spectacle of allegory. Its role, at first glance, is to play out and revisit some of the most staid themes of western literature. For one, it takes center stage in the eerie fable of a man who has made a “deal with devil” to sell his soul for triviality, the prospect of staying forever young. Lord Henry, Dorian’s quick-witted, irreverent confidant, tells him upon meeting, “Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away” (39). Dorian resolves that “Youth is the only thing worth having,” and that if it were he “who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old” he “would give everything!” (43). Dorian’s cry is answered. He remains forever youthful, while his portrait grows decrepit and old as an expression of his decaying soul. He sold his consciousness, now embodied in the changing portrait, for the vanity of youth. Wilde, in this way, characterizes youthful beauty as a juxtaposition of both good and evil: the gods grant it but only the devil can maintain it. Youth is a democratic concept, for all individuals to have and for all time to be dying: “Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful” (39). The only way to maintain it is to replace the mind – the consciousness – for the body. The painting, at first hollow, becomes filled with Dorian’s spirit, and Dorian becomes but a beautiful shell of a man, like a finely brushed canvass, never changing.

After the deal is made, the portrait functions to exhibit (as artwork is characteristically intended, “to exhibit”) the subsequent allegories of the novel: “the fall from grace” of the once-chimerical, now stained and ruined Dorian, the “doppelganger paradigm” of a man’s saint-like appearance animated, paralyzed by his dark, sordid spirit manifest, and finally, the “youth entrapment,” like Grimm’s Hans and Gretel, of an older man (Lord Henry) intent on killing the innocent (Dorian Gray), in this case, with devilish ideas of immorality and excess.

Nevertheless, Oscar Wilde intended his novel to be much more than a fable; in his preface, he says that “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril,” daring his reader to take up the challenge. Beneath the surface, the function of the portrait – the picture of Dorian gray – can be seen as highly serious meditation the role of the artist in society. As a commentary on the obligations of a painter, the circumstances of the portrait’s creation can be seen to foreshadow the circumstances of its destruction. Basil Hallward, at the beginning of the novel, understands Wilde’s conception of the artist’s obligation. Hallward echoes Wilde’s assertion in the preface that “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim” with his statement that “An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them” (29). Aesthetics, to Wilde and Hallward, are intended for the simple enjoyment of an “abstract sense of beauty” (29).

However, when Basil Hallward meets Dorian, he violates this understanding of art. Rather than merely as beautiful (for Wilde tells the reader that “those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are cultivated”), Hallward sees Dorian as a divine embodiment of “an entirely new manner in art, an entirely new mode of style” (27). His presence no longer inspires art, but is art itself. Basil remarks that “Some subtle influence passed from him to me” allowing him, for the first time, so see “the wonder I had always looked for and always missed” (28). Basil becomes enchanted – utterly dominated – by Dorian’s aesthetic beauty, which he sees as an artistic apotheosis that he cannot escape. Basil does not reveal art, but the art – Dorian – reveals Basil, exposing his soul for the world to see. “I really can't exhibit [the portrait]. I have put too much of myself into it” (20). The portrait, at its birth, thus represents the obscured line between art and reality, where beauty has an inescapable influence, constructing the artist rather than the artist constructing the beauty.

If Dorian is the incarnation of this “new mode of style” whereby reality is art and art is morality, then his corruption represents the failure of this ideal. And the putrefaction of the man in the painting serves to belie the moral worth that Basil ascribed to this new understanding of painting that “without intending” exposes all the “artistic idolatry” (28) of beauty.

The portrait therefore functions to represent the first consequence of Wilde aesthetic philosophy: that art cannot be life. The novel confuses the boundaries of life and art. Dorian, like a piece of artwork, never ages, always remaining beautiful and hollow. The portrait, contrastingly, becomes like life and must suffer from the gyrating, ostentatious decay of Dorian’s soul: “The picture, changed or unchanged, would be to him the visible emblem of conscience” (106-7). In this way, very literally, the portrait aids in protagonist’s tragic confusion of life and art. The portrait becomes his life and his life becomes superficial artwork. Lord Henry tells Dorian, “I love acting. It is so much more real than life” (95). Dorian heads this message, that art is more real than life. In his preface, Wilde states that “it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirror.” Sibyl Vane, Dorian’s first love, understands this dichotomy. When she finds love, an emotion that burns in her more real than any stage scene, she realizes that “art is but a reflection,” (101) kaleidoscopic and superficial, rather than a reality, and she no longer needs to pretend. Dorian, on the other hand, is convinced that art and life are but two words for the same thing, “How little you can know of love, if you say it mars your art! What are you without your art?” (102). Wilde believes that the cardinal sin is using art to live one’s life; Dorian relishes in the sensation of this sin: “to him life itself was the first, the greatest, of the arts, and for it all the other arts seemed to be but a preparation” (143).

Fundamental to Wilde’s aesthetic philosophies is the prospect of a new Hedonism, expounded throughout the novel by Lord Henry, who fancied Dorian as its “visible symbol” (24). Henry’s doctrine depends, more than anything else, on the intense processes of self-realization. It depends on the individual thinking of nothing but himself and his identity. Henry tells Dorian that “The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly – that is what each of us is here for” (34). To do this, we need to never relent in pursuing pleasure, “One could never pay too high a price for any sensation” (73). This process of self-realization depends on an entire disregard for others: neither charity nor reaching out, only an attention to the “highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one's self” (34). In his essay The Critic as Artist, Wilde expressed these views as his own, that

They miss their aim, too, these philanthropists and sentimentalists of our day, who are always chattering to one about one's duty to one's neighbor. For the development of the race depends on the development of the individual, and where self-culture has ceased to be the ideal, the intellectual standard is instantly lowered, and, often, ultimately lost.


The aggrandizement of the individual is at the heart of the new Hedonism. The realization of this ideal requires that the individual renounce all external forces of guidance. “There is no such thing as a good influence” Henry tells Dorian, for to influence someone is “to give him one's own soul” so that it becomes but “an echo of someone else's music.” Henry sums up Wilde’s broad, subterranean theme: “To be good is to be in harmony with one's self” (93).

Lord Henry’s philosophy, like Wilde’s, was of a process of intense self-discovery through pleasure. Dorian, however, wildly perverts these intentions. Rather than treating aesthetics as a means for gratifying and shaping his identity, he slays his identity to gratify his pleasure. “[Pleasure’s] aim, indeed, was to be experience itself, and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they might be” (144). He becomes a hollow shell ruled over by the prospect of base satisfaction. Rather, as Lord Henry subversively suggests, than using pleasure for his own purposes, he allows pleasure to use him, systematically degrading his consciousness. “There are moments, psychologists tell us, when the passion for sin, or what the world calls sin, so dominates a nature that every fibre of the body, every cell of the brain, seems to be instinct with fearful impulses.” At these times, the body is ruled over by its sensation: “Men and women at such moments lose the freedom of their will. They move as automatons move. Choice is taken from them” (201). The New Hedonist is a master of his own desires. Dorian is a slave to them.

Thus, another function of the portrait is to illustrate the second, perhaps more fundamental, consequence of Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy: that art is self-realization, absent of external influence. Basil Wallward is destroyed his worship of physical beauty, and the portrait embodies his definitive start towards downfall. Dorian tells him, “You met me, flattered me, and taught me to be vain of my good looks” (169). Basil is killed by the vanity he inspired in with his deification of Dorian’s beauty. Of this control Dorian had over his identity, Basil remarks to Lord Henry “‘I did not want any external influence in my life. You know yourself, Harry, how independent I am by nature. I have always been my own master; had at least always been so, till I met Dorian Gray’” (24). Basil died because he worshiped external beauty, failing to attend to his own precious selfhood.

Dorian’s identity too, most profoundly, is a constellation of external influence. For one, he is a product of Lord Henry, who found, “something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence” because it lets one “hear one's own intellectual views echoed back to one with all the added music of passion and youth” (52). Also, he product of the lush book that spins a tale of a “Parisian who spent all his life trying to realize…all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own” (139) whose “influence” Dorian “could not free himself from,” (141) whose story, indeed, alludes to his own life story, of a man trapped young who can think all the thoughts of the world and experience all the sensations of the world, except his own. Finally, Dorian is a product, perhaps most stultifyingly, of “the still more poisonous influences that came from his own temperament…the mere physical admiration of beauty that is born of the senses” (133). He is a product of his own unquenched urges for carnal sensation and pleasure. He lives his life a slave to his appetite: “The more he knew, the more he desired to know. He had mad hungers that grew more ravenous as he fed them” (143). The portrait thus emphasizes that his soul, quite literally, is trapped outside of his body, subject to external control. Imprisoned by the force of its presence, its influence, Dorian knew that only through with the portrait’s death could Dorian’s self live once more. By stabbing the painting, he knew he could stab at the chains that shackled him and “[the knife] would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free” (234). However, it was too late to salvage his identity, and he died, as he stabbed the painting, decrepit and hollow from sin.

Oscar Wilde wrote in the first stanza of his 1881 poem Helas!: To drift with every passion till my soul / Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play, / Is it for this that I have given away / Mine ancient wisdom, and austere control?” With his novel, Wilde examined, for the world, this haunting question. Dorian, tragically, was willing to forgo his “ancient wisdom” so that he could “drift” with the whims of his passions. He was willing to sacrifice his “austere control” over his identity on the altar of an aesthetic art he worshiped, that, like a god force, ultimately enslaved him. The portrait thus functions as a cautionary tale to a world too willing to give up itself at the prospect of the beautiful, whatever form that may be: the morally good, the sinfully bad, the righteous, the wicked – to Wilde, these are not from “art” external and imaginative, these are from oneself. Art really is quite useless.



Blogger The Gray Bull said...

I absolutely loathe literary criticism. It so strongly opposes my generally scientific way of viewing the world that I just can't get through a paragraph. I am not talking about the sort of criticism that is intended to actually improve a work, but rather about the sort of criticism intended to understand a work that is already acknowledged to be "great". I cannot stand to read how the most mundane triviality is not only considered great literature, but is read as a feminist critique of hegemonic patriarchy, an expression of existential ennui in a post-Cold War existence, and a scathing critique of the capitalist bourgeois who relentlessly oppress the lower class.
I used to wonder if anyone really believes that the author of a given work could possibly have written it with any of those things in mind. Could the author possibly intend that these interpretations are actually valid? The scientist in me says that this is absurd; these fools are simply seeing patterns in the noise. It is possible to interpret any work in any way you choose; Mao II is no more easily read from a feminist point of view than is the latest Tom Clancy novel.
I asked this of an english professor one day–and he answered that none of it matters. The author's intent in a given novel (at least, according to some schools of literary theory) is totally irrelevent. On one level this is logically consistent–a given idea should be judged on its merits, and not on those of its author. If that were truly the case, however, there would be no such thing as "great" literature, and every two-bit moron who can operate a ball-point pen would merit having their works dissected in the classroom. Also, the reverence with which these imaginary motifs are discussed among the literati is patently absurd. The ability to read a particular theme into a given work in no way proves the validity of that theme. That one can read The Day of the Locust as an example of Michel Foucault's theory on discourse and its role in human interaction and language does not prove the accuracy of that theory. Further, no method is ever given (or even sought) for determining the "best" interpretation to apply to a given work. This, of course, is consistent with the above thought that all points of view are equally valid. Unfortunately, it is also totally inconsistent with reality. If it is possible to interpret a work in any way, then the fact that a work can be interpreted according to a certain theory cannot be used as evidence for the truth of that theory, because by definition the work could also be used to support an untrue theory.

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