The Main Ideas In The Picture Of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde was at grips with his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Republished twice, the Victorian novel emphasizes a society full of dandies of the end of the nineteenth century. The main character is Dorian Gray who is obsessed by a painting which captures his beauty fading because of his departure from morality/ art.
Oscar Wilde put in this novel two main principles which guided his career as aesthet. He encountered those aesthets who influenced him at Oxford, where Oscar Wilde himself was studying. The two man, John Ruskin and Walter Pater, represents two different ways regarding to aestheticism.
John Ruskin was an important critic of the Victorian era who influenced the Pre-Raphaelite movement. In conformity with Alexandra Warwick she believed in ‘social reform through aesthetic response; that through attention to the moral meaning in nature, true art would be created and through appreciation of art, humanity could refine its spirit, learn to act unselfishly and break down the boundaries between nature, art and life’ (Warwick 13).
In contrast to Ruskin, Walter Pater was the partisan of the aesthetic movement and of the idea that men should ‘seek primarily for sensation and great passions in both art and life, and to get as many pulsations as possible into the given time’ (Calloway 36). Gene H. Bell-Vellida categorize the aestheticism as ‘the idea that verse and fiction are without any moral, social, cognitive, or other extraliterary purposes’ (Bell-Velida 1). According to the aesthetic movement art should be art and should not have any other goals. Their motto is ‘art for art’s sake’.
Then ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is turning around two ideas: art as serving a moral ideal and the idea that art should only exist for itself and have no other purposes. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ offers a total connection between art and life, between what happens to the painting, and what happens to the one who is painted.
Oscar Wilde tries to combine art and morality in creating the society in his novel. It is somehow an artistic society because it has a critic and numerous artists: a painter, a ‘muse’ and an actress. Each one of them has an artistic ideal. As far as they depart from their artistic ideal, as close they seem to be to their end. All the main characters, Basil Hallward, Dorian Gray, Sibyl Vane and Lord Henry Wotton represent different kinds of artists and the reason why Basil, Dorian and Sibyl are punished lies exactly in the fact that they either return to life and nature for their art or that they fail to follow Wilde’s aesthetic ideal of making one’s life into a piece of art. The only one who escapes from punishment is Lord Henry.
Wilde brought the corruption of the London underworld into the London drawing room, in order to show that a wretched society can be present in an artistic place. Heather Joy Marcovitch says that Wilde’s society in The Picture of Dorian Gray ‘it is a world created out of socially-unacceptable sexuality which could turn against society and creates its own corrupt offspring. The exploration of desire could pit an individual against a society advocated desire’s repression.’ (Marcovitch 113).
Wilde’s artistic society is leaded by a critic, Lord Henry Wotton. He is the first person we encounter and hear in the novel, as well is the first who suggests what the picture of Dorian Gray looks like. He does not actually describe the picture, but criticizes and judges it, saying: ‘It is your best work, Basil, the best thing you have ever done’. The few words that Lord Henry says to Dorian Gray when they first meet each other influence Dorian Gray perception of art and life during the rest of the novel.
Words have an effect on the physical world, just as an ‘impression’ defines both a material and a metaphorical experience. Dorian’s reproach to Basil – ‘You never open your lips while you are painting’ safeguards the critic’s position within the studio’s creative limits. The alterations which causes Dorian’s Gray decay are not brought by the painter, but by the critic, Lord Henry Wotton, the greatest agent of changes in the novel.
The picture that Basil Hallward paints is static; to him it is always the same, because it always represents the encapsulation of one moment in time, when he realizes the great truth of his life. Whereas the painter is allied with the topos of stillness – or, more appropriately, still-life –with silence, the critic embodies creative polyphony and changeability.
I think that the critic shapes Dorian’s Gray portrait as well as he influences his personality. Oscar Wilde says that ‘Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book. There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realise his conception of the beautiful’ (116). ‘His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent to him. After a few minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.’
Wilde talks in his letter about a punishment which needs to be applied because of the downfall of some of the main characters. The reason why some characters are punished and others are not seems to be rooted in one of the aesthetic principles of Oscar Wilde. Wilde describes in Intentions: ‘All bad art comes from Life and Nature’ (‘Decay’ 54) and also that the artist’s aim is ‘to reveal art and conceal the artist’.
Basil Hallward is the most obvious kind of artist, namely a painter. At first sight Basil is not punished, but rather a victim of Dorian’s sins. Yet his death is more a punishment than a tragedy. He fails as an artist and is punished for it (Erickson 116).
The mistake he does is double. First of all he returns to life and nature for his paintings. He confesses that he wants to paint Dorian just as he is, ‘not in the costume of dead ages, but in your own dress and in your own time’. Since Wilde believes that returning to life and nature makes for bad art, Basil creates bad art. The second mistake Basil does, is that he puts too much of himself into his painting. Earlier in the novel he himself says about art that ‘An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty. Someday I will show the world what it is; and for that reason the world shall never see my portrait of Dorian Gray’. He believes in the aesthetic principles but he failed to follow them in making the portrait he made of Dorian. He himself admits that he has put too much of himself into the portrait: ‘I felt, Dorian, that I had told too much, that I had put too much of myself into it’. He recognizes his own flaws as an artist and in the end he is punished for it by his own death.
Dorian Gray is a different kind of artist. He attempts to live his life dominated by beauty and pleasure and through that he attempts to live his life as though it is his art. In his last conversation with Lord Henry before his death, Lord Henry tells him that he has made his life into an art as deep and expressive, as fine as music or literature: ‘I am so glad that you have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside yourself! Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets’. The expression of art is Dorian Gray himself.
So at first sight Dorian does follow Wilde’s aesthetic ideal, namely that he does things in such a manner for his life to be his greatest work of art. Yet he also makes a fatal mistake which proves to be his downfall. He seems to be punished for his sins, but he is not punished for this, but for the wrong execution of Wilde’s aesthetic ideal. Dorian’s fatal mistake is that he fails to be good art.
According to Erickson, Dorian ‘comes dangerously close to a sort of decadence’ . Dorian does not dedicate his life to art and beauty, but to self-indulgence . So although Dorian seems to live his life in the spirit of aestheticism, he merely lives for selfish pleasure. Dorian admits to this in one of his final conversations with Lord Henry: ‘I wish I could love […] But I seem to have lost the passion, and forgotten the desire. I am too much concentrated on myself. My own personality has become a burden to me’. Dorian fails to be good art and therefore he is punished as well by Wilde.
The transition that Dorian makes from Basil’s innocent passive muse to Henry’s decadent protected emphasizes according to Wilde, a marked deterioration in his status as art. Indeed, the more Dorian indulges in corrupt behavior, the less Dorian exudes an image of purity and disinterestedness representative of Basil’s conception of art.
Sibyl Vane is also an artist who is punished by Wilde. When Dorian Gray meets her first, Sibyl is a good actress, someone who does represent good art, because she follows the artistic credo of aestheticism. She hides herself as an artist and reveals only her art. Dorian describes how is she acting, to Lord Henry: ‘One evening she is Rosalind, and the next evening she is Imogen. […] I have seen her in every age and in every costume. Ordinary women never appeal to one’s imagination. They are limited to their century. […] They are quite obvious. But an actress! How different an actress is!’. She is very much admired by Dorian and he falls in love with her. When Dorian Gray proposes to her, life takes over the control and she stops representing good art. Dorian, Basil and Lord Henry go to the theatre to see her perform, but suddenly she is a dreadful actress. Dorian hopes she is ill and was a bad actress because of that. He goes to talk to her and Sibyl explains why she will never act well again: ‘before I knew you, acting was the one reality of my life. It was only in the theatre that I lived. I thought that is was all true […] You came – oh, my beautiful love!- and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality really is’.
Sibyl’s downfall is that she does not only let reality take over her art, but also lets her own feelings and therefore herself mix in with her art. Therefore, she does not follow the aesthetic principles. She is first punished by Dorian leaving her and secondly by death when she takes her own life.
The only one who escapes from Wilde’s punishment is Lord Henry Wotton because he follows Wilde’s principle of art. Lord Henry is not an artist in the traditional sense of creating art by painting or acting but he elevates his personality into his own art. Because of this Erickson describes him as ‘the true critic and artist’.
He accomplishes Wilde’s idea of making his own life his greatest work of art perfectly. He avoids the pitfalls that provoked Dorian’s downfall. His personality never becomes a burden to him and he is capable of being ‘merely a spectator of life’. Therefore Lord Henry succeeds in striking a balance between making his own life his work of art, without putting too much of himself into it as Basil does.
According to Carrol, ‘Dorian’s life turns out to be something like an experimental test case for the validity of Pater’s aesthetic philosophy, and the experiment falsifies the philosophy’(Carrol 96). In a letter, Wilde said, ‘Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be’.
- Gomel, Elena. “Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the (Un)Death of the Author” Journal of Narrative Technique (January 2004); 74-92.
- Beckson, Karl. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage. London and New York: Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005.
- Bell-Vellida, Gene H. Art for Art’s Sake and Literary Life: How Politics and Markets Helped Shape the Ideology & Culture of Aestheticism, 1790-1990. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
- Carrol, Joseph. Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice. Albany: State University of New York, 2011.
- Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. London: Penguin Books, 1987.
- Erickson, Donald H. Oscar Wilde. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1977.
- Mendelssohn, Michèle. Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
- Marcovitch,Heather Joy. The Art of Pose: Oscar Wilde’s Theory of Persona. Florida: University of Florida, 2002.
- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2001.
- Raby, Peter. The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Warwick, Alexandra. Oscar Wilde. Horndon: Northcote House Publishers, 2007.
- Woodcock, George. The Paradox of Oscar Wilde. London & New York: T.V. Boardman, 1949. https://theses.ubn.ru.nl/bitstream/handle/123456789/807/Groenewold%2C_N._1.pdf?sequence=2
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