The Theme of Society’s Superficial Nature in The Picture of Dorian Gray
Aestheticism, the philosophy Oscar Wilde believed in, is the belief that art’s only purpose is to render beauty. Beauty symbolizes as contrast and reinvigoration to the aged and weary senses, as demonstrated by the artist Basil Hallward’s newly found muse and Lord Henry Wotton’s fascination in Dorian Gray’s youthful beauty. In a society that treasures beauty, youth and attractiveness become valuable, especially because “all the candor of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity” (Wilde 12). The idea of eternal youth and all its implied qualities of innocence and goodness has been a source of artistic inspiration for playwrights and authors, as well as critique from the superstitious. Through the protagonist’s conflict in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde highlights his anachronistic perspective of aestheticism during the Victorian Era and develops his theme of society’s superficial nature.
The Victorian Era is characterized by its rigid social hierarchy and expectations. Much of the United Kingdom’s population in the 19th century identified with its aging Queen Victoria. The queen was a religious woman, especially after her husband Prince Albert’s death. While her political power was more symbolic, she was a major influence on society’s values hence society’s conservative and religious perspectives. The Victorian Era tended to associate the concepts of beauty, potential and innocence with youth due to their transiency. Time washes away the beauty, age washes away the potential, and experience washes away the innocence. Entertaining the idea of prolonging youth was seen as immoral and was heavily criticized because the religious Victorians believed that a deal with the devil was the only way to achieve eternal youth (Clifton 289).
In contrast to the aging Victorian mindset, British aestheticism was young and new in the 19th century. The concept of aestheticism advocated an art-for-art’s-sake mindset. By claiming that “beauty is superior to everything,” Victorians feared that aestheticism promoted amorality and destroyed the inherent goodness intended by a work of art (Guillaume et. al.). The aestheticism movement and aesthetic mindset was seen as something different and therefore something to be ostracized and even feared.
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was heavily criticized for being immoral and lewd. Dorian begins as a “candid young man, almost childlike” in his dependency and obedience to society’s regulations (Guillaume et. al.). However, he is transformed by the realization that his youth equivocates beauty and innocence – concepts that Victorians treasured due to its transiency. In turn, Dorian pledges his soul so that his portrait could bear the burden of his age and sin while allowing him to stay frozen in his youth. Due to Lord Henry Wotton’s influence, Dorian discovers a new world of heightened pleasure and falls in love with Sibyl Vane and her beautiful portrayal of Shakespeare’s character (Gillespie 62). As he delves far too quickly and deeply into the pursuit of beauty, Dorian becomes a disenchanted, amoral man who lives for new sensations and disregards any social critique. He realizes that his love for Sibyl Vane mainly stemmed from his pursuit and admiration of her artistry in acting. When he sees the fallacy in her work, he becomes disillusioned with Sibyl and leaves her, leading to her heartbreak and suicide.
Dorian’s studies of the East’s heavily-scented oils, musical instruments from “savage tribes that survived contact with Western civilization,” French and Dutch jewelry, and Northern European embroideries give insight into Wilde’s perspective of art-for-art’s-sake, one in which the pursuit of pure pleasure and beauty can have the potential to become monotonous, meaningless, and never-ending. No matter how many different materialistic riches Dorian indulges his passions with, he is never satisfied and always looks for the next subject of his obsession. Thus, his indulgence for passion and beauty turns to a darker path filled with opium usage and destructive friendships. Dorian’s relationship with London’s elite young men prove to be fatal – one commits suicide, one leaves England with a tarnished name, one died a horrific way, one loses his career, and one loses his social standing (Wilde 109). All the while, Dorian remains unaffected and unapologetic of his actions due to the lack of physical consequences which his portrait instead bears. His corruptive influence on many of London’s youthful elite is seen as the most unspeakable deed according to the Victorian sensibility (Ross).
Wilde is facetious in his criticism of society’s lack of distinction between ethics and appearance. Despite Dorian’s questionable name and reputation, he is never truly ostracized and remains at the center of London’s social scene because of his physical appearance. Dorian Gray is a man who corrupts and kills the people around him and yet others find it difficult to condemn him because to be beautiful meant “to be good” (Wilde 131). Through his protagonist’s conflict, Wilde examines the relationship between art and artist and ethics and aesthetics. As Wilde declares in the novel’s preface, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” Any moral conflicts or empathic understanding that develops from a work of art reflects more upon the viewer than the artist. The portrait of Dorian Gray is just a picture. By placing his moral ramifications onto his portrait, Dorian taints the aesthetic form and destroys the beauty of the painting. By placing value on beauty, Victorian society destroys the innocence and goodness they associate with the aesthetic form. It is up to each individual in society to devise their own moral significance and standards in art.
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