theticismThe Picture of Dorian Gray: Corruption Through AestheticismThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is the story of moralcorruption by the means of aestheticism.
In the novel, the well meaning artistBasil Hallward presets young Dorian Gray with a portrait of himself. Afterconversing with cynical Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian makes a wish which dreadfullyaffects his life forever. “If it were I who was to be always young, and thepicture that was to grow old! For that I would give everything! Yes, there isnothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that”(Wilde 109). As it turns out, the devil that Dorian sells his soul to is LordHenry Wotton, who exists not only as something external to Dorian, but also asa voice within him (Bloom 107).
Dorian continues to lead a life of sensualitywhich he learns about in a book given to him by Lord Henry. Dorian’s unethicaldevotion to pleasure becomes his way of life.The novel underscores its disapproval of aestheticism which negativelyimpacts the main characters. Each of the three primary characters is anaesthete and meets some form of terrible personal doom. Basil Hallward’saestheticism is manifested in his dedication to his artistic creations. Hesearches in the outside world for the perfect manifestation of his own soul,when he finds this object, he can create masterpieces by painting it (Bloom109). He refuses to display the portrait of Dorian Gray with the explanationthat, “I have put too much of myself into it” (Wilde 106). He furtherdemonstrates the extent to which he holds this philosophy by later stating that,”only the artist is truly reveled” (109).
Lord Henry Wotton criticizes Basil Hallward that, “An artist shouldcreate beautiful things but should put nothing of his own life into them”(Wilde 25). Ironically, the purpose of Basil Hallward’s existence is that heis an aesthete striving to become one with his art (Eriksen 105). It is thisvery work of art which Basil refuses to display that provides Dorian Gray withthe idea that there are no consequences to his actions. Dorian has thisbelief in mind when he murders Basil. Here we see that the artist is killedfor his excessive love of physical beauty; the same art that he wished to mergewith is the cause of his mortal downfall (Juan 64).Lord Henry Wotton, the most influential man in Dorian’s life, is anaesthete of the mind. Basil is an artist who uses a brush while Wotton is anartist who uses words:There is no good, no evil, no morality and immorality;thereare modes of being.
To live is to experiment aesthetically inliving to experiment all sensations, to know all emotions, andto think all thoughts, in order that the self’s every capacitymay be imaginatively realized (West 5811).Lord Henry believes that, “it is better to be beautiful than to begood” (Wilde 215). Although he attests that aestheticism is a mode of thought,he does not act on his beliefs. Basil Hallward accuses him saying, “You neversay a moral thing and you never do a wrong thing” (5). However, Lord Henry doestake the immoral action of influencing Dorian.Although Lord Henry states that, “all influence is immoral” (Wilde 18),he nonetheless drastically changes Dorian Gray.
As Dorian acts on the beliefsof Lord Henry, the portrait’s beauty becomes corrupted. “Lord Henry presentsDorian with the tenants of his New Hedonism, whose basis is self-developmentleading to the perfect realization of one’s nature” (Eriksen 97). If LordHenry’s aesthetic ideas have validity ,Dorian Gray’s portrait should notbecome ugly, but rather more beautiful.
Since the picture becomes loathsome,it is evident that Lord Henry’s beliefs are untrue (West 5811). Dorian becomesso disgusted with the horrible portrait that he slashes the canvas, and theknife pierces his own heart. Because Lord Henry is responsible for influencingDorian Gray, he is partly the cause of the death of Dorian (5810).While Lord Henry is indirectly the cause of Dorian’s death, he toocauses his own downfall. Lord Henry changes Dorian with the belief that moralshave no legitimate place in life.
He gives Dorian a book about a man who seeksbeauty in evil sensations. Both Lord Henry’s actions and thoughts proveruinous, as his wife leaves him and the remaining focus of his life, youthfulDorian Gray, kills himself in an attempt to further the lifestyle suggested tohim by Lord Henry. Eventually, he is left destitute, without Dorian, the arthe so cherishes, because he tried to mold it, as dictated by aestheticism.Of all the protagonists, Dorian’s downfall is the most clearlyrecognized.
A young man who was pure at the beginning of the novel becomesdepraved by the influence of Lord Henry. “He grew more and more enamored ofhis own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul”(Bloom 121). He begins to lead a life of immorality, including the murder ofhis dear friend Basil Hallward. “There were moments when he looked on evilsimply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of beautiful”(Wilde 196).
However, there is still a spark of good left in Dorian. Helashes out at his twisted mentor, Lord Henry, declaring, “I can’t bear thisHenry! You mock at everything, and then suggest the most serious tragedies”(173). This trace of goodness is not enough to save Dorian, for he has crossedtoo far towards the perverted side of aestheticism and cannot escape it.”Dorian experiments with himself and with men and women, and watches theexperiment recorded year by year in the fouling and aging corruption of hisportrait’s beauty” (West 5811).
Dorian becomes so disgusted with this portrait of his soul and hisconscience, that he slashes the canvas, killing himself. For Dorian, this isthe ultimate evil act, the desire to rid himself of all moral sense. Havingfailed the attempt to escape through good actions, he decides to escape bycommitting the most terrible of crimes.
Aestheticism has claimed its finalvictim.”Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinksof me: Dorian Gray what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps” (Hart-Davis 352). Because of the endings he creates for these characters, Oscar Wildeproves that he does not envisions himself in the immoral characters of thisstory nor is he attempting to promote their lifestyles. Of all the characterswhom he creates, he sees himself as Basil, the good artist who sacrificeshimself to fight immorality.”It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth thathe had prayed for” (Wilde 242). Contrary to Wilde’s claim in the preface that,”there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book” (vii), this novel has adeep and meaningful purpose.”The moral is that an absence of spirituality, of faith, of regard for humanlife, separates individuals like Wilde’s Dorian Gray from humanity and makesmonsters of them” (West 5831).
W.H. Auden feels that the story is specifically structured to provide amoral. He compares the story to that of a fairy tale, complete with a princess,a wicked witch, and a fairy godmother.
This leaves “room for a moral withwhich good every fairy tale ends.” Not only is the novel seen as existing onthe pure level of fairy tales, but it is claimed to contain “ethical beauty”(Auden 146).The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel including a moral dialoguebetween conscience and temptation that is powerfully conveyed. Though it ismade to seem an advocate for aestheticism on the surface, the story ultimatelyundermines that entire philosophy. Wilde brings the question of “to whatextent are we shaped by our actions” (26).
He also demonstrates that “artcannot be a substitute for life” (Eriksen 104). It is a fantastic tale ofhedonism with a moral to be learned and remembered.Works CitedAuden, W.
H. “In Defense of the Tall Story.” The New Yorker. 29 November 1969.pp.205-206, 208-210.Bloom, Harold. Oscar Wilde.
New York: 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 andWorld, 1962.Juan, Efifanio. The Art of Oscar Wilde. New Jersey: Princetown University Press,1967.Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray.
New York: Random House, Inc., 1992.