13 February 1995
Corruption Through Aestheticism
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is the story of
moral corruption by the means of aestheticism. In the novel, the
well meaning artist Basil Hallward presets young Dorian
Gray with a portrait of himself. After conversing with cynical
Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian makes a wish which dreadfully affects his
life forever. "If it were I who was to be always young, and the
picture that was to grow old! For that I would give everything!
Yes, there is nothing 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 Lord Henry Wotton, who exists not
only as something external to Dorian, but also as a voice within
him (Bloom 107). Dorian continues to lead a life of sensuality
which he learns about in a book given to him by Lord Henry.
Dorian's unethical devotion to pleasure becomes his way of life.
The novel underscores its disapproval of aestheticism which
negatively impacts the main characters. Each of the three primary
characters is an aesthete and meets some form of terrible personal
doom. Basil Hallward's aestheticism is manifested in his
dedication to his artistic creations. He searches in the outside
world for the perfect manifestation of his own soul, when he finds
this object, he can create masterpieces by painting it (Bloom 109).
He refuses to display the portrait of Dorian Gray with the
explanation that, "I have put too much of myself into it" (Wilde
106). He further demonstrates the extent to which he holds this
philosophy by later stating that, "only the artist is truly
Lord Henry Wotton criticizes Basil Hallward that, "An artist
should create beautiful things but should put nothing of his own
life into them" (Wilde 25). Ironically, the purpose of Basil
Hallward's existence is that he is an aesthete striving to become
one with his art (Eriksen 105). It is this very work of art which
Basil refuses to display that provides Dorian Gray with the idea
that there are no consequences to his actions. Dorian has this
belief in mind when he murders Basil. Here we see that the artist
is killed for his excessive love of physical beauty; the same art
that he wished to merge with is the cause of his mortal downfall
Lord Henry Wotton, the most influential man in Dorian's life,
is an aesthete of the mind. Basil is an artist who uses a brush
while Wotton is an artist who uses words:
There is no good, no evil, no morality and immorality;there
are modes of being. To live is to experiment aesthetically in
living to experiment all sensations, to know all emotions, and
to think all thoughts, in order that the self's every capacity
may be imaginatively realized (West 5811).
Lord Henry believes that, "it is better to be beautiful than
to be good" (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 never say a moral thing and you never do
thing" (5). However, Lord Henry does take the immoral action of
Although Lord Henry states that, "all influence is immoral"
(Wilde 18), he nonetheless drastically changes Dorian Gray. As
Dorian acts on the beliefs of Lord Henry, the portrait's beauty
becomes corrupted. "Lord Henry presents Dorian with the tenants of
his New Hedonism, whose basis is self-development leading to the
perfect realization of one's nature" (Eriksen 97). If Lord Henry's
aesthetic ideas have validity ,Dorian Gray's portrait should not
become ugly, but rather more beautiful. Since the picture becomes
loathsome, it is evident that Lord Henry's beliefs are untrue (West
5811). Dorian becomes so disgusted with the horrible portrait that
he slashes the canvas, and the knife pierces his own heart.
Because Lord Henry is responsible for influencing Dorian Gray, he
is partly the cause of the death of Dorian (5810).
While Lord Henry is indirectly the cause of Dorian's death, he
too causes his own downfall. Lord Henry changes Dorian with the
belief that morals have no legitimate place in life. He gives
Dorian a book about a man who seeks beauty in evil sensations.
Both Lord Henry's actions and thoughts prove ruinous, as his wife
leaves him and the remaining focus of his life, youthful Dorian
Gray, kills himself in an attempt to further the lifestyle
suggested to him by Lord Henry. Eventually, he is left destitute,
without Dorian, the art he so cherishes, because he tried to mold
it, as dictated by aestheticism.
Of all the protagonists, Dorian's downfall is the most clearly
A young man who was pure at the beginning of the novel becomes
depraved by the influence of Lord Henry. "He grew more and more
enamored of his 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 of his dear friend Basil
Hallward. "There were moments when he looked on evil simply 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. He lashes out at his twisted mentor, Lord Henry,
declaring, "I can't bear this Henry! 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 crossed too far
towards the 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 the fouling and
aging corruption of his portrait's beauty" (West 5811).
Dorian becomes so disgusted with this portrait of his soul and
his conscience, that he slashes the canvas, killing himself. For
Dorian, this is the ultimate evil act, the desire to rid himself of
all moral sense. Having failed the attempt to escape through good
actions, he decides to escape by committing the most terrible of
crimes. Aestheticism has claimed its final victim.
"Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the
world thinks of 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 Wilde proves that he does not
himself in the immoral characters of this story nor is he
attempting to promote their lifestyles. Of all the characters whom
he creates, he sees himself as Basil, the good artist who
sacrifices himself to fight immorality.
"It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the
youth that he 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 a deep and meaningful purpose.
"The moral is that an absence of spirituality, of faith, of regard
for human life, separates individuals like Wilde's Dorian Gray from
humanity and makes monsters of them" (West 5831).
W.H. Auden feels that the story is specifically structured to
provide a moral. 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 with which good every fairy tale
ends." Not only is the novel seen as existing on the pure level of
fairy tales, but it is claimed to contain "ethical beauty" (Auden
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel including a moral
dialogue between conscience and temptation that is powerfully
conveyed. Though it is made to seem an advocate for aestheticism
on the surface, the story ultimately undermines that entire
philosophy. Wilde brings the question of "to what extent are we
shaped by our actions" (26). He also demonstrates that "art
cannot be a substitute for life" (Eriksen 104). It is a fantastic
tale of hedonism with a moral to be learned and remembered.
Auden, 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,
Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New york: Alfred A. Knopf Inc.,
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: Princetown
University Press, 1967.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Random House,