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The picture of dorian gray by oscar wilde


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

reveled" (109).

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

(Juan 64).

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

a wrong

thing" (5). However, Lord Henry does take 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 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.

Works Cited

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,

Inc., 1992.

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