The Picture Of Dorian Gray Corruption Through

The Picture Of Dorian Gray: Corruption Through Aestheticism Essay, Research Paper

The Picture of Dorian Gray: 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

recognized. 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


“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 envisions 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 146).

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, 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 and

World, 1962.

Juan, Efifanio. The Art of Oscar Wilde. New Jersey: Princetown University Press,


Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Random House, Inc., 1992.


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