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”
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.
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
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.