I have recently finished reading The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was a though-provoking read and it really stood out to me. In this article I would like to go over few themes in the book, and message the book conveys. It might help those in need of reading this book for an exam or it might annoy those who don’t agree with my points.
The story is well-know. A beautiful young man Dorian is painted by the modest but very talented painter Basil. They are accompanied by a dandy philosopher Lord Henry who seems to spit his ideas wherever he goes and whenever he chooses. Basil doesn’t want Lord Henry to talk to Dorian because he is terribly influential. Basil wishes Dorian to remain as he is, ignorant of Lord Henry’s philosophy.
As soon as Basil finishes the portrait of Dorian, he realizes that he put “too much of himself” into his work. It is evident in the picture that his admiration for Dorian is great. Afraid of exposing himself, he decides to give the portrait to Dorian instead of exhibiting it.
When Dorian meets Lord Henry, the philosopher tells him the sad reality of life. His beauty is not eternal; therefore, he has but few years to live fully before his beauty degrades with age. After the beauty is gone his chances to live fully will be limited. Upon hearing that, Dorian pronounces his infamous wish to never grow old and that If only it was the portrait’s job to bear the burden of age infamy. Surprisingly, his wish comes true, although he realizes that later.
Seduced by Lord Henry’s influence Dorian becomes a completely different person. As he grows more wicked each day, his only goal in life seems to be to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The more wicked he grows, simultaneously, the more heinous the portrait grows.
Basil hears rumors about Dorian, and he pays him a visit. Dorian shows him the portrait, and in a quarrel, he kills Basil who begs him to improve. Although still young and beautiful, he can’t bear his guilt anymore and destroys the portrait. When he is found, there is old man lying on the ground in front of a beautiful portrait of a young man.
According to encyclopedia Britannica (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017) hedonism is a general term for all theories of conduct in which the motivation of people is determined by pleasure of one kind or another. Hedonists not only enjoy physical pleasure but also fame, reputation, sympathy, knowledge, and art.
Ideas of hedonism are presented by Lord Henry to Dorian from their first encounter at the Basil’s studio. He explains that the pleasure is the only thing worth seeking, and that his beauty will help him to achieve it. He tells him not to take his youth and beauty for granted because once it is gone, he will not reach the same pleasure he can now. He describes a world where if people would follow pleasure instead of morality, they would be happier (The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary, n.d.).
All Basil’s nightmare come true when Dorian, influenced by Lord Henry, starts to live by Hedonist philosophy. He meets Sybil Vane, an actress from poor upbringing, and falls in love with this embodiment of art. Dorian often visits her theatre and admires her acting ability.
However, her love for Dorian manifest perhaps not in the way Dorian intended. She is tired of playing roles and pretending her love for other characters. She found a “real” love in the real life. Her performance declines as her love for Dorian intensifies. Indeed, the night she plays Juliet, Lord Henry, Basil, and Dorian pay a visit but both Dorian’s friends leave because her acting is particularly bad that evening. After the play she confesses her love to Dorian. It appears, Dorian only stayed during the play to tell her, “You have killed my love”.
The same evening after their encounter she commits suicide. Dorian is ignorant of the fact until Lord Henry reveals it to him the next morning. Miserable as he is, Dorian recovers after Lord Henry tells him that her death should be to him “A wonderful ending to a wonderful play”.
Although in this part of the story Dorian struggles with conscience, it is after this encounter with Lord Henry that he dedicates himself to a goal of seeking eternal pleasure, acquiring objects of many interests, and being a stable part of London aristocratic society.
Lord Henry constantly studies Dorian and feeds him with his ideas. His path to destruction amuses him therefore by the definition of his philosophy, it is only natural thing to do. (Book Summary, n.d.)
So, is the book a critique of hedonism? I believe that is the most popular interpretation of the story. We shouldn’t seek pleasure, we shouldn’t fight the reality of growing old, and we shouldn’t only judge people based on their appearance. Is this the main message of the book?
I think that it is not the case. It is rather about finding the balance between hedonistic tendencies and morality. If critique of hedonism was to be the main message, why did Basil die, and Lord Henry didn’t? There is no character development of Lord Henry nor any punishment for his poisonous speech. On the other hand, Basil who is good-natured and moral becomes the main victim in the novel. If it was the moral story shouldn’t Lord Henry die instead of Basil?
- The purpose of art
Most Victorian writers such as Dickens used literature for moral purposes and social education. Oscar Wilde, a proponent of aestheticism, opposed this moral role of art and claimed that the art should be done only for art’s sake.
At the beginning of the book, he describes his views on this subject, possibly as a defense from critiques who pronounced his book immoral. However, this idea is also represented in the symbols and characters of the novel.
Basil, the painter of the portrait says that all art should be “unconscious, ideal and remote”. He betrays his claims and puts “too much of himself” into the picture, and therefore refuses to exhibit it. The painting no longer only shows form and color but something more from him which go against idea that art should only be for art’s sake. (The Picture of Dorian Gray: Themes, n.d.-b)
But as Dorian’s reputation worsens and his purity disappears, the painter wants to travel and exhibit the painting. Perhaps he no longer feels that he put too much of himself into the work because his love for Dorian, although not entirely, begins to fade.
For Dorian Sybil is art herself. On stage she personifies many characters and makes the fiction real. She calls Dorian “Prince Charming” possibly because she sees him as a person from a play which Dorian finds very attractive. Valuing artistic expression above all, Dorian confuses his love for Sybil’s acting with the real love for her. It is her art he loves, not her.
Sybil views art as a means of making life barrable but after she falls in love, she feels no need to act again which seem to be the main reason Dorian suddenly finds her not interesting at all.
Aestheticism according to Encyclopedia Britannica (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998) is a late 19th-century European arts movement which centered on the doctrine that art exists for the sake of its beauty alone.
Although the book possibly doesn’t encourage hedonism, it is essentially a manifestation of aestheticism. Wilde despises men who act as metaphorical machines, programmed to behave in accordance with society’s ideas of propriety rather than allowing themselves to act freely and achieve the greatest amount of happiness. Similarly, to ideas of hedonism, the aestheticism is also channeled through lord Henry. (The Conflict Between Aestheticism and Morality in Oscar Wild the Picture of Dorian Gray | Writing Program, n.d.-c)
Previously I said that the novel is neither critique nor praise of hedonism and now I claim that it supports philosophy of aestheticism? Isn’t it the same thing? I would say that aestheticism is about viewing art as beautiful without finding any moral message in it and hedonism is living a life full of pleasure which can include artistic expression. To some extent it is hard to pinpoint the line where the lifestyle becomes hedonistic because aesthetes to some extent also seek beauty to the point that it can become hedonistic practice.
Is Wilde telling us to follow this lifestyle but not overdo it like Dorian did? Perhaps he is.
Shouldn’t this work just bee an art for art’s sake and I am trying to overcomplicate it by trying to make sense of it which is exactly something I shouldn’t do according to Wilde?
- Critique of Victorian society
Only in Victorian society, could there be a man who is being praised for his beauty while he is known to be wicked. Only in Victorian society could there be the devil’s advocate who is never punished for his ill speech and poisonous beliefs which he spreads like a wildfire.
The story takes place within aristocratic circles where the only valuable commodities are beauty and youth. The dinner parties in the inner circle of London society which Dorian and Lord Henry attend, do not value morality but only beauty. Ideas of beauty are encouraged not only by Lord Henry but also during these dinner parties. Consequently, Dorian realizes that he can abandon his morals just for the sake of his beauty.
Many young men want to be like Dorian because of his high fashion but at the same time there are numerous rumors about him as a lot of people take dislike in him. Despite the rumors he remains at the hearth of London society because of his beauty.
Part of me hates this book because it represents all the sins, I have had the courage to commit. On the other hand, I loved being triggered and challenged by Lord Henry philosophy. When reading this book, you will be encouraged to think of your youth as the only thing valuable you have, you will be tempted to change everything about your life in a matter of seconds, and you will always tell yourself there is something more pleasurable than this.
However, my advice is to give it some time before you make any decision after reading this book. Realize you already have enough.
Ray, Michael. “Hedonism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/topic/hedonism.
“Notes on the Picture of Dorian Gray Themes.” BookRags, BookRags, http://www.bookrags.com/notes/dg/top3.html#gsc.tab=0.
Baldwin, Stanley P. CliffsNotes on The Picture of Dorian Gray. 18 Oct 2022
Spark Notes. “The Picture of Dorian Grey .” SparkNotes, SparkNotes, https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/doriangray/themes/.
Duggan, Patrick. “The Conflict between Aestheticism and Morality in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.”