Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray shows the ruinous journey of a young man, who, grappling with the ideals of aestheticism, takes on a fatal role. The main hero is described as handsome and naïve, at least until he falls under a malign sphere of influence, which absolves him of his wrongdoings. The author makes the “confrontations between art and artist; reality and art; and spectator and art” most important throughout the novel (Scheible 132). A notable cornerstone is individuality (mostly offered through art), which, when sacrificed brings about the ruin of those, unable to protect their integrity.
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Wilde’s work made such themes of aestheticism most important, shifting away from the Victorian ideal of art as a medium for morality. His novel, still, while pursuing this ideal, portrays an almost Victorian cautionary tale that punishes those that do evil, in the end. One cannot remove the ideals of aestheticism from the subject they occupy, just as the link between portrait and main character shows when the destruction of one leads to the death of the other (Eastham 32). However, according to Wilde’s epigrams to the novel, defending it from claims that painted it as immoral, state that it is art, and hence has no purpose but to be art.
The development of the story throughout the novel shows the seeming impossibility of this project, which tries to free itself from Victorian constraints, but entangles itself in the author’s philosophy. The story, as a monument to aestheticism, however, is supportive of the idea of individuality and shows not the Victorian disciplining of evil, but the aesthetic punishment of likelihood (Livesey 267). Society does not punish Dorian Gray for his evildoing, but his lack of restraint punishes him for blindly following the ideas of Lord Henry.
Lord Henry: Friend or Foe?
The character of Lord Henry Wotton raises many questions about his motives in the story, as while he is an advocate for hedonism, he is comparatively more of a theorist than a practitioner. Nonetheless, he acts as a catalyst for the plot, as he is the person who first talks to Gray about the nature of man, starting the thought process of questioning the essence of humanity (Wilde ch. 2). Preying on the protagonist’s vanity, he instills in him the idea of youthfulness at the very beginning of the book. Likewise, towards the middle of the storyline, he is the one to bestow a book upon Gray that solidifies his downfall, fully introducing him to a new, hedonistic world (Wilde ch. 10). Even stating in chapter 19 that murder is to the lower classes, as art is to the higher, he supports Gray through each moral blunder, steering him towards feeling forgiven each time.
The ideas of hedonism corrupt Gray, who, unwilling to resist this influence, even sees in the death of his fiancée no tragedy but an artistically worthwhile turn of events (Wilde ch. 8). Lord Henry himself, at their very first introduction in chapter 2, articulates the idea that “all influence is immoral,” effectively condemning himself (Wilde ch. 2). It is because of him, writes Harrison, “Gray no longer interprets acts as good or evil, but as pleasurable or boring” (11). The influence of Lord Henry is what leads Dorian Gray to his downfall, so Lord Henry, as the catalyst for this must be an enemy to Gray. It is crucial, to discern the role of Lord Henry, to keep in mind the ideals supported by the author, not by Lord Henry himself. Hence, it is feasible that Gray is his own foe, as he cannot resist the power that leads him to his death, and Lord Henry is merely an amused bystander.
Eastham, Andrew. “Characterless Aesthetics: Pater, Wilde, and the End of Hegelian Hellenism.” Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, vol. 23, 2014, pp. 19-36, Web.
Harrison, Colleen Cooper. “Aestheticism in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The Victorian, vol. 4, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-13, Web.
Livesey, Ruth. “Aestheticism.” Oscar Wilde in Context, edited by Kerry Powell and Peter Raby, Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp.261-269.
Scheible, Ellen. “Imperialism, Aesthetics, and Gothic Confrontation in the Picture of Dorian Gray.” New Hibernia Review, vol. 18, no. 4, 2014, pp. 131-150. Project Muse, Web.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 2008. Project Gutenberg, Web.