The only published novel by Oscar Wilde, which appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, was seen as immoral and scandalous, so the editors of the magazine censored about five hundred words without Wilde’s knowledge. Even with that, the novel was not received very well. Disappointed with this, Wilde revised his novel, added a preface, where he explains his philosophy of art, and six new chapters. Since Wilde was devoted to aestheticism, he believed that art had no purpose, nor moral nor political, because art is beautiful and therefore has worth.
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His attitude was revolutionary, since Victorian England believed that art could be used for social education and moral enlightenment. Aestheticism fought to free art from this belief. The aestheticists were motivated as much by a contempt for bourgeois morality, a sensibility embodied in Dorian Gray by Lord Henry, whose every word seems designed to shock the ethical certainties of the burgeoning middle class, as they were by the belief that art does not need to possess any other purpose than being beautiful. There are two works of art that dominate the novel.
Basil’s painting and the mysterious yellow book that Lord Henry gives Dorian. They are not presented in aesthetic but in Victorian sensibilities, which means that both the portrait and the French novel have a purpose. The portrait is a kind of a mysterious mirror which shows Dorian the physical aging his body will not go through, while the French novel is a kind of a map which leads Dorian further towards infamy. Readers know nothing about the composition of the French novel, but they can see Basil’s state of mind while painting the picture.
He states that all art is “unconscious, ideal, and remote” but his portrait of Dorian is everything but unconscious, ideal and remote. The first principle of aestheticism is that art serves no other purpose than to offer beauty, and throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray, beauty reigns. It is a way to revive the tired senses, as indicated by the effect that Basil’s painting has on the cynical Lord Henry. It is also a way of escaping the brutalities of the world. Dorian distances himself, as well as his consciousness, from the horrors of his actions by devoting himself to the tudy of beautiful things—music, jewels, rare tapestries. In a society that cherishes beauty, youth and physical attractiveness become extremely valuable. When they meet for the very first time, Lord Henry reminds Dorian that soon enough he will lose his most precious attributes. The Duchess of Monmouth says to Lord Henry that he values these things too much, and indeed, Dorian’s eventual demise confirms that. And although beauty and youth remain of greatest importance at the end of the novel, the novel suggests that the price one must pay for them is extremely high, which Dorian proved by giving his soul for them.
Logically, society which cherishes beauty above all else is a society which is shallow and values only what is on the surface. What matters most to Dorian, Lord Henry, and their polite company, is not whether a man is good at heart but rather whether he is handsome. Despite Dorian’s “mode of life,” he remains at the heart of the London social scene because of the “innocence” and “purity of his face. ” Both the portrait and the French novel have a great influence on Dorian’s life. They influence him to behave in an immoral way for almost twenty years.
By reflecting on Dorian’s power over Basil and deciding that he would like to seduce Dorian in the same way, Lord Henry points out that there is something fascinating in practicing this kind of influence. Falling under influence cannot be avoided. Basil’s idolatry of Dorian leads to his murder, and Dorian’s devotion to Lord Henry’s hedonism and the yellow book precede his own downfall. In a novel that prizes individualism, the sacrifice of one’s self, whether to another person or to a work of art, leads to one’s destruction. The picture of Dorian Gray, “the most magical of mirrors,” shows him what he has been spared- physical aging.
For a period of time, Dorian has only one goal in life, and lives according to it, not paying attention to his conscience, and that goal is only pleasure. On the other hand, Dorian’s portrait represents his conscience and haunts him. The portrait knows his crimes, it reminds Dorian of the cruelty he has shown towards Sybil Vane, and the murder of Basil Hallward. Another motif which plays a large role in Oscar Wilde’s novel is the homoerotic bond between men. Basil’s portrait of Dorian develops from his adoration of Dorian’s beauty, and Lord Henry has a strong desire to seduce Dorian.
This relationship between men represents aesthetic values that Wilde was fighting for, because it brought him back to antique times, when youth and beauty was appreciated most, and it was fundamental in society and often expressed through a relationship between two men. Since Wilde was a homosexual himself, living in an intolerant society, fighting for this philosophy was his way of justifying his lifestyle. He thought homosexuality was a sign of refined culture and not a sin. He thought that a relationship between an elder and a younger man resembled the tradition of Plato, Michelangelo and Shakespeare.
The use of the white colour can represent Dorian’s transition from the figure of innocence to the figure of degradation. White usually implies innocence and blankness, and it is true in the case when the readers are first introduced with Dorian. And that ‘’white purity’’ actually catches Lord Henry’s attention. Basil tries to invoke whiteness when he finds out that Dorian has sacrificed his innocence. He stares horrified at the portrait and quotes a biblical verse from the Book of Isaiah: “Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them as white as snow” but to no avail, since Dorian’s innocence is lost.
When the white colour appears again, it is seen on the face of James Vane, but now it is transformed from the colour of innocence to the colour of death. At the end of the novel, Dorian yearns for his “rose-white boyhood” but the hope is lost, and he cannot wash away his sins. In the novel, the portrait stands for the most magical of mirrors, duplicating the corruption of Dorian’s soul, while his ageless handsome face is a mask hiding the soul’s progress in evil. The mask can hide the lack of identity and emptiness, and although everyone fears exposure of his own nothingness, to others one’s mask is one’s face, the only one they know.
On the other hand, the mirror reflects not only the mask but the hidden truth of one’s face. While the mask is to be worn for the world, the mirror is used for facing the truth about oneself. The mask is for others’ inspection, the mirror for one’s own introspection. The opium dens, which is located in a remote and derelict section of London, represents Dorian’s state of mind. After killing Basil, Dorian goes there to forget the awful crime he has committed by losing consciousness and becoming numb.
He has a canister of opium at home, but he still travels to the dark dens, which represents the degradation of his soul. Another representative of Dorian’s dark and tortured soul is James Vane, the brother of Sibyl Vane. He represents Dorian’s conscience, as well as the relative seeking revenge. He is like a ghost with his white face, and he makes Dorian accept the crimes he has committed. Lord Henry gives Dorian a yellow book, which is only described as a French novel, which describes the experiences of its main character who is seeking pleasure.
Dorian buys a dozen of copies of this book, and bases his life and actions on it, and in this way the French novel becomes a sort of a holy grail to Dorian. The book represents the profound and damaging influence that art can have over an individual and serves as a warning to those who would surrender themselves so completely to such an influence. In the end we can see that the philosophy that Oscar Wild proposes in The Picture of Dorian Gray can be extremely seductive and liberating. Wilde shows the readers that the society and conscience both make living the philosophy he fought for extremely difficult and, in the end, even painful.