Discuss the language features of The Picture of Dorian Gray  Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Composed much more of dialogue than lengthy descriptive sentences, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is more a drama than it is a novel. The brevity of description is often covered in the witty and warm conversations of the characters such as the dissolute Lord Henry who constantly emits sparks with his gentle satire on different elements of society.  For instance, in his conversation with the artist, Basil Hallward, who tells Lord Henry about his sensations that his soul and art were "absorbed" upon his first encounter with the beautiful Dorian Gray, Lord Henry reacts,

Conscience and cowardice are really the same things, Basil.  Conscience is the trade name of the firm.  That is all.

Marriage, women, faithfulness, romance, humanity, stupidity, and even weather are all topics for the "sharp and sweet tongue" of Lord Henry's epigrams.  His ease of expression creats vivid images in the mind of the reader, who gains a greater insight into Wilde's intent.

As critic Richard Ellman writes in an introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray,

The book is his parable of the impossibility of leading a life on aesthetic terms. 

Through the actions and speech of Dorian Gray, Wilde shows that a life supposedly free of conscience and duty never is.  Gray self-indulgence exceeds conscience and he vandalizes his own portrait to cover his sins, thus sacrificing his own life.

The most salient language features, then, are epigrams.  With the parable of Dorian Gray, there are the underlying myths of the fall of man, the legend of Faust with Lord Wotton playing the role of Satan, and, of course the tale of Narcissus as Dorian Gray, indeed, falls in love with himself.  All of these tales underscore Wilde's "disclaimer" in the preface of his novel that "no artist has ethical sympathies...All art is at once surface and symbol."

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