Explain the 'essence and physical state' of human kind in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The essence and physical state of human kind that is shown in Wilde's work speaks to a specific philosophical appropriation of human consciousness.  This philosophical approach denies any transcendent notion of the good outside of subjective satisfaction.  Such a paradigm underscores both the characterizations offered and thematic implications of the work.

Dorian Gray is philosophically attracted to the philosophy Lord Henry articulates.  The New Hedonism approach is something to which Dorian Gray immediately applies himself.  Dorian Gray finds comfort in asserting that “to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul." Moved by this philosophical approach, Gray turns to the portrait and studies his own self- construction.  In examining the portrait's "beauty," Dorian Gray offers thoughts that Wilde establishes as reflecting the essence and physical state of human kind:

 "How sad it is!" murmured Dorian Gray with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. "How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. . . . If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that -- 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!"

In this moment, Wilde uses Gray to establish the essence of the physical state in human consciousness.  The physical decay of the body, the loss of the temporal, is Dorian Gray's primary concern.  He shows this in his fear of how he wishes that "If it were I who was to be always young and the picture was to grow old."  In accordance to the New Hedonist philosophy that proves to be so seductive to him, Gray is able to assert that his being in the world will revolve around the worshipping of the temporary and that which is temporal.  Wilde makes the argument that a significant part of human consciousness is the reveling in the physical.  An essential part of what it means to be human is the revering of this condition, one for which individuals would "give their soul."

Throughout the novel, Gray's reactions reflect how the essence of human identity revolves around the primacy placed on the physical state.  Gray acts only in the name of his "senses" and their gratification.  Breaking human bonds between one another, manipulation of human weakness, as well as murder are all elements that show the dangers of constructing an essence and physical state of human kind where sense gratification is all that matters.  Anything that is presented as transcendent is discarded as mere "details that are vulgar," according to Lord Henry.  

Wilde shows a setting in which the essence and physical state of the human being centers on temporal notions of the good.  In examining the rise and fall of Gray, Wilde shows the danger in such a condition. Wilde argues that human beings who fail to rise to something more transcendent and universal, something beyond their own subjective sense gratification, are doomed to a life of pain and hurt.  No better is this seen than in the ending description of Gray, staring at the portrait that meant so much to him at the start of the narrative:

It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had prayed for. But for those two things, his life might have been free from stain. His beauty had been to him but a mask, his youth but a mockery. What was youth at best? A green, an unripe time, a time of shallow moods, and sickly thoughts. Why had he worn its livery? Youth had spoiled him.

Coupled with the ending, it becomes clear that human beings suffer when primacy is placed on their physical state.  There is a hollow shallowness that results when the essence of their being is their physicality.  The ending shows that Gray is no longer recognizable.  This lack of recognition is reflective of how human beings end up drifting so far from original intent when the essence of their being lies in their physical state.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray

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