The society of Oscar Wilde's narrative is one that supports the facade rather than the reality as each of the three characters of The Picture of Dorian Gray exhibits a certain illusion about himself. Before the narrative begins, the artist Basil has attended a party as he knows that he must circulate in society in order to profit from his painting; while he is at one party, Basil sees Dorian Gray, and is immediately taken by the beauty of this Adonis. Since the beautiful, the aesthetic, is essential to Basil, he asks to paint Dorian's portrait. But, afterwards, he realizes that he has revealed too much of himself in his painting and tries to hide it from the cynical Lord Henry.
Certainly, the antagonist of the novel, Lord Henry Wotton exploits Dorian's desire to retain his youth. Lord Henry is representative of Walter Pater, whom Oscar Wilde admired.
Pater emphasized the fleeting nature of life and argued that the most important thing was to relish the exquisite sensations life brings, especially those stimulated by a work of art. The aim was to be fully present and to live vividly in each passing moment.
While Lord Henry would like to live a hedonistic life himself, he does not wish to relinquish his position in society. So, he corrupts Dorian instead, who wishes to retain his beauty, instructing him, "Sin is the only real colour element left in modern life." Lord Henry, thus, exploits Dorian's vanity and self-indulgence for his own vicarious pleasure, acting as Dorian's inspiration:
Yes; he would try to be to Dorian Gray what, without knowing it, the lad was to the painter who had fashioned the wonderful portrait.
And, yet, he envies Dorian. Conversing with Dorian in Chapter XIX, he tells him,
I wish I could change places with you, Dorian. The world has cried out against us both, but it has always worshipped you....You are the type of what the age is searching for, and what it is afraid it has found. I am so glad that you have never done anything...Life has been your art.
Basil, of course, has worried about the influence of Lord Henry upon Dorian. When he visits Dorian in Chapter XII to inform him that "dreadful things" are being said about him. Basil asks Dorian, "I wonder do I know you? Before I could answer that I should have to see your soul." When he does perceive the interior of Dorian's heart as Dorian reveals Basil's painting, which now betrays his soul, Basil is greatly shaken, realizing that his love of the aesthetic has been corrupted by Dorian Gray. Although Dorian tells him it is too late for him to repent his sins, Basil insists,
"Let us kneel down and try if we cannot remember a prayer. Isn't there a verse somewhere, "Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them white as snow?"
But, the corrupted Dorian feels only revulsion and hatred for Basil, and he kills him.
Lord Wotton has said, "If a man treats life artistically,his brain is in his heart." "Like the painting of a sorrow," Dorian adds. With the theme of Art and the Imitation of Life, The Picture of Dorian Gray depicts the effects of the pursuance of art and the facade has upon the souls of the three main characters. For, the risk of perceiving life only through the lens of art is that if one gets too close, he ruins the illusion. And, the closer one comes to art as a facade, the more one invites destruction.