illustration of the upper-right corner of Dorian Gray's picture

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

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In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the inability to distinguish between art and reality has tragic consequences. Discuss the validity of this statement.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is the conscious choice to aestheticize reality, which Dorian does when he transfers his physical aging to a painting, that has tragic consequences, not the inability to to distinguish between art and reality. Dorian always remains acutely aware of the difference between art and reality.

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In this novel, the issue is not so much the inability to distinguish between art and reality as it is the conscious choice—and supernatural ability—to aestheticize reality and, in so doing, to sever the connection between morality and beauty. Ugliness has a deeply moral dimension in this story and is understood as both a consequence of and a check on immoral behavior. Once physical ugliness is removed as consequence, Dorian Gray is able to act unchecked on his impulses.

In this profoundly moral novel, Dorian Gray is tragically able to make a deal with the devil, in which he trades the aging of his beautiful body with the aging of a portrait of himself. He becomes, in physical form, the work of art that never ages or changes. The work of art, which he hides in the attic, becomes increasing older and corrupt instead, showing all of Dorian's moral degradation.

Dorian is, tragically, able to distinguish between art and reality. It is what he can't escape. He knows the picture is aging instead of him, and he understands the freedom to harm and destroy others that his unchanging beauty affords him. Dorian assumes that the increased ugliness that comes with his aging is due as much to or more to his sins—our moral errors—than to the natural processes of aging. Because he carries the stigmata, so to speak, of sin on a body, this eventually becomes a warning to others, signaling them to be repulsed by and to stay away from our physical and moral corruption. To the extent that there is confusion between art and reality, it is in the people who confused by Dorian's appearance.

The novel's main characters, especially Dorian and Henry, are obsessed with outward beauty or aestheticism. Dorian places an excessive importance of preserving his looks and surrounding himself with beautiful art. His mistake is in thinking that he can shellac over moral ugliness with these outward forms. This doesn't work, and Dorian's moral anguish and psychological misery at the empty life outward beauty causes him to lead brings him to increasingly loath both his life and his painting—the manifestation of his soul. He comes to hate his corrupt inner self to the point that he commits a form of "suicide" by stabbing his painting, an act which leads to his own death.

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In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian is an extraordinarily beautiful young man who is the muse of talented artist Basil Hallward. Dorian sits for hundreds of portraits with Basil, who is obsessed with Dorian's beauty. One day Dorian meets Basil's friend Lord Henry Wotton who tells him that, as he becomes older, his beauty will fade, and he should take advantage of his youth while he can. Dorian had not really considered his beauty much, but after Lord Henry's words, he views Basil's latest portrait differently. He believes the portrait is mocking him—as the beauty of the Dorian in the painting will never fade while he will become old:

I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me . . . Every moment that passes takes something from me and gives something to it. Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now!

Following Lord Henry's advice, Dorian begins to lead a life devoted to pleasure, beauty, and excess, giving no thought to morals or other people:

To cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.

Whilst following this life of "new Hedonism," Dorian hurts people, commits murder, causes a suicide, and destroys his own soul; but he remains young and beautiful whilst Basil's portrait of him becomes old and ugly. The portrait represents the truth about Dorian, which is why he hides it away in a disused room at the top of the house. However, after killing his friend Basil, Dorian becomes paranoid and tormented by guilt. He stabs the painting, but in doing so he kills himself:

When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.

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Dorian Gray leads what could be described as an aestheticized existence. In choosing to live out his sordid fantasies he's blurring the distinction between art and life. Dorian finds it impossible to live in a society governed by what he sees as petty moral values. He wants to experience life in all its richness, strangeness, and depth.

As he's unable to do this in respectable middle-class society, he retreats into a world of his own making, an aestheticized world in which, like an artist, he can give full vent to his creativity. Instead of creating works of art, however, he commits acts of unspeakable debauchery, each one more sordid than the last.

Dorian may have successfully created his own little world, but in the meantime the real world that he's left behind carries on much as before, and there's absolutely nothing he can do about it. The changing face of the portrait has come to represent the truth, but not in a narrowly aesthetic sense. In displaying the corrupt state of Dorian's soul, the picture is asserting, somewhat ironically, the separation of art and life, just as Dorian, in living a life of debauchery, tries to keep them together.

Eventually, however, Dorian recognizes the impossibility of this task and in destroying the portrait—and also himself—finally acknowledges that life and art are not the same.

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