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“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde’s only novel, is almost written in the style of a dramatic play rather than the conventions of the novel at the time. He does not seem to be concerned with going into long detail with describing the setting of the story, but more concerned with the dialog and demeanor of the characters to further the plot along.
Also like his plays, in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” Wilde doesn’t use many characters to tell the story. The plot centers on only three major characters: Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil. Besides focusing on what these characters say, Wilde depends a lot on the reader’s interpretation of the way they act and behave to certain situations, instead of just telling the reader about it as a typical author of the time would do in a novel.
Oscar Wilde was a member of the Aesthetic movement, a movement that said art should exist for its own sake. Much of what he wrote in A Picture of Dorian Gray was a reflection of this idea, from its aphorisms to its ornate prose to the allegorical nature that characterizes the story.
Wilde uses aphorisms to draw his reader into the story. In his Preface, for example, he says, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim.” In the very first line of the novel, Wilde tells us that art, the creation of beauty, is what is most important. This applies not only to the way he writes, but also to what he writes about. He says, “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated,” challenging the reader to find those beautiful meanings. He also challenges the reader to go beneath the surface of his narrative when he says, “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.” Telling the reader not to search for meaning beneath the surface only makes the reader inclined to do just that.
Wilde’s use of ornate prose throughout the novel is another great example of the aesthetic style. Wilde could use simpler words, and he could construct his sentences differently. He does not do this because, after all, part of his purpose is to write beautifully for the sake of writing beautifully. “I wonder can you realize all that that means? Unconsciously he defines for me the lines of a fresh school, a school that is to have in it all the passion of the romantic spirit, all the perfection of the spirit that is Greek. The harmony of soul and body—how much that is!” (Chapter 1). The way Wilde expresses himself is part of the point he is trying to make about beauty for its own sake.
Finally, the story Wilde is trying to tell is an allegory. Why write an allegory when a simple, straightforward story would do? In keeping with the aesthetic movement, Wilde structures the story as an allegory in order to celebrate this style. Dorian’s story is the story of an innocent young man who falls from grace as the result of the corruptive influence of evil in the form of Lord Henry. Dorian essentially sells his soul to keep his youth. In using the portrait as part of the allegory, Oscar Wilde challenges the reader to discover that art cannot be life, and that beauty for its own sake also has its flaws.
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