Last Updated on May 31, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1417
Oscar Wilde began his literary efforts with poetry, which was a common approach in his day. He published Ravenna in 1878. He would write little poetry after the release of Poems in 1881. For the next several years he gave lectures in Europe and the United States, establishing his name on both sides of the Atlantic. He also assumed the editorship of a monthly magazine, The Lady’s World, which was rechristened The Woman’s World.
In the late 1880’s Wilde wrote two collections of fairy tales as well as a number of short stories, essays, and book reviews. He steadily gained attention as a writer, social critic, and, most of all, aesthete. Literary critics frequently were unenthusiastic, or even hostile, toward his works, finding them to be overly contrived or recklessly immoral. It is true that Wilde’s writing can at times assume a baroque ornamentation and artificiality. There is no doubt that Wilde’s characteristic indolence (which he exaggerated for show) constrained his ability to see his works through to the final stages of editing and polishing. It is true also that Wilde’s writing frequently ridiculed social conventions, mores, and morals. Wilde was, however, indisputably an ingenious analyst of art and culture, possessing a mastery of prose and verse and equipped with a keen sense of paradox.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde’s only novel was published in its complete form in 1891. It is not a long book, and some of its features reflect the writer’s haste or carelessness. However, the story is a fascinating and engaging one, at once depicting basic elements of human nature and conjuring fantastic, almost gothic images. Its plot is rather simple, but the ideas and issues that the narrative presents are complex and even profound. Perhaps for this reason the book has stood the test of time.
The story centers on three figures: an artist (Basil Hallward), his clever but impudent friend (Lord Henry Wotton), and a young, attractive, and impressionable man (Dorian Gray). Basil paints a full-length portrait of young Dorian and presents it to him as a gift. Lord Henry, who meets Dorian for the first time at Basil’s studio, talks at length about the supreme value, but transience, of youth. Immediately drawn to Lord Henry’s theories, Dorian observes the just-completed portrait of himself and remarks on “how sad it is” that he “shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young.If it were only the other way!” In the first section of the book, therefore, Wilde sets up a framework to examine some fundamental ideas about art and beauty: the transience of beauty, the inevitability of aging and death, the goal of the artist to “capture” beauty in art, and the corruptive influence of ideas, among others.
Wilde uses Lord Henry—whom Wilde later declared to be a depiction of how the public perceived Wilde—to provide the corruptive theories and ideas. Throughout the book Lord Henry utters clever aphorisms and paradoxes in Wilde’s celebrated wordplay. Dorian is infatuated by Lord Henry and appears receptive to his theories and values. Readers soon see evidence of the corruptive influence of those theories and values in Dorian’s behavior. Dorian becomes smitten by a young actress in a seedy theater. He returns with Basil and Lord Henry to watch her perform, but this time he is disappointed by her acting. After the performance the actress declares to Dorian that he has helped her see how false is her world of acting—the false world of the stage—and she declares her love for him. Dorian, however, spitefully dismisses her, claiming that she had thrown away her artistic genius and poetic intellect. Now, she “simply produce(s) no effect.”
Upon returning home, Dorian observes a slight change in the portrait Basil had painted of him. Dorian notes a “touch of cruelty in the mouth.” It becomes evident that the painting shows the outward signs of sin and of aging, while Dorian himself does not change appearance. Although first horrified by this, Dorian eventually learns to take advantage of the situation. The narrative traces an ever-worsening degradation of Dorian Gray’s soul. He lives for sensations and self-gratification, without regard for the consequences of his actions for others. He is seemingly unbound by any sense of morality—indeed, the very notion of violating moral strictures seems to be an attractive prospect for him. Near theclimax of the story Dorian goes so far as to murder Basil.
The story thus raises provocative questions about morality and self-imposed restraint. If a person could be assured that any indulgences, including gluttony, sexual abandon, and avarice, would have no effects on his or her earthly body, would self-control survive? What opportunities and temptations are imposed on a person who possesses unusual and eternal beauty? What is the relationship between virtue and constraint? What are the consequences of unexposed moral degradation? Indeed, what are the causes of immorality?
The Picture of Dorian Gray aroused enormous indignation in Wilde’s contemporaries, and it was treated especially harshly by most critics. There seemed to be a consensus that the book itself was immoral, that it could corrupt readers, and that it somehow promoted decadent behavior. One can easily arrive at the opposite conclusion, however. The story clearly emphasizes the costs of self-indulgent, immoral behavior. It literally shows this in the changes that appear in the painting, which is understood to portray the condition of Dorian’s soul. The story also makes a point of noting the harm done to others by Dorian’s misbehavior: reputations ruined, hearts broken, suicides induced, murders committed. In no way does the book portray the corruption of Dorian Gray in a glamorous or seductive way. Instead, the effect is to repulse the reader.
The book might be somewhat corruptive in its suggestion that immorality may be less a choice than simply a product of circumstances. We have no reason to believe that Dorian Gray is intrinsically evil; rather, if the book’s basic premise is that one’s soul is normally reflected in one’s appearance, then the introduction of Dorian as possessing “youth’s passionate purity” conveys the idea that he is especially innocent. Ironically, Wilde himself was accused of corrupting a young man (Lord Alfred Douglas), and his writings (including The Picture of Dorian Gray) were held up as evidence of his dangerous ideas. That Wilde responded that he believed there was no such thing as an immoral book, only a badly written one, compounds the irony.
The fatalistic view of sin (which might be consistent with Wilde’s religious upbringing, such as it was) is further evidenced when Dorian is unable to change his course toward the end of the book. He feels his past starting to catch up with him as people he has wronged, or their defenders, begin to identify him and his actions. Resolving to abandon his ways, Dorian decides to do a good deed; he cancels an arranged plan to go off with (and undoubtedly take advantage of) a young female acquaintance. When he subsequently examines the portrait for evidence of his good deed, however, he detects only a smirk of hypocrisy.
In a conclusion laden with symbolism, Dorian considers his situation hopeless. He reflects that “there [is] a God who called upon men to tell their sins to earth as well as to heaven.” He cannot fathom how he could ever confess his sins, however, and he recognizes that even his attempt to do good sprung from a hypocritical desire to experience new sensations. In desperation, he decides to drive a knife into the loathsome painting, which reflects all his sins. The servants downstairs hear a scream, and when they enter the room they see the portrait, restored to its original beauty, hanging on the wall. Dorian Gray lies on the floor with a knife in his heart, looking just as the figure in the loathsome portrait had moments earlier.
The conclusion creates a striking and stark symmetry, although how it answers the questions raised earlier is unclear. Still, the ending is satisfying in that it allows reality finally to come out of hiding. The parallels to Wilde’s life are exceptional. While Wilde noted that the character of the languid iconoclast Lord Henry reflected how people viewed Wilde, he also asserted that it was the artist, Basil, whom Wilde actually resembled, and that it was Dorian himself whom Wilde wanted to be.
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