The Picture of Dorian Gray presents three intriguing characters, all of whom represent in different ways the relationship between art and life, contemplation and action, beauty and ethics. But neither Lord Henry Wotton nor Basil Hallward nor Dorian Gray embodies the ideal to which each aspires, and they all fail catastrophically in one way or another. The Picture of Dorian Gray is not a novel for the optimist.
Lord Henry is often pilloried by critics as a cynic who manipulates Dorian into doing the things that he advocates but is too withdrawn and too frightened to do himself. In this view, Henry is a tired man who wants to live vicariously through a younger, more beautiful specimen who has the ability (or so Lord Henry supposes) to experience life as Lord Henry believes it ought to be experienced.
No doubt all this is true. But Lord Henry certainly has his appeal, since he is the chief vehicle in the novel for Wilde’s dazzling epigrammatic wit, and his aesthetic ideal needs to be taken seriously. What, then, does Lord Henry stand for? A clue to his governing aesthetic can be found in the opening scene of the novel, which takes place in Basil’s studio. The door of the studio is open, and the rich sights, sounds, and smells of the adjoining garden, as the light summer wind blows, are vividly described. Henry is characteristically taking it easy by lying on the divan, but he is aware of all the sensory life going on around him—the heavy scent of the lilac, the almost unbearable beauty of the laburnum blossoms, the “sullen murmur” of the bees. Just as importantly, he is aware of the shadows cast on the curtains by the flight of birds, which reminds him of Japanese artists, who “through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion.”
This passage suggests Lord Henry’s ideal, which is to cultivate an intensity of experience whilst paradoxically remaining undisturbed and untroubled by it. This ideal is fully realized through the contemplation of art, which permits the observer the privilege of being at once involved and uninvolved in the experience. It is in this sense that art is superior to life, as Wilde so often claimed, and this is what Henry is driving at when he instructs the malleable mind of Dorian on how to react to the suicide of Sibyl. He must view it, says Lord Henry, from the perspective of art, as a scene from some Jacobean tragedy. What he means is that tragic drama has the power to evoke in the spectator a full and sympathetic response but one that does not engulf him or her in actual grief. Lord Henry is here a spokesman for the position Wilde staked out in his essay, “The Critic as Artist”:
Art does not hurt us. The tears that we shed at a play are a type of the exquisite sterile emotions that it is the function of Art to awaken. We weep, but we are not wounded. We grieve, but our grief is not bitter.
In this view, art shields people from the harshness of actual existence. It is to be preferred to life because, as Wilde writes earlier in the same essay, life, unlike art, lacks form:
Its catastrophes happen in the wrong way and to the wrong people. There is a grotesque horror about its comedies, and its tragedies seem to culminate in farce. One is always wounded when one approaches it.
Dorian is convinced by Henry’s argument. Changing his way of responding to Sibyl’s death, he recovers his equanimity (or so he thinks). Of course, Dorian’s fatal mistake, according to Lord Henry’s philosophy, is to get his emotions tied up with Sibyl in the first place, because that has inflicted a wound on the invisible level of life (the level of soul, or conscience, as reflected in the changing picture) that extracts a bitter price further down the road.
It is to avoid wounds such as these that Wilde argues, in “The Critic as Artist,” for the superiority of contemplation over action, being (or more precisely, becoming) over doing. And this is why art, he says, can have nothing to do with ethics, since ethics applies only to the sphere of action. This is why Lord Henry appears to withdraw from life and seek perfection only in art.
And yet there is another side to Lord Henry’s philosophy. In contrast to the inward impulse is the push outward, the desire for the sensory world. He advocates a life of passionate personal experience, to be enjoyed most fully in youth, while the senses are at their sharpest. He will have nothing of self-denial. As he tells Dorian, “Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us.” Henry’s “new Hedonism,” in which novel...
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