Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's only novel, is at once a gothic romance (in the tradition of Dracula and Frankenstein), a comedy of manners like his witty plays that made him England's most popular playwright for a time, and a treatise on the relationship between art and morality. The novel still presents its readers with a puzzle. There is as much disagreement over its meaning now as there was among its Victorian readers, but, as Wilde himself wrote in the Preface of his revised edition of the book, “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.”
Modern readers who come to this controversial and puzzling work will find it helpful to note the following concepts developed throughout the work:
The Worship of Beauty
Throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray, beauty reigns. It is Dorian's physical beauty that first attracts Basil and Lord Henry. It is loss of beauty that Dorian laments and motivates the plea that sets the novel in motion. Only at the end of the book does Dorian regret his decision to trade beauty for the excesses of life. Part of Lord Henry's success in society is his ability to convince others that he values the beautiful much more than the good.
Evidence of Wilde's Aestheticism in the Work
Although the aestheticists believed that art existed for its own sake, the novel can be interpreted to contradict that view. The very premise of the novel is that Dorian will lose his youthful, innocent beauty—not only because of age, but also because the quality of his soul will be reflected in his appearance. Certainly Dorian becomes aware the morning after breaking up with Sibyl that his portrait shows his spiritual and psychological deterioration.
Thus, the painting, the actual work of art, is not merely an object of beauty, but it is also a direct reflection and manifestation of Dorian Gray's soul. Basil, too, recognizes it as revealing too much of his soul. This is why he refuses to display it and gives it to Dorian instead.
Basil's portrait of Dorian Gray shows Dorian the physical burdens of age and sin from which he has been spared. For a time, Dorian is able to hide from this external rendering of his soul, but he eventually runs to see how it has changed after each of his depraved acts. It is significant that the painting was created as an expression of Basil's deep love for Dorian, and Dorian's worst act—killing Basil—is committed in the portrait's presence. It is likewise significant that Dorian tries to destroy the painting—thus destroying himself—with the same knife he used to kill Basil.
The Question of Art Versus Reality
Sibyl's acting: Dorian first falls in love with Sibyl because of her acting, her ability to feign emotions that she does not feel. After their engagement, when she can no longer act—no longer say words that do not represent what she truly feels—Dorian realizes that he did not love her but, instead, he loved the image she presented on the stage.
Dorian's portrait: The portrait is created as an artistic representationof Dorian's beauty, but it soon becomes the representation of thereality of Dorian's decaying soul.
Dorian himself: From the very beginning, Dorian is introduced as a thing of beauty, almost an objet d'art in his own right. He himself admits that his beauty is his finest attribute, and he offers his soul to preserve his beauty. Throughout the novel, even as rumors about Dorian's behavior begin to circulate, he never loses his favor with society because he maintains the appearance of goodness; hislikeness, as shown in the portrait, however, reveals his true nature.
Representations of Freud's Three Aspects of the Personality
Dorian Gray—lives the hedonistic life Wotton preaches in his philosophy, knowing he will suffer no consequences because of the painting. His ability to surrender to pure desire and impulse without regard to consequences represents Freud's concept of the id.
Lord Henry Wotton
(The entire section is 1,005 words.)