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

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

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Describe Lord Henry Wotton's character and his influence on Dorian in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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Lord Henry Wotton is a louche aristocrat, a hedonist determined to have a good time all the time. He influences Dorian Gray by encouraging him to do likewise, to engage in constant pleasure-seeking, even if involves activities that society finds abhorrent. Wotton's impact on Dorian is ultimately damaging, as he sinks further and further into vice and degradation.

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Lord Henry is a wealthy aesthete and hedonist, meaning he believes the pursuit of beauty and pleasure are the most important life goals. He is a persuasive and charismatic figure, so dangerous that the artist Basil Hallward doesn't want him to meet and corrupt the young and innocent Dorian Gray, whose portrait he is painting.

However, Dorian does meet Lord Henry and is soon filled with the dissatisfaction Lord Henry instills in him that his moment of peak beauty and pleasure in life is about to pass and will never come again. Under Henry's influence, and hardly knowing what he is doing, Dorian trades his soul for his picture to age instead of himself.

Lord Henry, therefore, is the Mephistopheles figure in the novel, the agent for the devil. He always has smooth words for Dorian, courting him and flattering him, as well as intoxicating him with a heady life of champagne, fine dining, and beautiful artifacts. When Dorian tries to counter Lord Henry's hedonist philosophy by arguing that there is always a price for indulging in too much sin and pleasure, Lord Henry calls his thinking "medieval." Lord Henry says that morality is for the poor and sin one of the privileges the rich can afford. He tells Dorian:

Believe me, no civilized man ever regrets a pleasure.

This sums up Lord Henry's view of life. Dorian finds out too late that Lord Henry is a shallow, empty person underneath the glamorous façade. Lord Henry's decadence leaves Dorian empty, miserable, and despairing.

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In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton is the epitome of decadence and self-indulgence. A louche aristocrat, he is an incorrigible hedonist, someone devoted to a life of constant pleasure, most of it sensual.

For Lord Henry, life is about seeking one sensation after another, even if—in fact, especially if—it involves challenging and undermining society's mores, which he regards with utter contempt as puritanical.

Lord Henry has quite a large number of unusual theories, all of which aim, more or less, at undermining society's notions of truth. In themselves, such ideas are harmless, but when put into practice, they are truly disastrous. His all-consuming belief in hedonism, when practiced by Dorian Gray, leads to death and suffering, causing Dorian to become dragged deeper and deeper into a mire of vice and moral corruption.

The irony here is that Lord Henry leads a pretty staid existence; he doesn't practice what he preaches. But the impressionable young Dorian takes Lord Henry's worldview very seriously indeed, so much so that he acts according to its dictates at every opportunity, with truly catastrophic consequences.

And yet, despite Dorian's tragic decline, Lord Henry doesn't understand its meaning. That's because he lives in a world where ideas have no real consequences.

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An aristocrat and hedonist, Lord Henry Wotton is the middle-aged, rich, and powerful nephew of Lord Fermor, and he is also the friend of Dorian Gray's friend and painter, Basil Hallward. 

As a hedonist, Lord Henry's life is dedicated exclusively to searching for pleasure and for "sensations"; such yearnings can only be satiated by engaging in any of the many temptations available to man.

Yes, there was to be, as Lord Henry had prophesied, a new Hedonism that was to recreate life, and to save from that harsh, uncomely puritanism that is having, in our own day, its curious revival. (Ch. 11)

Part of his "hedonist manifesto" also precludes the search and adoration of the ultimate forms of beauty. Henry takes particular interest in Dorian Gray because the young man is described as the epitome of male physical beauty. 

Lord Henry's fixation with Dorian could be interpreted from a homoerotic perspective, but Wilde gives less importance to this and more importance to the aesthetically-motivated purpose of Lord Henry: to make Dorian his ultimate creation by injecting this angelical-looking man's soul with the poison that comes out of giving into a life of extreme pleasures.

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. (Ch.2)

In Lord Henry's mind, the mixture of forbidden pleasures and the beauty of Dorian would mean perfection perfected: a sensually inviting man leading a life of careless debauchery is what, ultimately, Lord Henry would have wanted as a life for himself. Why not create the creature, and watch what happens when perfect beauty and perfect evil combine?

This is a logical course of action for a hedonist to take: pleasure without the consequences of extremes. Lord Henry will set up the scenario to Dorian's lusts and debauchery, while Wotton happily enjoys the action develop. Hence, after finding out the tragedy behind Dorian's birth, Henry was even more interested in twisting Dorian into a plaything.

Yes; he would try to be to Dorian Gray what, without knowing it, the lad was to the painter who had fashioned the wonderful portrait. He would seek to dominate him-had already, indeed, half done so. He would make that wonderful spirit his own. There was something fascinating in this son of Love and Death.

Ultimately, Lord Henry demonstrates that whatever influence anyone exerts over anyone else is proportional with the inner soul of the individual. If the essence of your soul is capable to resist temptation, the latter will mean nothing. However, remember the most important thing: when Dorian exchanged his soul for eternal youth, he had no longer a soul; with no soul, temptation can cause havoc. Lord Henry definitely wins in the end.

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Lord Henry Wotton, who is quite impressed by Dorian and who unfortunately becomes Dorian's role model, is a selfish man who is absorbed with the observance of life at the expense of participation in life. He sees himself as separate from, detached from, the lives and personalities around him. This detachment is symbolized by his favorite activity of making up epigrams that reverse moral or ethical codes.

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