The Picture of Dorian Gray Themes
The three main themes in The Picture of Dorian Gray are homoerotic love, the indulgence of the senses, and morality.
- Homoerotic Love: Though the theme of homoerotic love is never stated explicitly, it may be present in Basil’s feelings for Dorian.
- The Indulgence of the Senses: Dorian attempts to live according to the view of life presented to him by Lord Henry.
- Morality: The novel presents at least two different ways of interpreting this theme. Since Dorian, who attempts to follow Lord Henry’s advice, ends up destroying many people’s lives, committing murder, and also corrupting his own soul, there is either something intrinsically wrong with Lord Henry’s new Hedonism, or Dorian has failed to understand it or erred in the way he has put it into practice.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771
Although the theme of homoerotic love is never stated explicitly (and could not be, given the conventions of the day), it may be present in Basil’s feelings for Dorian. He tells Lord Henry that he cannot he happy if he does not see Dorian every day. He is upset when Dorian becomes engaged to Sibyl. Later, he confesses to Dorian that from the first moment they met, he worshipped him. He says, “I grew jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you.” He is completely dominated by his feelings for the younger man, which also transfigure his perception of the entire world. Everything becomes wonderful to him because of Dorian. Basil presents what may be homoerotic attraction in different terms, as the lure of an aesthetic ideal. He worships Dorian because the beautiful young man allows him to fulfill his highest ideals as an artist. He tells Lord Henry that Dorian is to him “simply a motive in art.”
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The Indulgence of the Senses
Dorian attempts to live according to the view of life presented to him by Lord Henry. Lord Henry believes that nothing is gained by self-denial. He tells Dorian that people should not be afraid of their own desires and impulses, because in them lie the seeds of fulfillment and joy. His credo is “to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.” To live a full life, it is necessary to savor with the senses every passing moment. It is better to experience everything the world has to offer than to spend time worrying about ethics or morals. It is better to seek beauty, in the contemplation of art and beautiful objects, than to tie up the mind in intellectual concerns and with education. Lord Henry calls this philosophy a “new Hedonism.” (Hedonism is defined as pleasureseeking as a way of life.)
The novel presents at least two different ways of interpreting this theme. Since Dorian, who attempts to follow Lord Henry’s advice, ends up destroying many people’s lives, committing murder and suicide, and also corrupting his own soul, there is either something intrinsically wrong with Lord Henry’s new Hedonism, or Dorian has failed to understand it or erred in the way he has put it into practice.
Both views are possible. The novel can be read in moralistic terms as a condemnation of Dorian’s self-indulgent life. In a letter to the Daily Chronicle on June 30, 1890 (quoted in The Artist as Critic), Wilde himself sought to counter charges that the book was immoral and stated that it did have a moral: “All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment.” Wilde refers not only to Dorian but also to Basil and Lord Henry. Basil (said Wilde) worships physical beauty too much and creates an overweening vanity in Dorian, whereas Lord Henry seeks to be merely a spectator in life and is even more wounded by that stance than are those, like Dorian, who enter into life with more vigor. However, Wilde’s explanation is not in keeping with the preface to the novel, which he added after the negative reviews were published. The preface states in a number of different epigrammatic ways that art should have nothing to do with morality.
The second possible interpretation is that Dorian fails to understand Lord Henry’s credo. Indeed, it seems that Lord Henry himself does not live according to it either. As Wilde stated, he remains largely a spectator in life. His manner is languid, and he cultivates an ironic detachment from everything, even as he advocates passionate involvement. Lord Henry seems to do very little during the course of the novel other than exert psychological dominance over Dorian and attend dinner parties for the sole purpose of shocking people with his epigrams. But near the end he confides in Dorian: “I have sorrows, Dorian, of my own, that even you know nothing of.”
It seems that Lord Henry’s ideal is to take exquisite pleasure in the experience of the senses, to be wide awake sensually in every single moment of existence, while at the same time remaining undisturbed, keeping an evenness of mind. This is a paradox, since the proclaimed ideal is to be simultaneously involved and uninvolved in life. Lord Henry’s error is to cultivate one ideal—detachment— at the expense of the other. Dorian makes the opposite mistake. Neither is able to fulfill the theoretical goal of the new Hedonism.