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Aestheticism and Morality in Oscar Wilde’s « The Picture of Dorian Gray» (1890)

Par Louise Bailly : Élève normalienne - ENS de Lyon
Publié par lbailly le 17/09/2020

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Known for his witty aphorisms, fanciful style and extravagant way of life, Oscar Wilde was not only a dandy ((par excellence)) but also a major figure of nineteenth-century literature. In ((The Picture of Dorian Gray)), he expresses his belief that art should be dissociated from moral considerations and creates an anti-hero at odds with traditional protagonists whose virtuous behaviours were meant to be exemplary models.

Cet article a été rédigé dans le cadre d'un stage à l'ENS de Lyon.


The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only novel, and one of his major - and most controversial – works. The Irishman, born into a privileged Dublin family and educated at Oxford, was at the time known in London for giving public lectures on aesthetics. He had written some poems and short stories, but The Picture of Dorian Gray marked the beginning of his great successes, with later plays like The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), essays such as The Critic as Artist (1891) or The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891), and the poem The Ballad of Reading Goal (1898), which he wrote following his incarceration for homosexual conduct in 1895-97.

The novel tells the story of Dorian Gray, an exceptionally handsome young man who has his portrait painted by his friend Basil Hallward. When Dorian contemplates the picture for the first time, he is struck by the sight of his own beauty and wishes that the painting would grow old in his place. His desire comes true: Dorian realises that the portrait progressively deteriorates as he falls deeper and deeper into sin under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton’s hedonistic world views and the assurance of keeping forever “the unstained purity of youth” (189).

[A picture of the cover of the July, 1890 edition of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, where "The Picture of Dorian Gray" was first published. Source: Wikipedia, Public Domain.]

When The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in July 1890, it was decried as profoundly immoral even though some passages had already been censored by the publisher. One critic wrote for instance in the Daily Chronicle that it was “a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Décadents – a poisonous book”, and denounced “its effeminate frivolity” and “its theatrical cynicism” (([Anonymous], Review of The Picture of Dorian GrayDaily Chronicle, 30 June 1890, 7, repr. in Beckson (ed.), Critical Heritage, 72. It is worth mentioning that the book was used as a piece of evidence of Oscar Wilde’s “gross indecency” during his trials in 1895.)). Such attacks led to the publication of a revised edition in 1891, with six additional chapters and a preface in which Wilde rejected the attribution of moral values to works of art and literature, famously asserting that “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written – that is all”. In a playfully provocative tone, The Picture of Dorian Gray explores the depths of human conscience and problematises literature’s influence upon the reader within a highly moralistic society.

1. A Gothic narrative of duplicity and transgression

Although not always categorised as such, The Picture of Dorian Gray is distinctively set in the tradition of the Gothic novel. Wilde’s Faustian tale of a man who sacrifices his soul for eternal youth and a life of pleasures features one of the genre’s essential themes: the violation of natural and moral laws, through which society’s deepest anxieties are represented. The “magical” painting in particular introduces a supernatural dimension which typically challenges the intelligibility of the world depicted and unsettles defined boundaries. As the portrait acquires “a life of its own” (113), the dichotomy between art and life is blurred, as well as the one between appearances and reality; the picture acts as a reversed mirror, reflecting Dorian’s true inner self (or soul) whereas he, “the original” Dorian (28), only shows the deceitful mask of youth and purity. This duplicity is revelatory of a chiaroscuro aesthetic which is reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and creates a dark atmosphere. The personality split is however deeply aestheticised here, and partially transferred to a material object, the painting.

If, as Kelly Hurley declared, “Gothic provided a space to explore phenomena at the borders of human identity and culture—insanity, criminality, barbarity, sexual perversion” ((Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1996), 6.)), Wilde’s novel is exemplary of the fin-de-siècle modern treatment of such themes. By the end of the nineteenth century, new scientific progresses and the emergence of concepts such as degeneration ((Degeneration was a very influential concept in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which linked social behaviours with biological and hereditary features. Degenerationists feared the progressive decline of civilisation due to biological changes, and the concept of degeneration was used by ethnic nationalists to support eugenic theories and the marginalisation of individuals who were believed to be genetically inferior.))challenged the Victorian faith in rationality, and greatly encouraged writers to create characters who stretched the limits of science and humanity. Thus, the original sublime landscapes and fearful bandits of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) or Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) gave way to the mad scientists and monstrous creations of Stevenson’s novel or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), another major Gothic reference which comes to mind when reading Wilde’s novel. As in Shelley’s narrative, Dorian Gray is in a sense the object of Lord Henry Wollon’s experiment. The latter takes a perverse pleasure in observing the effects of his influence upon the young man, seeing in him “an interesting study” and the product of “his own creation” (55). As the narrator outlines: “he had begun by vivisecting himself, as he had ended vivisecting others” (55). Henry is thus described as Victor Frankenstein’s alter ego, the creator of a destructive avatar who will eventually escape his control.  

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the transgression of ethical and natural laws serves to demonstrate the limits of bourgeois values of respectability and integrity, in accordance with Wilde’s anti-authoritarian ideas. For in the novel, what is terrifying is not the behaviour of a Caliban-like foreigner (the mention of Shakespeare’s character in the Preface is in that sense significant), but the sinful attitude of an Englishman, Dorian. In other words, the monstrous comes from within British society itself and from within culture (Basil’s art). In this modern tale of moral degradation taking place in “the native land of the hypocrites” (147), the Irish writer seems to point out the potential drifts of the ennui and indolence pervading the advanced civilisation that British aristocracy embodies.

2. A novel of self-development breaking up with Victorian traditions

Traditional Victorian society believed in the ethical role of literature, which was supposed to provide models of behaviour for the readers through the depiction of a character’s itinerary towards virtuous self-accomplishment. In this respect, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a dark rewriting of the traditional Bildungsroman, as it narrates the psychological and moral growth of the main character. “You have not realised how I have developed. I was a schoolboy when you knew me. I am a man now” (107), Dorian states to Basil, highlighting his own maturation. The beginning of the novel stages Dorian’s realisation of his own seductive potential and his progressive transformation into an image (quite literally), or rather, as it is repeatedly mentioned later on, an artistic ideal of beauty and purity.

The awakening of the innocent Dorian to life and its pleasures (and to homosexuality as some critics have suggested in comparison with Wilde’s personal life) is framed by the twin influences of Basil and Henry. These two characters act as embodiments of opposite pressures forging Dorian’s personality: Basil on the one hand is the optimistic, emotional and religious artist who trusts that the universe is guided by a moral code, whereas Henry more cynically advocates individualism and hedonism, and believes that morality is only arbitrary and relative. Torn between these two antithetical perspectives on human experience, Dorian Gray stands for humanity and embodies the moral issues faced by the nineteenth century as the rise of paganism and hedonism challenged Victorian values of puritanism and stoicism. The same conflict is dramatised in the novels of Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Emily Brontë, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Thackeray, Herman Melville or George Eliot, in which the protagonist’s purpose is to reconcile such antagonisms, and to find a stable middle-ground harmoniously reuniting heart and mind, desire and duty.

But unlike such novels where moral order is ultimately restored once the villains are punished and virtue triumphs, The Picture of Dorian Gray does not allow for such resolution and Dorian’s preference for Henry’s system of beliefs culminates in the murder of Basil. Furthermore, the novel ends on Dorian’s self-destruction, far from the traditional marriage epitomising personal fulfilment in nineteenth-century narratives. Basil’s unsuccessful attempts to redeem Dorian signal the failure of Victorian morality itself and of its attempts to instrumentalise literature and art for educational purposes. The novel turns into an illustration of the consequences of its downfall, and as such foreshadows pre-WWI novels like Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) or Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome (1911) which depict a world where cosmic moral justice no longer rules and characters are left to fend for themselves, struggling with their excesses and obsessions.

3. A manifesto of Wilde’s Aestheticism and its limits

More than a dark tale of supernatural immortality, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an illustration of Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy, known as Aestheticism. This intellectual and artistic movement became popular in Victorian England under the influence of the writer Walter Pater, in reaction against the new models brought by the industrial revolution which valued performativity and utility over aesthetic pleasure. Close to Theophile Gautier’s Art for Art’s sake credo, Aestheticism asserts the necessity for Art to emancipate itself from educational purposes and moral significance: “the sphere of Art and the sphere of Ethics are absolutely distinct and separate”, Wilde declares in The Critic as Artist ((Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist”, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (London: Collins, 1966), 1048.)). Similar statements are made in the Preface of the novel (“The Artist is the creator of beautiful things”, “No artist desires to prove anything”), and within the narrative by Lord Henry: “Beauty is a form of Genius – is higher indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation”, as he reveals to Dorian in their decisive first encounter (20).

Such beliefs, provokingly uttered by Lord Henry and put into practice by Dorian, led many critics to see in the novel a profoundly immoral narrative, whereas others have argued that it could be read on the contrary as a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of excess and vice, given that the protagonist eventually dies ((Accusations of immorality came mostly from contemporary critics, from journals like the Daily Chronicle, or the conservative Scots Observer edited by the poet W.E. Henley. More recent studies have highlighted the moral ambiguity of the novel: Philip K. Cohen argues that Wilde is “at moral odds with himself” and that the novel, as a result, is characterized by “narrative schizophrenia” (The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde [Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1978], 117-20). See also Gerald Weales (“Foreword,” The Picture of Dorian Gray and Selected Stories [New York: New American Library, 1962]), and Kerry Powell  (“Oscar Wilde ‘Acting’: The Medium as Message in The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Dalhousie Review 58 [1978]: 106) who dwells on the author’s “unresolved confusion”.))The Preface would tend to suggest however that the novel’s ambition is beyond this controversy, and that the book has no moral aim since it does not offer any clear conclusion, but rather provides philosophical observations on the human condition. Wilde proposes a profound meditation on the role of the artist, through the character of Basil whose depth has been reassessed in recent studies ((See for instance Houston Baker, “A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24, no. 3 (1969): 349-55.)) and in whomWilde recognised himself: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps”, the author famously wrote in a letter of 12 February 1894 ((Selected Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979), 116.)).In that perspective, The Picture of Dorian Gray could be read as the tragic downfall of an artist who corrupted his artistic ideal (Dorian) by mistaking his art for idolatry: “I worshipped you”, Basil confesses to the young man (2). Indeed, the role played by the painter in Dorian’s descent into moral degradation is not to be belittled: it is his picture which revealed to Dorian that he was worthy ofbeing admired and glorified. The novel thus ends on the destruction of the perverted artistic ideal embodied by the painting, the only way for art to return to its pure state. Wilde does not promote hedonistic instinct (embodied by Lord Henry) over conscience (represented by Basil) – nor the contrary, but rather suggests the necessity for both to unite. Indeed, Dorian’s confession to Basil (“Of course, I am very fond of Harry. But I know that you are better than he is. You are not stronger—you are too much afraid of life—but you are better”, 107) suggests that if Basil had possessed Henry’s strength and individualism, he might not have invested so much in the portrait and his encounter with Dorian might not have turned so tragically. Thus, according to Richard Ellmann, the novel represents “the tragedy of aestheticism” and “the aesthetic novel par excellence, not in espousing the doctrine, but in exhibiting its dangers” ((Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987), 297.)).

Commented excerpt: Narcissus’s tragedy

In this passage, Dorian has just broken up with the actress Sybil Vane whom he had courted and intended to marry. Coming back home, he realises for the first time that the portrait has altered and rapidly links it to the cruel and selfish way in which he treated her:

As he was turning the handle of the door, his eye fell upon the portrait Basil Hallward had painted of him. He started back as if in surprise […] In the dim arrested light that struggled through the cream-coloured silk blinds, the face appeared to him to be a little changed. The expression looked different. One would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth. It was certainly strange.

He turned round and, walking to the window, drew up the blind. The bright dawn flooded the room and swept the fantastic shadows into dusky corners, where they lay shuddering. But the strange expression that he had noticed in the face of the portrait seemed to linger there, to be more intensified even. The quivering ardent sunlight showed him the lines of cruelty round the mouth as clearly as if he had been looking into a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing.

He winced and, taking up from the table an oval glass framed in ivory Cupids, one of Lord Henry's many presents to him, glanced hurriedly into its polished depths. No line like that warped his red lips. What did it mean? (87)

Dorian is here confronted with the direct and visible consequences of his behaviour as the portrait begins to bear the marks of corruption. The impossibility to identify himself completely with the painting, because of the expression of the mouth, inevitably reminds us of the myth of Narcissus who also failed to recognise his own image in the water. The same dissociation is at work, further highlighted by the presence of the mirror (significantly Lord Henry’s gift) which creates yet another double. This complex dynamic of duplication, or rather duplicity (in the moral sense) which led to Narcissus’s disappointment, announces more tragically Dorian’s downfall.

Wilde’s talent for combining elements of both fantastic and realistic narratives produces a “strange” text, where the personification of the painting (which comes to life) seems to contaminate the description: the shadows “shudder”, and the sunlight is “quivering” while the cruel expression “lingers”. His evocative and rich, ornate style builds up a chiaroscuro aesthetic which pervades the description through the contrast of lights and shadows, as if to better underline Dorian’s own psychological duality. The same precise and symbolic use of vocabulary which characterises Wilde’s writing can be seen in the expression “fantastic shadows”, which is also mentioned at the very beginning of the novel in the metaphorical description of flowers whose beauty is a “burden” (1), and later on again right before Dorian murders Basil (151). The scenes thus echo one another, ominous signs structuring the novel to highlight Dorian’s progression from innocence to monstrous self-destruction.



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Pour citer cette ressource :

Louise Bailly, "Aestheticism and Morality in Oscar Wilde’s « The Picture of Dorian Gray» (1890)", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2020. Consulté le 28/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/aestheticism-and-morality-in-the-picture-of-dorian-gray