Oscar Wilde’s only novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, is a tale of hedonistic excess. As an aesthete and a dandy, Wilde used the text to “assert the absolute modernity of beauty” (p.150), by flouting the traditional Victorian values of earnestness and restraint. Set in a world of artifice, this text embraces ‘art for art’s sake’, asserting that art does not need any didactic purpose or moral justification; it need only be beautiful. This particular extract highlights Dorian’s obsession with beauty, and explores the paradox between beauty and morality.
Dorian is a Decadent, “the pejorative label applied by the bourgeoisie to everything that seemed unnatural, artificial, and perverse” (Showalter 1992). He is self-indulgent and obsessed with his own beauty, “like a nineteenth-century Narcissus (Dryden, 2003). As such, his desire is to subvert nature and escape the aging process. In selling his soul to the devil, and trading places with his picture, Dorian escapes aging by becoming art (Showalter, 1992). Furthermore, he is able to lead a sensational lifestyle, in direct opposition to the moral codes and values prevalent in Victorian society, whilst outwardly appearing naïve and innocent. “Decadence” was also a Victorian euphemism for homosexuality (ibid, p. 171), and at this point in the text Dorian’s sexual nature is being worked out through the dichotomy of his privately lewd, and publicly chaste, persona.
The extract opens with a discussion about a book that Lord Henry has given Dorian, of which he has since procured nine copies bound in different colours. The book is commonly believed to be Joris-Karl Huysman’s “A Rebours” (Against Nature). Dorian is fascinated by the hero of the novel, Des Esseintes, who, in stark contrast to himself, has experienced a “sudden decay of a beauty that had once, apparently, been so remarkable” (p.147). This obsession with physical beauty and the acquisition of beautiful things reinforces the suggestion that Dorian is an aesthete, and that he is more concerned with the plight of a fictional character than humankind, who, we learn, he habitually abuses.
Dorian’s beauty has the ability to mesmerise those he comes into contact with. This beauty never seems to fade, even though he is getting older. As readers, we have been let in on the secret of Dorian’s youthfulness; that he has sold his soul to the devil in return for remaining young. However, the people of London have not been privileged with this information and they marvel at the way he has kept his youthful good looks. Although rumour is rife amongst Dorian’s clubs that he is indulging in deviant sexual practices, his innocent looks belie this fact, and they “could not believe anything to his dishonour when they saw him” (p.148). This suggests that the Victorian bourgeoisie were tolerant of immorality provided that it was hidden, and shows that aestheticism was flawed in its failure to recognise the need for a conscience (Dryden, 2003). Dorian’s apparent purity therefore allows him to continue to move in the aristocratic circles that his class demands, whilst also indulging in the sordid affairs of London’s nocturnal underworld, with its “grisly prostitutes…drunken brawls…foul opium dens” (Ellman et al, 1969).
Dorian’s adventures in the underworld of the East End are not short forays, but are prolonged expeditions, during which he lives in disguise and under the assumed name of Prince Charming (p 221). His alias has connotations of honour and beauty, but his actions are at odds with this concept, as he seeks new sensations in the opium dens and brothels, almost certainly including sexual encounters with other men. Walter Pater, Wilde’s former lecturer at Oxford, once said that “Vice and crime make people coarse and ugly” (Ellman et al, 1969), yet Dorian contradicts this viewpoint as his indulgence has no negative effect on his beauty whatsoever. Here the text is self-subverting because, as long as Dorian is beautiful, nobody cares that evil is ugly. All the time his soul is imprisoned in the portrait, Dorian is free to do as he likes, safe in the knowledge that his sins have no consequences, other than becoming graven on the face of his portrait. (McKenna, 2004).
Furthermore, all the time the portrait is locked away in the attic, Dorian can ‘wipe the slate clean’, forget about his past, and carry on as normal. In this way, he is like Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre who keeps his first wife locked in an attic whilst he carries on with his life, which even includes a bigamous marriage! (Dryden, 2003)
Dorian notices that the picture becomes uglier whenever he returns from one of his trips, and this gives him a perverse sense of pleasure. Creeping upstairs to the locked room he loves to stand in front of the portrait with a mirror so he can compare the “evil and aging face on the canvass” (p.148) with his youthful reflection. As an addict, the prolonged use of opium has had a sedative effect upon him, and he is desensitised to the shocking physiognomy before him. Instead, the sharpness of the contrast holds a fascination for him and he delightedly examines the hideousness before him. He grows more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul (ibid).
He seems to hold to the philosophy that he can “have his cake and eat it too”, as, all the time the portrait exists, he can indulge his addictions to drugs and sex whilst still outwardly portraying the image of an innocent.
It is only rarely, and then only at night, that doubts about his lifestyle start to creep in and Dorian begins to think of the ruin he had wrought upon his soul. On these occasions his conscience assumes ascendancy and he dwells upon the image of the person he was before he met Lord Henry, and his hedonistic desires impelled him to evil. This displays the paradox of the split self in that these occasions most often occur when, as Prince Charming, he is lying in a sordid room near the Docks. Here Dorian’s courtly image, and his obsession with beauty, is in stark opposition to the sordidness of his life in the East End. However, the ugliness of his surroundings is a more honest reflection of his inner self than his dandyism.
Dorian is aware that Lord Henry has been the cause of his downfall, but he doesn’t blame him. To the contrary he celebrates the fact that his friend has opened up a whole new world to him. The fact that the two men met in Basil Hallward’s garden provides an allegory of Eden (Genesis 3) with Lord Henry playing the part of the serpent to Dorian’s Adam and Eve. Lynda Dryden (2003) asserts that Wooton…roams the early part of the novel with a snake-like invidiousness, breathing poison into Dorian’s ear.”
In doing so, he has tempted Dorian to taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge and there is now no going back. “The more he knew, the more he desired to know. He had mad hungers…” – his addictions to sex and opium – “that grew more ravenous as he fed them.” (p 148)
Regenia Gagnier (1986 cited Dryden 2003) suggests that “the novel is a cultural signifier reflecting the market society of the fin de siecle”. Social and political unrest (at home and in the colonies), and the impact of Darwinism meant that the Victorians faced a number of uncertainties at the end of the nineteenth century. The pursuit of the aesthetic and the breaking away from the utilitarianism and strict moral codes of the nineteenth century offered some light relief to many. However, Dorian’s pursuit of beauty was taken to excess and that was a key point in his downfall. Once he had traded his soul the trajectory of Dorian’s life describes a decadent descent into the most appalling Narcissism”. (ibid, p 114)
Morally then, Dorian’s beauty has led to a vain emptiness, and his ‘chocolate box’ good looks have done nothing to enhance his quality of life.
There is some conjecture that ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is an autobiographical account of Wilde’s own life. There is no evidence of this, although passages from the book were read out in court to support allegations of his homosexuality. What is reported, however, is Wilde’s admission that:
Basil Hallward is what I think I am, Lord Henry (is) what the world thinks of me, (and) Dorian (is) what I would like to be… (McKenna, 2004)
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” certainly refutes John Keats’ notion that “beauty is truth, truth beauty” (1820, cited Burnard, 1999). Dorian may be physically beautiful but he lives a lie, and the truth of his double life is ugly. Beauty cannot be seen as a true reflection of morality, even though, in Dorian’s eventual downfall, the truths about his immorality are revealed. In the mistaken belief that he can find peace by reneging on his contract with the devil and regain his soul by killing “this monstrous soul-life” (p.256), he stabs the picture. In a gothic twist, the picture – the image of his other self – reassumes its original magnificence, whilst Dorian himself lay dead, with the ugliness of all his sins imprinted upon his face. Despite Wilde’s declaration that “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book…” there is a moral to this story – that it is better to nurture the beauty within us than to pander to vanity.