"The Portrait of Dorian Gray". From an aesthetic to a moral value

Essay 2014 8 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



By: Ana María Leiva Aguilera.-

Beauty deads in life but is immortal in art”. Leonardo Da Vinci.

The first thing we find when we begin with reading The Picture of Dorian Gray is a preface, a series of very philosophical aphorisms which served to the Irish author, Oscar Wilde, so that he could answer to those who classified his very first edition of immoral.

It is known that the book was inspired when he visited the studio of a painter friend of him, the same who appears in this book, that romantic artist, lover of beauty who idealizes and loves beautiful things. That excessive idealism, representated in the admiration the author feels for the physical beauty of his model, as well as the intimate friendship he had with the son of a marquis which will be the reason why he will be judged of homosexual.

In this preface Wilde is going to defend that his novel is a true piece of art with two sentences: one at the beginning; “There is not such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” (page 5: preface)[1] and another one in chapter 19: “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame” (page 478:19). He wants to defend himself from the received criticism, in order to that he elaborates a reflection about both art and artist. He keeps that art’s propose was being eternal: “All art is quite useless” (page 7: Preface) because “[...] beautiful things mean only beauty” (page 5: Preface) ”It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors”(Page 7: Preface). “El objeto estético necesita un público”.[2]

We are in front of a novel in which the author is going to keep that we have lost the abstract sense of beauty since we have conformed, as the high Victorian society did, thinking that appearance gives us an idea of people’s behaviour.

All the above argumentation takes sense if we take into account that The Picture of Dorian Gray was influenced by the decadence, artistic movement which arose in France, country where Wilde lived for a long time. He wanted to demonstrate the high London 19th society’s nonconformity with social life during those years when Queen Victoria reigned.

At that age, it was thought that art must educate and moralize as Dickens did. Wilde liberated art this way and will say that we cannot leave the work of moral to arts: “No artist has ethical sympathies”.

The author belonged to the post-Romantic aesthetic movement therefore he manifestated his contempt for the bourgeois society, representated by Lord Henry in the book at hand. Here art has no other finality than the one of being beautiful, art should not influence, just giving pleasure, obeying to impulses. For a good esthete there cannot be distinction between moral acts or not moral ones. We can only take into account those which make us happy: (Page 5: Preface).

Dorian, the young beautiful, pure and innocent, “the charming prince” represents a white canvas, ready to be painted as “Blank Slate” of the English philosopher John Locke[3], father of empirism and modern liberalism for whom there is no innate thing. Dorian Gray is going to let himself being driven by the influence of two consciences: Basilio’s and Henry’s. Basilio represents the conscience of a society in decline, he would be the angel trying to bring Dorian’s reality back and avoiding obstacles to his protected young man.On the contrary, Henry is the aristocrat, the impulsor of his conscience, a cynical, a delicious orator, someone who finds pleasure influencing and manipulating, who manifests that: “[...] youth is the one thing worth having (Page 52:4)/ “[...] realise your youth while you have it”, a hedonist who manifestated that “A new Hedonism is what our society needs” (page 54:chapter2) whose principal engine is the search of pleasure, as in epicureans, although for them pleasures had to be administrated in an intelligent way so that they did not come to distube us as they did with the main character, so that they do not make us come into ataraxy, the absence of embarrassment. Henry is going to represent the aristocracy of the Age which is going to discredit women: “no woman is a genious. Women are decorative sex. They never have anything to say […] Women represent the triumph of matter over mind”. (Page 121:4).

The author uses his preface to, from that, determine the features which is going to appear in the beautiful and then making a critical distinction between the two faces of this concept: the aesthetical value of a work for its own beauty, what give us the perception of senses and the aesthetical value determined for what represents, the sublime, the inteligible for Plato

When we leave apart morality it can happen to us as Dorian, that his search for happiness may be confused with pleasure. It will be the portrait as he says in chapter VII the one which occupies the place of his soul, of intellect, of conscience. The author continues crumbling intricacies of the concept of beauty and now he does the same relating it to physical appareance, since the beauty of Dorian is admirated in an indisputable way both by the painter, Basil, as by the critical, Lord Henry. Both consider Dorian as a young Narcissus who did not need intellect. Dorian, as good narcissistic, feels a great admiration towards his own self insomuch that he does not pretend any other thin than keeping himself just like the picture does: forever. The idea of eternal youth appears here, the idea of wishing to be immortal which came from The Middle Ages.

The beauty of Dorian was like a kind of ornament which served to decorate, something beautiful, without intellect, it has a natural attractive which was got both by his youth as by his ignorance, his innocence. All these features are going to be reflected in the portrait. Here is where begins the true reflection on whether what the picture reflects are the qualities of the object or the ones of the artist, whether Dorian’s beauty could be a reflection of his author’s soul. Basil is going to manifest that: “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a postrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident” (Page 1:1). That is why the author will prefer not showing Dorian’s portrait: “The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul”. What has happened is that it is his soul, his intellect. Basil implicitly homosexual and in love with his model is delighted with him: “You said it was because there was too much of yourself in it” (17:1). His beauty spreads him in such a manner that it attributes him a new expressiveness which he has got thank to his latest works. In Basilio’s speech appear sentences as suggestive as the following ones: “We were quite close, almost touching. Our eyes met again.” (Page 20:1) / “He is all my art to me now” (page 27:1)

He wants to keep his work hidden because he tries to protect him from a cruel world but he actually did not achieve it: “The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides” (24:1). The picture exhibits the bloody actions of the main character which is as a Platonic duality. Dorian represents the Platonic world of senses and the picture represents the soul and the consequences of his actions, the inteligible world. The person in which Dorian becomes represents that work Wilde talks about, which has no further function than the one of pleasing senses. Although Dorian in the beginning was naive and unconcious of his beauty, he will end convinced of the power he can achieve being beautiful. And obsessed with the fear of aging he will star envying a picture which will never fade, thereupon he wants to make an exchange. He formulates a wish in which he asks that the portrait grows old and bears the weight of his sins: “How sad it is! [...] I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June...If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!” (63:2).

He makes an alliance, a diabolical pact. His beauty remains in his body over the years. But he will pay a high price being that he will become in a man without moral, without heart, lover of hedonism and egocentrism as Lord Henry. Here we can see the influence of Fausto,[4] a myth, a German classical legend recorded also in the early 19th century by Goette, although in this case it is referred to a dissatisfied scholar who makes a deal with the devil, interchanging his soul for the unlimited knowledge. Fausto makes a direct deal while Gray never gets to make a direct pact with the devil. It is just like a wish. The character we can compare with the devil is Lord Henry, who corrupts Gray’s sould manipulating his innocence and insecurity. Henry represents embodiment of evil whereby Dorian drifts. He will tell Dorian that sin does not exist that it is a rule imposed by society so that they could control what should be and should not be done.

Dorian’s wish of interchanging with his portrait comes true and when he achieves it he becomes in the ideal model of hedonism. Dorian becomes, by Harry’s influence, a selfish person, arrogant and wicked. Whatever he does never minds, his appearance shall remain intact, eternal. Moreover, the picture will suffer all the consequences of his acts. He leaves appart his conscience and loses his soul in exchange of the immortality of his body. It is the expression of the wish of not growing old that triggers the drama: “[...] If it were only the other way” (page 62:2). This theory that something may remain unalterable was already in Plato when he pressuposed that identity between the thing and its idea.[5]

Beauty would be what does not change. Basilio gives the model all the pleasure and will say that he just limits himself to reproduce. He is no more than a messenger who as in Greek tragedy will pay for his life, being murdered by his work, what he announces.

“Dorian Gray had been posioned by a book”(318:11), a French novel, Lord Henry’s gift, in which he sees himself reflected: “[...] sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him” (274:10) / “[...] the life of the senses was described [...] it was a poisonous book” (276:10). It was like his own life, written down before he had been born. He also enjoyed every minute, commits numerous atrocities and profits from women.

In this sense it is neccessary to say that the role which women play in society is very important. Harry represents the macho conception of the time: “[...]no woman is a genious. Women are a decorative sex [...] Women represent the triumph of matter over mind.” / “[...] there are only two kinds of women, the pain and the coloured”. (Page 110:chapter 4).

However, references to one of the main characters in the novel lead us to another headland since Sybil is used to continue exposing his theory of art. The young actress manifests, once he discovered what he really felt for Dorian, that her roles in theatre were no more than shadows and appareances: “You have brought me something higher, something of which all art is but a reflection. You had made me understand what love really is” (page 194: chapter 7).

For her Dorian represents the sun, beauty, the platonic ideal. Everything she had lived and experimented before was no more than an appareance, something passenger which is not worth fighting for. She confesses that there is no sense in performing or pretending scenes which create a world of beauty, a reality which does not exist: “[…] before I knew you, acting waqs the one reality of my life [...] I thought that it was all true”. (Page 194: chapter 7). On the contrary, Dorian loved the way she approached to art in the sense of “first illusion”, creativity and mysterios. When she confesses her love, Dorian feels he has unraveled the mystery of the artwork, losing all interest in her: “I loved you because you realized dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art” (Page 197:chapter 7).

However, beauty will not be found in a transcendent reality, supreme as the idea of Good or the Beauty in Plato.[6] Plato will say in El Banquete that beauty is the tellos, the object of love. Above body’s beauty is the one of soul. And superior to all of them beauty itself which is eternal. (210a-211a).[7]

It appears in the perfect Dorian for whom Sybil decides to commit suicide. She did it because she did not find any sense in life. She killed herself in a romantic way, in a similar way to Hamlet ’s Ophelia in Act IV, between love and madness: “Mourn for Ophelia, if you like”(230:8). Her death was not theatrical but poetic. This is going to change the sense of Dorian’s life when, as it appears in chapter VIII, when he comes back home and sees his self-portrait decides to live life without caring of neither anything nor anyone.[8]


[1] The picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde Oscar. Aldevara. 2011 (every time this kind of citation appears I will be referring to this work and this edition).

[2] Fenomenología de la Experiencia Estética. Volumen 1. El Objeto Estético. Dufrenne kept, Mikel . Universidad de Valencia. 1982. (Page 87:3)

[3] Historia de la Filosofía sin temor ni temblor. Savater Fernando. Espasa 2009. (Pages: 159-161).

[4] http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fausto

[5] Fedro. Platon. (247 C-E), (Theory of ideas).
- http://www.filosofia.org/cla/pla/img/azf02257.pdf
- http://www.docentes.unal.edu.co/gamelendeza/docs/Socrates/Dialogos/Castellano/Fedro.pdf

[6] Page 50. Historia de la filosofía sin temor ni temblor. Savater Fernando. Espasa Calpe. 2009

[7] espanol.free-ebooks.net/ebook/El-Banquete/pdf/view

[8] Libro VI. República. Platón. Ed. Gredos. Madrid. 1992, pp,326-432. “a la mayoría le parece que el Bien es el placer, mientras a los más exquisitos la inteligencia”. […] “aun siendo bellos tanto el conocimiento como la verdad […] tendremos a la idea del Bien por algo distinto y más bello que ellas” […].Hablas de una belleza extraordinaria […]. Sin duda no te refieres al placer”.


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Title: "The Portrait of Dorian Gray". From an aesthetic to a moral value