The Picture of Dorian Gray. A book with a moral message? An account of the three main characters and their role of conveying a moral warning

Term Paper 2014 23 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Comparative Literature




Main Part





The general task of this paper is to give a text analysis of the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray written by Oscar Wilde, which was first published in July 1890. The novel has a Faustian character and deals overall with the loss of innocence and the corruption of the soul, morals and influences and beauty and art as such. These themes are embedded in the superficiality and decadence of the late Victorian era in England, the so-called fin de siècle or turn of the century.

This paper strives to give an account of the role of the artist in the common and uncommon sense as a framework, which will be entangled with an account of the lifestyle led by the social class described concerning different phenomena. In order to do that dandyism, aestheticism and their possible actuator- Fin de siècle- will be regarded concerning the three key players of this novel, namely Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton and Dorian Gray.

What will be dealt with is whether the three characters embody artists, dandies, or aesthetics so that a subtle moral message can be found. Basil Hallward will be the first to be discussed in more depth since he is the artist in a common sense and the initial actor in the story who made the happenings possible. Afterwards, Henry Wotton will be of interest, especially in terms of dandyism, but also as an aesthete and an artist in the uncommon sense. Thirdly, Dorian Gray, the great aesthete of the novel, will be looked at from the given perspectives. Their perception of life will be dealt with, as far as that is possible given the novel’s recesses. In the end the paper is offering an evaluation whether The Picture of Dorian Gray offers the reader any morals contradictory to the Preface.

This work is refraining from discussing other characters in great depth, as this paper should only conduct the three main characters’ contemporary ideologies of the late 19th century. There are certainly characters that are interesting concerning morals but that would break the mould of a ten-page paper. Another aspect, which is to be omitted, is the role of women in the story because females rarely play any role in the novel. Sibyl Vane, for instance, functioned almost only to initially reveal Dorian’s great passion for beauty and art and subsequently show the truly evil and recklessness inside of him. The beliefs of the three characters and their narcissistic approaches, which will be discussed in the following discourse, are self-explanatory as to why women are not of any interest in this discourse.

Main Part

Basil Hallward can be considered a conventional artist who spelled doom for himself when he made the acquaintance of Dorian Gray. “I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself” (Wilde 6).

This assumption that Basil utters to Henry Wotton, explaining the influence that Dorian has over him, turns out to be true. Dorian ruins Basil’s artistic life, since he is not able to produce anything as good as the portrait of Dorian, and Dorian even kills Basil after he reveals to him what has happened to the painting and therefore to his soul.

The utterance above is the first clue the reader receives of the special rank the artist has in the novel. As one can easily detect is that the topic art is of highest importance in the novel and therefore one can assume that the artist has an exceptional position as well. Apart from sticking out from the other characters of his social position, who’s only life purpose seems to be hedonism, one can suppose that Wilde has intentionally made him the creator of the fatal painting.

Basil is described as a good man whose mere fault it was to get too involved with Dorian and to let his love for him prevail. In the beginning of the novel Basil reveals to Henry that he thinks it was some kind of faith that brought Dorian and him together. “‘Perhaps it was not reckless, after all. It was simple inevitable. […] Dorian told me so afterwards. He, too, felt that we were destined to know each other’” (Wilde 7). He created something beautiful, namely the painting, just for the sake of art but nonetheless he initially made Dorian’s falling from grace possible. Oates argues that “[…] the presumably ‘good’ Basil Hallward, is the diabolical agent” (420) and that “Wilde […] has Basil allude to a godly or suprahuman destiny that will involve both the artist and his mesmerizing subject” (422) in uttering his fear to Henry.

Considering Basil’s unknowingness of the supernatural connection between Dorian and his painting one cannot possibly think that he was being deliberately evil by drawing the portrait, but he could have prevented the tragedy from happening if only he had listened to his instincts. Another presumption of his supernatural power as an artist Basil utters to Henry when talking about how Dorian changed is art fundamentally: “I can now recreate life” (Wilde 9), he says. The ambiguity of this character will be helpful in the end when trying to detect if there is a hidden moral in this novel.

Apart from clearly being an artist, in some aspects Basil can also be seen as a dandy. The dandy evidentially is a man well clad and with good manners. He is a phenomenon that has its roots sometime in the 18th and 19th century when a new individualism began due to radical changes in technology and consequential social changes accompanying the Industrial Revolution. Dandies can be depicted as elegant, extravagant and classical in fashion. One doesn’t know much about Basil’s taste in fashion but one can certainly find some clues of how he lives, how he behaves and which kind of social class he comes from.

For one, his lifestyle is described as quite glamorous, as he is part of the Londoner Avant-garde and being invited to parties of this kind. He is modest and doesn’t broadcast himself. His behaviour is quite polite and definitely more down to earth than Dorian and Henry. All three are apparent gentleman, which is a character trait exceedingly important for a dandy. One fact that supports Basil being a dandy is his thrill seeking in having secrets to “[…] make modern life mysterious […]” (Wilde 4) because the dandy of fin de siècle times always desires excitement to get rid of his great ennui.

It is to say though that Basil is living a far too introverted life for being defined a classical dandy. “Two month ago I went to a crush at Lady Brandon’s. You know we poor artists have to show ourselves in society from time, just to remind the public that we are not savages” (Wilde 6), he tells Henry and shows his obvious dislike of these kind of events. His semantics underline this fact as he uses “crush” instead of a nicer connoted word like gala, celebration or words alike. Additionally he seems to have clear moral standards, which are also not usual for a Wildean dandy, which will be explained in the later discourse of this paper.

To some extent Basil can be regarded an aesthete as well; and that even more so than him partially being a dandy. Aestheticism, which was the English equivalent to the French Decadence movement and a further development of the 18th century dandy, described an ideology of accepting “Beauty as a basis for life” (Goldfarb 173). Therefore, Aestheticism isn’t restrained merely on the matters of art; it additively is a way of life for some people.

“‘He is all my art to me now’” (Wilde 9) Basil says about Dorian and his obsession with aesthetics ultimately dooms not only him but Dorian too. Basil’s own belief that his artistic expertise is lost after Dorian refuses to sit for him is the slow beginning of his decay. He even begs Dorian for it: “[…] [You] must come and sit to me yourself again. I can’t get on without you” (Wilde 108). Another aspect supporting that this aesthetic obsession contributed to Basil being killed by his own subject of desire is, that he himself revealed to Dorian his own beauty through the painting. This and other influences, especially by Henry, encouraged Dorian to his damnation of the picture to grow old instead of him and eventually to his immoral aesthetic lifestyle.

Which facts downright contradict Basil being an aesthete are again his morals and his piety. Whereas Basil is a stable character, Dorian’s faith in a good supernatural power changes frequently throughout the story. This is perfectly outlined in the dispute between Basil and Dorian shortly before Dorian kills Basil (Wilde 145- 155) where at the end Basil suggests: “‘Pray, Dorian, pray’” (Wilde 154), showing that he is still believing in a God that could forgive sins. The aesthete, however, believes only in beauty.

Lord Henry (Harry) Wotton, the most obvious dandy of the novel, embodies aestheticism as well as decadence and he can be seen as an artist in the uncommon sense. He is a textbook example of the fin de siècle; also know as the late Victorian era, with all his decadence, frivolity, amorality and egocentrism. “‘To become the spectator of one’s own life, as Harry says, is to escape the suffering of life’” (Wilde 107), is a suitable beginning for explaining the character of “‘[…] Prince Paradox’” (Wilde 193) as Dorian suggests calling Henry.

Charming as he most certainly seems he can be detected as a dandy very easily. He is an elegant gentleman and aristocrat with wit who indulges in leisure, since his only purpose in life is to find excitement that would free him from his boredom. “The dandy is hostile to his society, for only in an effete and unworthy age would he feel his compulsion to distinguish himself from the ordinary” (Ganz 143), and so is Henry. He is married but doesn’t appear to accept the constitution of marriage at all, possibly because it is too normal and almost philistine. “‘Never marry at all, Dorian’”, Henry warns his faithful disciple because “Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed” (Wilde 45). Apart from being an advisory, the warning is also an insight into his life and an admission that Henry must have been tired when he got married and lives in disappointment ever since.

At the beginning of the novel Henry shows his recklessness and immorality when disobeying Basils wish not to ruin Dorian. “‘Don’t try to influence him. Your influence would be bad. […] Don’t take away from me the one person who gives my art whatever charm it possesses; my life as an artist depends on him” (Wilde 13), Basil asks Henry but only hours, or even minutes later, he uses his eloquence to curl the innocent, pure hearted but unfortunately very impressionable Dorian around his little finger. Henry thinks to himself that “[…] [he] would seek to dominate him- had already indeed, half done so. He would make that wonderful spirit his own.” (Wilde 35) after having first talked to Dorian. Ganz claims that: “In the dandical system moral standards do not exist” (149), what then proves that Henry can indeed be called a dandy.

The dandy is not an exactly defined phenomenon and there are many definitions but considering “[…] the Wildean dandy […]”, the “[…] absolute faith in pure aesthetic form […]” (Ganz 148) is what makes him exceptional. This trait is an overlap between the dandy and the aesthete to whom beauty is everything and who has “[…] no distinction between moral and immoral acts, only between those that increase or decrease one’s happiness […]” (Duggan 61, 62) and of course beauty.

At the beginning of the novel Lord Henry Wotton wants to persuade Dorian of his aesthetic philosophy by saying: “‘[…] Beauty is a form of Genius- is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation” (Wilde 20). The reader can never be sure if Henry merely broadcasts these ideas without obeying them or if he is truly acting on his own maxim. Superficially though, he can be considered an aesthete because “‘[…] pathos left […] [him] unmoved, but […] beauty, mere beauty, could fill […] [his] eyes with tears.’” (Wilde 49).

Artificiality is a term that also connects to decadence, which sometimes is used as a synonym for fin de siècle and is closely connected to Aestheticism. Decadence, which has a more negative connotation than aestheticism just by its name, is known for its “[…] (1) Perversity (2) Artificiality (3) Egoism and (4) Curiosity” (Goldfarb 170) and can be very easily be applied to Henry, as his egoism knows no borders. “‘Philanthropic people’”, he says, “‘lose all sense of humanity’” (Wilde 34) even though he clearly is the one that has lost all humanity. What seems to be the reason for all this cruelty towards his apparent friends can be his boredom of life itself, a common contemporary problem of the upper class of the fin de siècle.

He obviously hates being married, is disgusted by society, has absolutely nothing that he has to do and there is nothing he can apply his abilities to. Therefore Henry has developed a narcissistic personality and finds great pleasure in influencing people and destroying their lives. “One’s own soul, and the passions of one’s friends- those were the fascinating things in life” (Wilde 12), Henry thinks to himself and offers the reader an insight into his only two passions. A little after Henry again thinks to himself about influence: “To project one’s soul into some gracious form, and let it tarry there for a moment; to hear one’s own intellectual views echoed back to one […] was […] perhaps the most satisfying joy” (Wilde 35).

Henry is an artist of his own life and he creates his ideal copy by manipulating Dorian who lacks a role model. The minute he finds out what Dorian means to Basil he tries to get to him as he anticipates the purity and controllability of the young man. His devious plan of tampering with the nature of Dorian is part of his art of life. He enacts his life like it is a play and he is the puppet master merely for “[…] escaping that taedium vitea that ‘comes upon those to whom life denies nothing’” (Oates 242). To him life is art and art is life, therefore Dorian is a piece of art to him and he does everything to mould him to his standards. In the first conversation between Henry and Dorian, Henry explains his view on influences to Dorian.

‘There is no such thing as a good influence […] [because] to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of some one else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.’ (Wilde 16)

Even though he knows of the vicious thing that he is about to do, he still goes on with it, what ultimately shows his flaws of character. Moreover, it shows how Henry operates with his subject of art. By offering him this information, Dorian is ought to trust Henry not to influence him but what Dorian doesn’t know is that: “‘[…] the more insincere the man is, the more purely intellectual will the idea be, as in that case it will not be coloured by either his wants, his desires, or his prejudices’” (Wilde 9). In the following course of events Henry operate the same way and earns Dorian’s trust by eloquent persuasion.

Henry’s evidential art is the manipulation and even though he asserts that one can “‘[…] escape the suffering of life […]’” by becoming “‘spectator of one’s own life’” (Wilde 107) he actually become the spectator of the person that he moulded the way that it pleased him. To be more specific Henry becomes the spectator of Dorian upon whom he has projected his own soul. “‘Yes, Dorian’”, he says in order for further manipulation “‘you will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit’” (Wilde 76), which seems to be a silent request.

Dorian Gray is the character that changes the most throughout the course of events in the novel. His background is of a higher class and the reader learns that his mother, Margret Devereux must have been “‘an extraordinarily beautiful girl’” (Wilde 32). She suffered a sad tragedy because of her father’s dismissal of her marrying beneath her social class and died shortly after the death of her husband and the birth of her son Dorian, who grew up with his grandfather Lord Kelso. In his childhood Dorian was deprived the love and care of his parents, who both died because of the narrow-mindedness of his grandfather. The rumour had it that Lord Kelso paid an assassin to kill his daughter’s husband and she died a year later probably of heartbreak (Wilde 32).

At the beginning of the story the nature of Dorian, the “son of Love and Death” (Wilde 35) seems childish, innocent, naïve but he doesn’t appear to know anything about cruelty or wariness. He must be around eighteen years old and at that stage he can be depict neither a dandy nor an aesthete or decadent and especially not an artist. Dorian is playful but doesn’t seem to think about anything in greater depth. Before having met Dorian, Henry maintains that “‘[…][Dorian] is some brainless, beautiful creature’” because “‘ […] beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins’” (Wilde 3).

This character changes fundamentally when his own beauty is revealed to him. “A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognised himself for the first time. […] Basil Hallward’s compliments had seemed to him to be merely the charming exaggerations of friendship. [….] They had not influenced his nature” (Wilde 23, 24), Dorian thinks to himself after. This is a turning point of his whole disposition. He curses the portrait of himself to carry the bourdon of age and sin, so that he can stay as young and beautiful as ever.

For the first time after this Dorian can be seen as a disciple of Henry who teaches him everything he must know about how to be a dandy, an aesthete and an artist of one’s life. This certainly is not unfolded and discussed between them, but it is quite obvious as Dorian spends more and more time with Henry and less and less time with Basil.

He was “‘[…] filled […] with a wild desire to know everything about life” (Wilde 46) and pursues this passion by trying to find beauty in this world. This intermezzo is fairly short as Dorian’s character is about to change drastically once again. In this interval he learns to be an aesthete and falls in love with Sibyl Vane, who embodies pure beauty and “genius” to him. Up to the point when Sibyl disappoints Dorian profoundly because of her sudden lack of theatrical talent, he is a great romantic and aesthete. He breaks off the engagement in a fit of anger and tells her: “‘without your art you are nothing’” (Wilde 84), a clue for him being an aesthete having loved the superficial Sibyl Vane in her character, but not her at all.

When he then recognized a change of expression in the face of his portrait- double and calms himself down. His plan is it to “ […] not sin. […] He would resist temptation. He would not see Lord Henry any more. […] He would go back to Sibyl Vane, make amends, marry her, try to love her again” (Wilde 89). In this short stage he is almost as pure hearted as in the beginning, but when he finds about Sibyl’s suicide it is all about to change again, as Lord Henry is the one delivering the message and not Basil Hallward. At first he is sad, then conscious of guilt and then he becomes angry and says: “‘She had no right to kill herself. It was selfish of her’” (Wilde 96). This is when the devious Henry steps in, convincing Dorian that the marriage would have failed anyway. “‘ It has all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I have not been wounded’” (Wilde 97), says Dorian about his love affair with Sibyl and he goes on with his life as if nothing has happened.



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The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde Moral Evil Main characters




Title: The Picture of Dorian Gray. A book with a moral message? An account of the three main characters and their role of conveying a moral warning