Author Oscar Wilde hauntingly explores themes of art, aestheticism and beauty with his innovative ideas of hedonism and homosexuality. With the novel’s emergence in nineteenth-century society, Wilde has enchanted readers by weaving a cobweb of facts and fiction in a fury of sins and consequences.
The book beings with Basil Hallward telling Lord Henry Wotton about his newest inspiration for art, a young handsome lad by the name of Dorian Gray. Shortly after introducing Lord Henry to Dorian, the latter begins to view himself pretentiously; his vanity getting the best of him when he views his completed portrait. He makes a wish to remain forever young, yearning for the painting to age in replace of him. His wish was granted, and the painting begins to age hideously with each passing year of Dorian’s life.
Readers can see much contrast between the three main characters, who Wilde had mentioned to be alike his alter ego and image[i].
Wilde conducts a major transformation of Dorian throughout the book. Wilde originally portrayed him as a naive, young and innocent boy. He rapidly changed when he became enthralled with Lord Henry’s ideas of seeking pleasure. He lost sight of his morality when he realized that sinning does not yield a change in his appearance – his greatest asset. The taste of corruption gives him a thrill that ultimately leads to his downfall as he continuously blurs lines of pleasure and immorality.
Lord Henry, a dandy that is well-known for his witty conversation and defiant views, is largely responsible for Dorian’s corruption. As Basil pointed out, Lord Henry “never says a moral thing, and he never does a wrong thing”. Lord Henry may seek indulgence in high society parties, but he never let his soul fall into despair by upholding his moral conscious, as Dorian largely has. He is a relatively static character throughout the novel, yet Wilde cleverly used him to illustrate the change in Dorian’s behavior; the same ideas, when spoken under different circumstances, evoke different reactions from Dorian.
Basil, the painter of the infamous portrait, is on the other end of the static character spectrum. Basil is naïve, trusting and upholds pure values a part from Dorian and Lord Henry. Throughout the novel, he was loyal to Dorian – the subject of his admirations. It is largely hinted that Basil’s infatuation for Dorian long exceeded that of a friend’s. While his obsession proved fatal, it excessively highlighted with his genuine devotion to Dorian. As Wilde had mentioned his similarities to the painter, his fall from grace in real life was also caused by a homosexual scandal.
In the preface, Wilde had already set the tone to how the novel should be read. Various themes and ideas have been laid out through the author’s thought-provoking quotes.
Faust[ii] is the underlying theme of Wilde’s novel. Though Dorian never actually signed a contract with the devil himself, it is widely implied that he gave up his morals in exchange for beauty, indulging in hedonism[iii]. Lord Henry, the one that has made much impact and change in Dorian’s life with his hedonistic theories, can be viewed as the devil’s advocate. The pact itself was ‘sealed’ when Dorian’s vain wish was granted.
Wilde had pitched Art against Reality, at times trying to compare and contrast, and another, blurring the thin line between the two. The most obvious case of comparison comes from Dorian and his painting. In this case, Dorian retained his youth and beauty, like a piece of art, while his painting mirrored his inner beast and the truth of Dorian’s character. In some instances, however, Wilde had introduced the idea of living through art. In one instance, there is Sybil Vane, Dorian’s first fiancée that led a life as though she was the heroine of Shakespearean plays. She ironically lost her ability to act when she found her ‘true love’.
Wilde has revealed the superficiality of 19th century London through his narration of the novel. Even though Dorian managed to retain his youthful image even after 20 years, few people questioned him. He remained a ‘favorite’ of London’s highest social class. He was still invited to dinners despite his notorious reputation. It suggested that in that time and day, aestheticism and beauty reigned highly over morality.
Dorian may have hid his hideous painting behind prying eyes for more than twenty years, but at the end of the novel he is constantly haunted by his mistakes in the past. Ironically, these nightmares reveal the lasting compassion in Dorian as his demise, caused by the overwhelming guilt he felt.
Wilde engages his readers in a accessible and easy-to-read journey. He never goes overboard with his description –unlike most Thomas Hardy novels – and gives the right dose of words for imagery. The abstract plot of the novel flows smoothly along with Wilde’s connotations. His style of writing allows readers to relate to different characters at various points of the narrative without using a confusing, first-person perspective.
[i] “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.” [Quote from Oscar Wilde’s letter, which was written as an introduction to a supposed, later version of the novel]
[ii] The protagonist of a German legend, Faust (or Faustus) is a scholar that made a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and endless pleasures. ["Faust". Encyclopaedia Britannica. New York: The Encyclopaedia Britannica Company. 1910.]