Within the story, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde weaves his contradictions and inner struggles within his characters, noting self-opposition and redefining his own individual aesthetic devotion. Wilde was known to be an influencing presence in the aesthetic movement during the Victorian period, and throughout the novel he depicts the truth of his beliefs in portions beneath his characters. Dorian Gray becomes an outlet for Wilde’s own vicarious pursuit of aestheticism, and is seen as who Wilde could potentially be. While Basil and Lord Henry represent portions of Wilde’s actual self, highlighting the contradictions that he struggles with daily: morals versus instinctual drives of the senses. Wilde seems torn between the personalities and contradictions within his own being and forces his characters to embody various aspects of his identity. Wilde states that, “Basil Howard is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks of me: Dorian what I would like to be in other ages, perhaps” (Raby, 79), outwardly noting the conscious relationships between himself and his characters. Wilde is seen by society as relating to Lord Henry because of his preaching of aestheticism and public persona, yet outwardly admits to comparing himself mostly with Basil, who lives immorally and beautifully only in his art. Through the relationship between Basil and Lord Henry, Wilde portrays his inner battles, while Dorian Gray becomes a source for Wilde’s test of aestheticism to determine whether to pursue a life or morals or instinctual desires.
Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray in the nineteenth century, during the Victorian time period. He emerged throughout this century following the natural trends of the time, while also struggling with his intellectual learning of aestheticism, and his alleged homosexuality. Critic Michael Patrick Gillespie rationalized Wilde’s inner struggles within the story by making note of the cultural trends and stating that, “throughout the nineteenth century certain values – duty, respectability, commercial success, middle-class morality-occupied a central position in the Victorian consciousness, but Victorians also became increasingly aware of how frequently the behavior of individuals and of society as a whole undercut the ideals that purportedly characterized the age” (5). Gillespie then noted that, “Wilde’s paradoxical nature determined the sort of book ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ would become, for it predisposed him to explore the complexities and inconsistencies of his age” (9). While the Victorians struggled with morals and selfish pursuit, Wilde seemed to as well. As the aesthetic movement took wave over England, the controversy between morals and selfishness took new heights and harvested within Wilde’s being. Rather than unwinding his contradictions within his own life, Wilde’s novel became his outlet of expression.
Wilde states his relationship with each of his characters, yet does not seem to expand upon the autobiographical details. Considering how society linked him unconditionally with the aesthetic movement of the time, Wilde was certainly aware that his story would be received as expanding upon this philosophy, depicting both the pros and cons. Aestheticism is known as the belief to surrender to the pursuit of beauty. The premise of aestheticism originated in the German philosophical tradition and carried a tag of “amoral” impulses and homosexuality. However, Wilde was influenced with the tradition that took wave over England in the nineteenth century by Walter Pater. Aesthetes implied that morals must be disregarded in attempt to search for the beautiful and that the beautiful should be unconditionally and immediately self-rewarding (Gillespie 10-13). Walter Pater was a driving force of aesthetic devotion and greatly influenced an array of Oxford students (Wilde included) with his writing of Studies in the History of the Renaissance in 1873. Pater could be described as fitting the self-rewarding trend of the Victorian era by taking the position that art is used to give you sensual pleasures. He declared that one must always “burn […] with this hard gem-like flame” (Pater, 275) in pursuit of sensual pleasures. He also declared that one must love “art for art’s sake” (Pater, 275). Wilde was greatly influenced by Pater’s book and was quoted as claiming it his “golden book” (Nassaar, 109). Furthermore, Wilde allowed himself to become influenced by Pater’s aesthetic beliefs and attempted to tie them into his own life.
Therefore, in realizing the effect of aestheticism upon Wilde’s life, and the immense influence upon the plot of the novel, it is impossible to deny the self weaving that Wilde stitched within the seams of each character and word. Wilde preached aestheticism, and one would assume that he practiced what he preached. However, Wilde claims to relate mostly to Basil, who remained true to his morals, despite the pull of selfish, instinctual drives relating to aestheticism. Moreover, Wilde’s desire to live faithfully to the aesthetic philosophy was never fulfilled, and he was filled with complexities and contradictions which caused his selfish pursuit of beauty to falter.
The tug-of-war within Wilde’s identity manifests itself within the relationship of Basil and Lord Henry. While Dorian is the epitome of living aesthetically, Basil and Lord Henry’s relationship is how Wilde played out his own struggles of morals versus sensual pleasures. In a sense, Basil represents the moralizing aspect of Wilde’s self, which contrasts his basic instincts and desires that Lord Henry preached. Ironically, Lord Henry represents Wilde’s desire to live immorally, and selfishly. However, neither man nor character fulfills this desire. Basil once states to Lord Henry that he “never [says] a moral thing, and never [does] a wrong thing. [His] cynicism is simply a pose” (8). Further, he preaches, yet does not practice his own words. Instead, he puts on a front and it is assumed by outsiders that this façade is true, when in truth both Wilde and Lord Henry tame their instincts and let their beliefs flow out through words rather than action.
Lord Henry’s basic drive to find pleasure despite amoral actions is within Wilde as well, yet both men are able to maintain control over their instincts. Nonetheless, both men still long for aesthetic fulfillment, and do so by preaching to others. In fact, through Lord Henry’s character, Wilde states that,
to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. 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, 21).
The “music” which Lord Henry speaks of, is used again by Wilde to describe Lord Henry’s tone when speaking to Dorian. Lord Henry “in a low, musical voice” (24), states that “if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream – […] the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy” (23). As Lord Henry preaches, Dorian learns how to echo “borrowed” (21) music. Moreover, both Wilde and Lord Henry influence others because they are too scared to reach their potential self. Wilde noted that Dorian is whom he “would like to be” (Raby, 79) but is not, while Lord Henry also creates music that he is too timid to dance to himself. Instead, they are merely spectators, whom create the “music” that others follow. By influencing others to sin, they both believe they are not sinning themselves.
In one instance within the novel, Basil discusses the guilt of living solely for selfish pleasures, while Lord Henry claims that, “mediaeval art is charming, but mediaeval emotions are out of date.” This acknowledges the fact that Lord Henry does not feel remorse about his negative influence upon Dorian, yet still is unable to pursue aesthetic living himself. Further, Lord Henry is used as a prop to oppose Basil’s morals outwardly, while maintaining them inwardly by only sinning through vicarious pursuit, believing he is escaping all consequences.
Lord Henry is seen as deceptive and manipulative, and yet Wilde notes how society found him most relatable to this character. Considering the trial on inappropriate homosexual behaviors, the flamboyant personality and preaching throughout Europe on aestheticism, society classified him as an aesthete who professed devotion to egoistic sensual desires. Aestheticism is greatly linked to homosexual tendencies because of the emphasis on the allure of sexual desires. Wilde acknowledges these desires, and Pater’s influence, by evoking homoerotic senses and emotions throughout the story. Lord Henry describes Dorian as being a “young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leases. Why, my dear Basil, he is a Nacissus” (Wilde, 9). By acknowledging the beauty of the male and the influence he brings upon the senses, Wilde and Lord Henry prove that although a pure aesthetic life may be destructive, there is still a medium that must be found. In essence, both men are artists who create and live vicariously through their creations. Both men use words and their presence to influence others. Both men create beauty without immersing themselves entirely. Lord Henry, like Wilde, takes the backseat and lives through his senses using another person as his pillar. Wilde uses his creation of Dorian Gray as an artist and writer, while Lord Henry uses Dorian as his puppet of whom he manipulates with his words. Wilde and Lord Henry are seen as detached creators of art.
Then, at a distance, Lord Henry uses his own strength of conversation and presence to sculpt his art (Dorian) into destruction and failure. He preaches from a distance and considers himself an artist. In fact the words he had spoken to Dorian had “touched some secret chord that had never been touched before, but that he felt was now vibrating and throbbing to curious pulses” (58). The words of Lord Henry were his art. He was known to speak in epigrams and express himself as artistically as Wilde himself. Lord Henry states that, “Art had a soul, but that man had not” (58), which emphasizes the fact that he has given his soul entirely to his art (Dorian).
In one instance, as Lord Henry becomes the puppeteer behind Dorian, he states, “Live, Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing…A new Hedonism – that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality there is nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season” (22). Further, New Hedonism relates back to the aesthetic beliefs of Walter Pater that one should commit themselves entirely to pleasure with complete disregard for consequences of actions. Therefore as Lord Henry preaches New Hedonism (aesthetic principles), he is reflecting Wilde’s inability to practice what he preaches. Gillespie makes notes on how, “Lord Henry’s character: no matter how extravagant his lexicon of sensualism becomes, he seems to make no move to gratify his appetites” (63). Apparently, the devotion to the philosophy for both Wilde and Lord Henry is not through action, but detached “voyeurism” (Gillespie, 63).
This detachment relates back to the unspoken ethics within Wilde’s self that is most noticeably portrayed through Basil. Within the story, Basil embodies the struggle between morals and beauty. Basil is deeply devoted to Dorian’s beauty, however, he believes greatly in the soul and moral identity. In fact, during the final meeting between the artist and his muse, Basil feels a sense of moral corruption because of his aesthetic desire for Dorian. His purely aesthetic infatuation with Dorian has caused his moral judgment to falter. Dorian stands in front of him corrupt and evil, and he wishes for him to repent. He begins to pray, saying, “Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins” (Wilde, 156). As noted, Basil is who Wilde claims to be. Wilde’s art is his escape into pure aestheticism and the creation of Dorian Gray (for both Wilde and Basil) becomes a way for both men (fictional and real) to touch beauty, while still maintaining their morals. In essence, Basil and Lord Henry are more similar than they may appear outwardly. Both men use art as an outlet. Although Basil speaks of morals, while Lord Henry does not, both men never act in sin. Furthermore, Basil, Wilde and even Lord Henry feel an extreme pull to the aesthetic life, yet merely tiptoe along the surface to find a medium between art, beauty and morality. In doing so, they recreate an aesthetic viewpoint within themselves and redefine individually how to touch beauty while remaining true to who they are as an artist and person.
The one character who does not remain true to themselves, and instead becomes manipulated by others is Dorian Gray. To Wilde, Lord Henry and Basil, Dorian is their creation. The story takes on Wilde’s personal divisions within his identity and uses Dorian Gray to embody what he was never brave enough to be. Wilde himself noted that Dorian is who he would like to be, and although Dorian is seen as evil and corrupt at the end of the novel, his morals and soul are disregarded. Dorian Gray is used as a vicarious pursuit to the devotion of basic, immediate instinctual fulfillment which Lord Henry and Wilde could not commit to. Critic Joseph Carroll would suggest that the importance of Dorian is to act as “an experimental test case for the validity of Pater’s aesthectic philosophy” (292). In fact, Carroll goes on to state that “the experiment falsifies the philosophy
As the novel winds down, and the contradictions within Wilde’s self are faced with one another, the philosophy of aestheticism meets its final test. After Dorian realizes his portrait has aged and carries the weight of his sins, he states to Basil, “Years ago, when I was a boy, you met me, flattered me, and taught me to be vain of my good looks. One day you introduced me to a friend of a portrait of me that revealed to me the wonder of beauty. In a mad moment, that, even now, I don’t whether I regret of not, I made a wish, perhaps you would call it a prayer” (Wilde, 154). Dorian acknowledges his devotion to beauty, his hope to stay forever young and sheds candlelight on the consequences of such living. In this moment Basil is horrified by the portrait and demands Dorian to repent, pleading, “Pray, Dorian, pray” (155). In relationship to Wilde, Basil, like him, created Dorian. The portrait for Basil and the novel for Wilde are both men’s pursuit of beauty through art. Basil states that, “I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it,” acknowledging his own sin for playing a hand in the “music” in which Dorian dances to, and the role in which he plays. Wilde, who claims to relate mostly to Basil, may feel the same about his writing of this character.
Wilde tests the philosophy of aestheticism through the creation of Dorian Gray and weaves his own contractions on the philosophy openly within the characters. Basil and Lord Henry carry the weight of Wilde’s confusions and depict his inner battle with morals versus egoistic aesthetic devotion. Carroll suggests that what Wilde fails to say is that, “Dorian is beautiful but selfish, sensual and cruel; Lord Henry is a worldly cynic incapable of registering the moral horror that leads Dorian to murder and suicide; and that Basil is enthralled by Dorian’s beauty but appalled at the moral quality of his life” (290-291). Wilde’s identity consists of portions of each of his characters, and their relationships reveal the divisions within his self. Wilde carries Lord Henry’s detached passion for creation, Basil’s ethics, and Dorian’s desires. He bonds each portion together and redefines the mold of how to live aesthetically. Moreover, throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde shows his potential self through Dorian, and his two opposing viewpoints of his actual self through Basil and Lord Henry. Wilde is seen as a paradoxical, yet inevitable moral aesthete.
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