The Role of Aestheticism in Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

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An essay examining the use of aestheticism ideas in Oscar Wilde's novel.

Submitted: December 12, 2009

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Submitted: December 12, 2009



The Role of Aestheticism in Oscar Wilde’s
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Around the time of the later 1800’s, in the Victorian Era during which Oscar Wilde was at the peak of his career, the aestheticism movement was a popular social attitude formed in opposition to traditional Victorian values. With the influence of his poetry and plays, Oscar Wilde was a major proponent of this movement, and its philosophies are a dominant theme in his novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. In the novel, the characters’ revelations about the soul, their pursuit of pleasure, and their treatment of art all reflect the ideas supported by the aesthetes’ philosophy on life. When it was first published in 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was purported to be immoral, so Wilde revised his novel and had it published again a year later with the preface that clearly outlines the aesthetic approach he intended. In this preface he states that “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Thusly does Oscar Wilde state his opinion that the only purpose of art is to be beautiful, and leads his readers into the decadent world of Dorian Gray.
The belief of the aesthetes of the Victorian Era was that purity of soul could only be achieved through the “wholeness of being” and one’s sense-perception of one’s own being (Terpening; ‘Epicurus and Victorian Aesthetics’). Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who influenced the birth of the aestheticism movement, wrote that “There exists nothing in addiction to the totality.” (Terpening; ‘Epicurus and Victorian Aesthetics’). In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Dorian’s internal moral decay is concealed by his stunning good looks to every person who does not thoroughly contemplate his personality, and therefore, by aesthetic belief, not one person ever truly knows him, except for Basil Hallward, who pays for that knowledge with his life. Wilde creates Dorian’s character this way to illustrate the feeling that an “object must be studied in its entirety, or else it is not the object that is being considered, but a fragment that has no meaningful relationship with the whole.” (Terpening; ‘Epicurus and Victorian Aesthetics’). Without an understanding of Dorian’s soul, his superficial charm and good looks are meaningless pleasures; like art in the aesthetic ideal, Dorian serves no purpose but to be beautiful, as Lord Henry Wotton says on page 180 of the novel: “…[Y]ou have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself! Life has been your art… Your days have been your sonnets.” Basil Hallward’s portrait of Dorian, as it ages and withers with the effects of Dorian’s sins, evolves in Dorian’s mind as a separate entity from himself that he come to loathe. Despite his hatred of the portrait, Dorian keeps it and continues to check on it as it changes, because it has become his only perception of his own true nature, and of his own soul. Dorian’s being ceases to be whole when he prays that the portrait, rather than his own face, might age to reflect his sins. By making that prayer, he splits his soul and his body apart and consequently loses his ability to sense the decrepitude of his own moral nature. In observing the detriment of his soul portrayed on the portrait’s canvas, Dorian is overcome by self-loathing, which he perceives as hatred for the painting, and so decides to destroy the painting in a desperate attempt to separate himself from his own corrupt soul. “Dorian never approaches the Epicurean [aesthetic] goal of being free from disturbance; rather, he is continually troubled… [and eventually] becomes hideous in death.” (Terpening; ‘Epicurus and Victorian Aesthetics’). The final sentences of the novel show the ugly, real fate that Dorian finally meets as a result of his actions: “Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.” (Wilde, pg 186). Dorian’s failure to come to terms with his entire self is the cause of his demise, and the aesthetic lesson that “…a handsome aspect does not constitute a beautiful creature,” regardless of the pleasures that they may give or enjoy (Terpening; ‘Epicurus and Victorian Aesthetics’).
A dominating motive behind the actions of the characters in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is the pursuit of pleasure. The originator of the aesthetic ideal, Epicurus, declared that pleasure was man’s greatest good, and rejected pain, deeming it to be evil. However, he understood that often in order to achieve pleasure, some amount of pain would be necessary (Terpening; ‘Epicurus and Victorian Aesthetics’). The main character in the novel, Dorian, is a man who “has a passion for ‘the colour, the beauty, the joy of life,’ but avoids becoming involved with any experience for fear of it causing him possible pain.” (Dawson, Dorian Gray as Symbolic Representation of Wilde’s Personality). Rather than enjoying life with what the Victorians advocated as ‘refinement’ or ‘taste,’ Dorian indulges in hedonistic pleasures and devotes himself to the study of perfumes, embroideries, and other benign aspects of fine art (Terpening; ‘Epicurus and Victorian Aesthetics’). “[T]his passion for objets d’art, so lengthily described in chapter XI, is simply a way ‘by which he could escape, for a season, from the fear that seemed to him at times to be almost too great to be borne.’” (Dawson, Dorian Gray as Symbolic Representation of Wilde’s Personality). In a paradoxical manner, Dorian is afraid of life, even though he has been blessed with the means and the ability with which to enjoy life and all its pleasures to the fullest (Dawson, Dorian Gray as Symbolic Representation of Wilde’s Personality). In his book, ‘A Book of Words,’ Rudyard Kipling wrote: “[T]he Black Thought… is the one emotion that all men of imagination have in common. It is a horror of great darkness that drops upon a man unbidden, and drives him to think lucidly, connectedly.” (Kipling, A Book of Words). It is this fear, this ‘Black Thought,’ as Kipling calls it, which drives Dorian to seek refuge in pseudo-aestheticism, the utopia of ‘art for art’s sake,’ and surround himself with beautiful things that foster pleasure and nothing else (Dawson, Dorian Gray as Symbolic Representation of Wilde’s Personality).“[T]here was to be, as Lord Henry had prophesied, a new Hedonism that was to recreate life, and… to teach man to concentrate himself upon the moments of a life that is itself but a moment.” (Wilde, pg 109). So Dorian seeks pleasure in jewels and “ecclesiastical vestments,” and, when consumed by his passion for music, performs his “curious concerts.” However, he remains detached from these experiences, seeing things solely from an aesthetic point of view (pleasure as the supreme ‘good’), and never really becomes involved in his own life; rather, he watches events unfold in the way a spectator would (Dawson, Dorian Gray as Symbolic Representation of Wilde’s Personality): “[Dorian] was leaning against the mantelshelf, watching with that strange expression that one sees on the faces of those who are absorbed in a play when some great artist is acting.” (Wilde, pg 130). Dorian’s pursuit of pleasurable things leads to his emotional detachment from humanity, but surrounding himself with those objects of exquisite beauty is not his greatest sin, because those objects promote pleasure, which is the greatest good, according to the aestheticism belief. Dorian’s greatest sin is that he grows to depend upon those things to maintain an interested in life (Terpening; ‘Epicurus and Victorian Aesthetics’). According to the aesthetes, it is not materialism in itself, but rather “materialism that substitutes for spiritualism that is undesirable.” (Terpening; ‘Epicurus and Victorian Aesthetics’).
At the heart of the aestheticism movement was the belief that art should not have any purpose other than to be beautiful. Oscar Wilde stood by this view very strongly. In his play ‘The Decay of Lying,’ a character named Vivian states that “Literature should frankly accept that it is fiction, a form of lying, and that the telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of art.” (Faulkner, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray: Introduction’). In the preface to ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ Wilde elaborates even further on this stance by saying “No artist desires to prove anything,” and “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. Not artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.” (Wilde, pg 1). With this preface, Wilde wastes no time in making his view very clear to readers, and his view continues to be seen throughout the novel in the words and actions of the characters. When Dorian first discovers, quite by chance, the beautiful actress Sibyl Vane, he returns to the theatre nightly just to watch her stunning performances, and she never disappoints him. For as long as Dorian simply enjoys Sibyl’s art he loves her because she is beautiful to observe, but once he is given the opportunity to speak with Sibyl and get to know her, Dorian associates his love with her acting, thereby giving the art of performance a purpose besides entertainment. When Sibyl decides to exchange her acting for Dorian’s love, Dorian rejects her, saying, “Without your art you are nothing.” (Wilde, pg 74). Dorian gives Sibyl’s acting, her art, the purpose of maintaining his love for her, and when she disregarding her art as a thing without purpose, abandons it, Dorian callously abandons her (Gates, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray’). Sibyl becomes a victim of art, and commits suicide by swallowing prussic acid: her death is an example of the terrible consequences that the aesthetes believed could occur as a result of saddling art with responsibility (Gates, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray’). Later in the novel, years after Sibyl Vane’s death, Dorian accuses Lord Henry of “poisoning” him with the unnamed yellow book that Henry lent to Dorian when they were young. Dorian claims that it was the book that led him astray and caused him to behave deplorably: “You poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that. Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to anyone. It does harm.” (Wilde, pg 181). This claim is in direct opposition to the beliefs of the aesthetes of the era, and Lord Henry, in defense of his actions, takes a wholly aesthetic stance on the situation. He says to Dorian: “My dear boy, you are really beginning to moralize… As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile.” (Wilde, pg 181). This statement purports the purity or ‘sterility’ of art: as something created without an intention behind it, art cannot influence the intents of people. Rudyard Kipling shared this aesthetic opinion that art is a creation without direction, and in “A Book of Words,’ he writes: “No one embraces the career of Art, any more than one enters Science or the Services, with the direct idea of making money. The material rewards of art are so small that men may be forgiven if they sacrifice themselves and their belongings to make an appeal to the next generation, while they neglect their own.” He also describes artists as “men who devote their skill to producing things and expressing ideas for which the public has no present need.” (Kipling, ‘A Book of Words’). These descriptions of a career in art as totally non-profitable and of artists as people who create things that are not necessary falls directly in line with the aesthetic motto, “art for art’s sake.” It also compliments the preface to ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ because, as Oscar Wilde says, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.” (Wilde, pg 2).
Art in the Victorian Era was considered to be a tool for education, social interaction, and moral enlightenment, but not a thing that was to be enjoyed merely for the sake of enjoyment (Sparknotes, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’). In the late 19th century, a group of people formed what came to be known as the Aestheticism Movement, which sought to release art from the responsibilities of having to be an educational and moral tool. Prominent among these aesthetes was Oscar Wilde, and in his novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ he exemplifies the beliefs of the aesthetic ideal through his characters’ experiences with the soul, their various pursuits of pleasure, and their opinions of art. It could be said that ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is a cautionary tale to warn of the dangers that may result from placing a functional purpose on works of art; ironically, for the message is delivered via a piece of literature, which, as it falls under the category of art, should have no purpose according to aesthetic principles. In the preface to the novel, Wilde writes: “Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Readers may interpret the story in any way they wish and draw what conclusions they may, but as the final word on the subject, Oscar Wilde states: “All art is quite useless.”

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