The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was immediately a source of much controversy when it was first published in 1890. Some critics called it an immoral book, and gave it horrid reviews whereas others cited it as a wonderful book that takes a hard look at Aestheticism and Morality. The book does chronicle a young mans moral downfall, but there is a deeper message. Willed gives us a story in which he clearly illustrates the incompatibility of Aestheticism and Morality. In “The Picture of Dorian Gray’ Oscar Willed argues that Aestheticism is removed from Morality, that art cannot be moral or immoral.
After critics got past the apparent immoral content they saw it more correctly as a tragic story warning us about the consequence of blending ethics with aesthetics. One of the most obvious defenses for this claim come from the character of Lord Henry Watson. Throughout the book Lord Henry is Wild’s most vocal advocate for separating Morality from Aestheticism. Lord Henry is rarely misinterpreted, quoted as being “.. One of Wild’s deliciously wicked creations. “(Allen) and his influence is strong on Dorian throughout the novel.
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The path Lord Henry ushers Dorian down is en that is undoubtedly Hedonistic, but Henry urges Dorian to focus on the experience with the ultimate goal of self development. He pushes Dorian to let goof his conscience, what other people think are not his concern. This dynamic between these two characters is drawn out through the entire novel, and is Wild’s strongest source message. We are made to laugh at Lord Henry in numerous occasions, largely due to his eccentric nature and long winded musings. In these musings are kernels or truth however, his candid Jabs at society as a whole don’t entirely miss their mark.
Allen) He puts beauty on a pedestal and worships it above all else, and he clearly gives moral dilemmas a casual swipe of the hand when confronted with them. Lord Henry turns everything into an object to study, everything is viewed from an aesthetic point of view. Whether it be the topic of beauty itself, or a simple flower picked from the garden. He treats Dorian the same way, as a tantalizing new specimen to study. Lord Henrys view of Dorian is another example of Aesthetic ideals because Henry looks only at his beauty and the significance of it.
The core of the message that Lord Henry is trying to instill in Dorian is that he wants him to become self aware of his beauty. Henry mentions self knowledge numerous times, citing it as the one purpose of life. Henry wants Dorian to fully realize his gift, to revel in the pure Joy of being a beautiful person and to do it all without a sense of conscience or guilt. Talking to Dorian about his beauty we clearly hear Willed in the quote, “… Beauty is a form of Genius, is higher, indeed, than Genius as it needs no explanation…. Let cannot be questioned”(page).
This is clearly Willed addressing the potential critics of the book, cooing the preface that he added in his revision in 1891. He says that “They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. ” In referencing “they’ as being simply as such, void of any moral or ethical attachments. Willed suggests that bringing morality into play when engaging any kind of art clouds the experience with Judgment. This can be heard from Lord Henry, ” I never approve, or disapprove of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life. We are not sent into the world to air our moral prejudices. . I feel the most important act regarding Lord Henry is that he is the only main character to survive. This can’t be ignored as many characters were killed in this story. The fact that Lord Henry is certainly the loudest character in the book and the only main character to survive clearly underlines his importance. Throughout the book Lord Henry constantly bounces in and out of the story, never without a witty comment. In the last few pages of the novel, Lord Henrys final words of wisdom again echo Willed from the preface when he scoffs at the idea of Dorian being poisoned by a book.
He rebukes that Art as no effect on someone’s action, that it in fact cancels the desire to act. He even goes on to say that it is “superbly sterile”. Using the word sterile is important, it lacks the ability to impregnate someone with any sort of idea or creed. His words are simply paraphrasing Willed when he spoke of Art being a pure medium and that any sin that is seen in Art is brought by the viewer. Lord Henrys influence continues at the end of the book where it is the last nudge that sends Dorian over the edge, when he is looking at himself in the mirror that Lord Henry gave him years ago.
Framed in gold with small cherubs adorned around the edge, the mirror mocks Dorian horribly. When Dorian looks into the mirror, he cannot remove himself, his guilt, from the image. The mirror acts as a physical one but more importantly a metaphorical one as well. Dorian cannot see past his guilty conscience, cannot brush away the horrible things he has done. He realizes that he has failed at all his efforts to remain pure and spins into a rage and smashes the mirror, and then turns on the painting. He turns the same rage filled eyes he leveled at the paintings creator, at the painting itself.
Using the same knife he assaults the picture and only manages at killing the image reflected in it. The last image Willed leaves us with is very clear, unable to face the mirror that is reflecting his tainted soul Dorian tries to cut it to pieces, yet it is he who is cut down leaving the picture as new as the day it was created all those years ago. Art, the perfect medium. There are a number of deaths in the book and they are all representative of Aestheticism clashing with Morality. Dorian, who represents morality, causes directly or indirectly the death of almost every main character.
The message being literal hat the mixing of Morality with Art is dangerous, even deadly. The first case is with his “love” Sybil Vane. Sibyl’s representation of art is literal in that she is an artist, an actor. Sybil also conforms with Wild’s ideals of pure expression in that she comes to life in each role that she plays. Once Sybil is in love with Dorian, she is “tainted” and can no longer act with pure expression. The mixing of these two characters ends with Dorian Judging her performances as an actor, and treating her horribly. Here consequences.
This rejection drives Sybil into horrid state which results in her omitting suicide, another symbol of Art being destroyed by morality. Another toxic relationship was that of Basil and Dorian. Basil and Dorian certainly didn’t start out badly. Basil is totally blown away by Dorian, aside from the homoerotic notions Basil sees Dorian as art and seeks to possess him. Throughout the book Basil is portrayed as Lord Henrys opposite and a clear representative of Morality. Basil is the first person to come to Dorian and present his moral evidence that what Dorian is doing is wrong.
He lists all the people that Dorian has had a active affect on, which is virtually everyone except Basil and Lord Henry. Basil is being the mirror and embodies Doorman’s conscience and begs him to turn his life around. When confronted with the evidence, Dorian turns defensive. He turns mean and Basil’s pushing leads them eventually upstairs where Dorian shows him the painting. Here Doorman’s sins and twisted morals are thrown in his face by the painting’s devilish smirk. This enrages Dorian and he turns this rage on Basil and murders him. Another source of moral destruction comes directly after the murder of Basil.
Dorian calls on the help of a former friend Alan Campbell to dispose of the body. Alan was partially ruined by his dealings with Dorian and is very bitter, has made a hard promise to himself not to deal with Dorian anymore. Alan is trying to do the “right” thing, to hold steadfast to his moral conviction. Dorian of course knows this, and he simply blackmails him. Alan ends up doing everything Dorian asks of him, but he cannot live with the shame of what he has done and takes his life. All of these deaths help further Wild’s claim that Morals are to be separate from Aesthetic deals entirely.
The most powerful argument Willed gives us is in the character that is always in the background, or the attic I should say, the painting. The most pure and powerful representation of art in the book, so powerful in fact that it gave Dorian the power of immortality. All throughout the book we have examples of art being destroyed by morality, but here we have the opposite. The overall ideal is the same, that art cannot coexist with morality but the upper hand is given to art. When Dorian can no longer stand to look at the man he has become he turns on the painting trying to story it. He is still trying to erase his sins and his memory of them.
The last image of the book is Dorian as a crumpled, ugly, old man on the floor lying at the foot of a beautiful painting. The painting was never in anyway tainted or affected by the horrible things that Dorian did, it was merely a mirror. This visual clearly illustrates Wild’s point that art is incapable of being moral or immoral. It is viscerally and completely separate from all Judgment, it is pure and elemental. Willed uses the concept of a mirror throughout the book. We have the painting citing as a mirror reflecting the growing corruption inside Dorian, Basil acts as a considering the idea off mirror, the use of this seems clear.
Mirrors do not alter the image that they send back. They are unforgiving and often show the looker things that they do not realize. There are no morals or any other influences that can skew the image that is reflected back. This ties into the the idea that art is detached from everything, any emotions or thoughts gathered from a work of art come directly from the spectator. They are the product of the effect art had on the person, art effects people in different ways because people are different. What the painting showed Dorian was that he was indeed extremely beautiful, dangerously beautiful.
The clear reflection of himself intoxicated his ego, and let him down a self destructive path trying to satisfy it. The painting didn’t influence Dorian in any way, it merely showed a spade that it was a spade. And indeed it continued to do so, after each immoral act the picture grew more grotesque. I think its important to notice that if the idea that art could be tainted with morality was true, then painting itself would have begun to decay as well. The paint would have worn down, dried out and became brittle.
The frame would have cracked and split, and we would have seen the downfall of the painting along with Dorian. But this didn’t happen, the picture itself stayed as pristine as it was the day it was created. Moral downfall is a clear theme in Wild’s novel, and on the surface we can look and blame the painting for causing it. We can blame Lord Henry for leading Dorian into the corruption that ends up ruining him. Blaming outside influences for ones own faults is never a sound practice, as one is never completely forced to do anything hey don’t want to.
Nobody put a gun to Doorman’s head and told him to live the life of a scoundrel. Lord Henry read the same book that he gave to Dorian, and it did not have any ill effects on him, it was his favorite! Again a piece of art acting as a mirror showed the spectator what was under the surface. The ultimate message in “The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is that art is without morals, good or bad. What you see in it is what you see in yourself. To quote the preface, “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. Willed, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print. Lieberman, Sheldon W. “Character Design in the Picture of Dorian Gray. ” Studies in the Novel 31. 3 (1999): 296-316. Prosiest Research Library. Web. 8 DCE. 2011. Kef, Robert. “Artist and Model in the Picture of Dorian Gray. ” Studies in the Novel 5 (1973): 63-70. ML International Bibliography. Web. 8 DCE. 2011. Allen, James S. “The Use and Abuse of Aestheticism. ” Arts Education Policy Review. May/June De. N. P. : n. P. , 2003. 23-27. Prosiest. Web. 8 DCE. 2011.