In the controversial novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the only published novel written by Oscar Wilde, the protagonist Dorian Gray begins to indulge the idea of hedonism from fellow friend Lord Henry. Dorian adores his beauty so much that he wishes the painting Basil Hallward is painting of him to grow old in his place. As a matter a fact, the portrait does age with every sin Dorian commits, and Dorian’s outward appearance remains unchanged. The portrait is a reflection of dirty deeds done by Dorian, acting as a type of ‘mirror.’ Mirrors play a huge role throughout the novel, as they help establish the theme of hedonism and signify how art is in the eye of the beholder.
When Oscar Wilde published this novel, he faced many criticisms of homoerotic tones in the novel. Facing such adversity, he added the preface to address the criticism and assert the reputation of the novel. The preface states that “it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” (3) In other words, art is in the eye of the beholder, and this reflects what the spectator sees as to the potent of the feeling they get which in turn reflects one’s personality. Art is reflected by the one viewing the art, and their interpretation of it mirrors what they believe the art is supposed to represent. A spectator such as Dorian Gray finding out the meaning of his portrait is an example of this.
On page 78, after rejecting his love Sibyl Vane due to poor acting, Dorian views the painting of himself. He notices the painting is somewhat different than before as it now bears a subtle smear “The quivering, ardent sunlight showed him the lines of cruelty round the mouth as clearly as if he had been looking into a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing.” (78) His wish has come true, as the portrait will age with each sin Dorian commits, while his outward appearance of an extremely good looking young man stays intact. The painting functions as mirror because it reflects the spectator’s (Dorian’s) sins, and also expresses the wickedness of his soul. On the contrary, an actual mirror only reflects back what is in front of it, and nothing more.
With the use of the portrait and mirror, these items help with the character development of Dorian Gray. A reader can see how Dorian views himself when he faces a mirror: “and stand, with a mirror, in front of the portrait that Basil Hallward [has] painted of him, looking now at the evil and aging face on the canvas, and now at the fair young face that laughed back at him from the polished glass.” (109) The mirror aids Dorian to recognize that he still is a handsome looking young man, while the portrait portrays the evil deeds that Dorian commits. The theme of hedonism arises also, which is where pleasure is the utmost important goal in life, and Dorian seeks this pleasure from his appearance and can achieve this by looking at a mirror.
Hedonism is a major theme in the novel, and mirrors help to establish and maintain this theme throughout the book. Character development is also acknowledged through the use of mirrors, as well as how art is in the eye of the beholder which is described in the preface. The art is in the eye of the beholder phrase is intriguing, as Oscar Wilde’s book is controversial facing massive criticisms, such as people concerned with homosexuality, during the publishing of his book. The phrase within the preface concerning mirrors helps shed light on the controversy associated with the book. Mirrors reflect us, yet as portrayed in this book they can reflect our inner self.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998.