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Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) was an Anglo-English novelist, playwight, poet and critic. He is often regarded as one of the most iconic people of the Victorian era. He is best known for his works such as the play “The Importance of Being Earnest” and his classic novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Besides that he was known far and wide for his numerous poems, flamboyant wit, intelligence and humour which shine through his writings and plays.
However, he also suffered a great deal of humiliation and indignity when he was imprisoned due to his sexual orientation. His only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” brought him considerable notoriety as the British public was incensed by the implied immorality in the work. Also, the novel’s homoerotic overtones, which caused something of a sensation amongst Victorian critics.
The first edition of Wilde’s novel was published in 1890in the Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and was instantaneously declared as immoral and scandalous due to the fact that the virtues and values highlighted in Wilde’s only novel were in stark contrast with the morals of Victorian England.
After such a disappointing response, Wilde published a revised version of the same in 1891 after adding a preface and six new chapters. The epigram gives a befitting reply to critics by quoting that, “There’s no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are either well written, or badly written. That is all.
” With changing time and perceptions, this novel proves to be a puzzle for its readers to solve. Many commentators argue that Wilde’s motivation for writing this piece of art arose from his inclination towards aestheticism and his passion for artistic freedom and his desire to push off the limits of the philosophical and gothic novels.
Set in London in the 1800s, The Picture of Dorian Gray revolves around a impressionable, extraordinarily beautiful and susceptible young man, Dorian Gray. Basil Hallward, a renowned painter, by a sheer stroke of luck gets acquainted with Dorian and is mesmerized by his beauty. He decides to capture his beauty through painting; which is set to be his masterpiece. He adores Dorian to such an extent that he puts in to much of himself in the painting. At Hallward’s place, Dorian comes across another gentleman, Lord Henry Wotton, who sees seeking pleasure as the prime objective of life. Basil anticipates that Lord Henry will have a bad influence on Dorian, whom he wilfully adores. Henry is an unconventional person who stirs the thinking of Dorian by remarking that his beauty is transient in nature and will fade with the advent of time. Puzzled by this, Dorian wishes that, “the painting would bear the toll of time and sin instead of him.” In return he offers his soul.
Dorian and Lord Henry soon click with each other, becoming great friends and get keenly impressed by each other’s distinctive outlooks; Dorian’s innocence and Henry’s cynical and purely sensual interpretation of life. Subsequently, Dorian falls in love with the beautiful young actress Sibyl Vane with whom he gets engaged to be married to her. However, this does not last long as and when he brings Henry and Basil to her performance wherein she performs uncharacteristically terrible. When Dorian confronts her, she contends that now that she is truly in love, she does not believe in acting. Therefore, Dorian believing that he loves her acting and not her, in a fit of rage, insensitively breaks off their engagement which leaves her sobbing. He after returning home discovers that his portrait is now different, it has developed an ugly sneer. Moved by this, he decides to beg for forgiveness and writes an impassioned letter to her. Soon, much to his surprise he comes to know that Sibyl has committed suicide and drowns in his natural instinct of guilt and despair. Henry presents her death as an artistic expression of love which eventually persuades Dorian into believing that he is not at fault. Also, his portrait now becomes more grotesque with each and every sin he commits which leads him into believing that his portrait will now bear his guilt giving himself a freeway.
Fearing that someone might discover the secret of his true self, he hid the portrait.
He religiously follows the preaching o a “Yellow Book” sent by Lord Henry and abides by the hedonistic principles as laid down by Lord Henry and the yellow book.
Over the subsequent years, although his face remained young and innocent; he found himself caught between many scandals that propagated a plethora of rumours against him.
Basil still was under a fa?ade that Dorian is a good person from inside, not withstanding the fact that he hadchanged exponentially. He visits to Dorian to confront him about the rumours which he had been hearing of late. Dorian, therefore, decides to show him the degradation of his soul which was recorded in the portrait. This horrifies Basil and he begs him to repent his sins which in turn, enrages him and in a fit of rage he kills Basil with a knife. He then blackmails an old acquaintance, Alan Campbell to help him decompose Basil’s body. Frustrated by this act and the corrupting influence of Dorian, he commits suicide.
Soon after, he visits an opium den where he is attacked by Sibyl’s brother, James Vane. James feels he is mistaken as 18 years had passed when her sister committed suicide and yet, Dorian still looks like a 20 year old person. This confusion helps Dorian escape the clutches of death. One day, a hunting party accidentally shot down a stranger in Dorian’s property who turned out to be none other than James Vane.
Dorian was relieved at the sight of this but at the same time could not bear the burden of four deaths that happened due to sick conscience.
Subsequently, Dorian decides to make amends in his life by repentance but the painting reveals his repentance as sheer hypocrisy by adding a new hypocritical smirk on his aged face. By that time he realises he cannot go back and the damage done to his soul cannot be undone. Saddened and furious by this, he decides to destroy the portrait and picks up the knife with which he killed Basil, the creator of the picture. In an unexpected turn of events, there’s a shriek and the servants discover that their master, who is now old and ugly, is lying dead on the floor with an unharmed, beautiful portrait of him lying beside him.
Dorian Gray is a radiantly handsome youth who is innocent, na?ve and good hearted initially. His good looks were described by Lord Henry as “finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair.” The story revolves Dorian and his beauty.
Although beautiful, Dorian is self centred and selfish in his approach which leads him towards self-destruction. This can be seen by the way he rejects Sibyl which leads to her committing suicide. He very easily gets affected by the bad influence of Lord Henry which drives him towards hedonism and, hence, a path of destruction, reflective of his na?ve and innocent nature. Dorian is so many opposites at once that we can’t try to understand them all. He’s good, he’s bad; he’s beautiful, he’s hideous; he’s perfect, he’s terribly flawed. Most importantly, he’s literally two things at once he’s himself, a living, breathing human being, and he’s also the portrait, a visible reflection of the state of his crumbling soul . Also, Dorian’s Surname, “Gray” is also indicative of the fact that morally and ethically, he is neither white nor black but gray, which is apt for his dual personality.
Basil Hallward is a well known and widely respect painter. He always well advises Dorian in his matters. He had deep and profound knowledge of the abstract sense of beauty. He believes in the conventional approaches of life and firmly believes in the innate goodness of mankind which can be seen from the instance of him reproaching Dorian after what all he did to Sibyl and also when he urged Dorian to repent for his misdeeds. He always seeks to safeguard Dorian, initially by voicing his objection to the injurious impact of Lord Henry over Dorian and defending him even after they had apparently dissolved their friendship. Basil’s dedication to him which, eventually proves fatal, shows the authenticity of his love for his favourite topic and his concern for Dorian’s soul’s safety and salvation.
Lord Henry Wotton is a charming talker and a hardcore hedonist who is a member of the aristocracy who frequently indulges in fanciful activities. He is selfish to the core and doesn’t even care about his friends. He treated Dorian as an experimental object and, hence, primarily contributed to the alleged selling of Dorian’s conscience and soul. Immorality is not a word in his dictionary. His world is based on the premise that there is no moral order and morality acts as a deterrent in the pursuit of pleasure. He acts on the basis of his own whims and fancies.
Wilde by way of his unmatchable wit and sensually elaborated sights, smells and sounds kindle the reader’s imagination. Since the very beginning, he describes the surroundings wherein he talks about the “rich odour of roses , “heavy scent of lilac” which thoroughly evokes the senses. The author uses third person narrative elaborating the thoughts of a particular character using their own distinctive language instead of using the narrator’s monotonous narrative. He sets a hypnotic tone for Lord Henry which is filled with paradoxical, witty and unconventional nuances.
· The Picture: The picture of Dorian Gray is omnipresent throughout the story and represents Dorian’s true self, his detiorating conscience and morality and fading art. It also cautions us about the consequence of hedonism through negative changes in itself. Though it is rarely seen, this picture looms symbolically and metaphorically over the entire book. The picture takes the Victorian ideal of art to its logical extreme .
· The Yellow Book: The yellow book is something which Dorian finds himself helplessly bound to follow. It is equivalent to a kind of religious scripture to him. The book portrays the disastrous influence a piece of art or literature can have over an individual. It further intensified the stronghold of Lord Henry’s bad influence on Dorian. This book was well known for its immoral and indecent outlooks and acted as a symbol of destruction for Dorian.
· Opera and Theatre: The theatre and opera in the text represent a form of escapism. After every immoral or unfortunate event, Dorian seeks to find solace in the opera and music.
· The Opium Dens: The opium dens represent Dorian’s dismal state of mind. After murdering Basil in cold blood, he is in a complete mess and to get rid of this guilt, he visits the dark, dingy opium dens uses drugs to get over this.
The supremacy of youth and beauty is the central theme of the novel. Throughout the novel it is seen as something of great value and importance. Under the influence of Lord Henry, the protagonist considers fleeting youth and beauty more valuable than conscience and his soul which becomes the cause of his destruction in the long run.
Taking this into consideration, it can be safely contended that this novel can be interpreted as a moralistic text, warning against the consequences of placing youth and beauty over conscience and soul. Also, the novel speaks volumes about the price one has to pay to enjoy eternal beauty, which after one point of time becomes redundant and comes at a terribly high price.
Initially, Dorian is a na?ve and innocent young man but the influence of Lord Henry and the yellow book drives him towards immorality which was earlier alien to him. This also raises a pertinent question regarding the responsibility of a person’s actions.
From a moralistic perspective, this novel acts as an example that one must be accountable himself for his misdeeds.
Dorian is quite often seen blaming Lord Henry for his messed state of affairs and does not hold himself accountable for his transgressions. This also chiefly contributed to the fate he met at the end of the story.
The true test of a man’s nature is by how he deals with the society and not by the kind of looks he possesses. In “The Picture of Dorian Gray” we see a very shallow and hypocrite society who seems to judge people not on the basis of the virtues they posses but on the shallow basis of looks. For instance, when there were multifarious rumours about Dorian, he is never ostracized due to the mere fact that his face radiated innocence.
There are two physical forms of art which are present in the text- the portrait and the yellow book. The former reflects Dorian’s inner self and his conscience and acts as a mirror for his misdeeds whereas the latter acts a kind of guiding light which paves the way for Dorian towards an immoral and unapologetic life. The idea of reflectivity is also mentioned in the novel as the story of Narcissus, wherein Dorian like Narcissus falls in love with his own image which ultimately destroys him.
· Homoerotic Bonding between Characters: Aestheticism and homoerotic fascination was a predominant feature throughout the novel which gives us the reference of the homoerotic male relationships that existed between Basil, Dorian and Lord Henry. There were repeated instances throughout the text where Basil expressed his fascination towards Dorian; for example, he quoted “I had come face to face with someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself.” and also when he remarked, “It is quite true that I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man usually gives to a friend. Somehow, I had never loved a woman. I suppose I never had time.” Furthermore, the bonding and fascination that existed between Lord Henry and Dorian can be substantiated by the excerpts from the text such as when Dorian remarked, “Lord Henry had the charm of being very dangerous, but that was all. He was too clever and too cynical to be really fond of.”
· The Colour White: White colour denotes a number of connotations in the novel, ranging from innocence of Sibyl and Dorian to purification of Dorian’s soul. The use of the colour white as a motif begins with Dorian’s introduction where he is remarked as he is in his “rose-white boyhood” and subsequently when Lord Henry adores the “white purity” of Dorian. Also, Sibyl’s innocence and purity were denoted with white when it she was remarked as “white girl”, “white narcissus” and also when the curves of her throat were equated with “white lily” and her hands as “cool ivory”. Further, white denotes purification when Basil quotes a verse from the holy bible that says, “Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them as white as snow.”
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