The Aesthetic Double Life: Oscar Wilde’s Picture Of Dorian Gray Essay Samples
In this paper, the realm of art will be discussed as it relates to The Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel is about a man who in his vanity has his portrait taken, but curiously, the portrait grows old while he remains young and debonair. He leads a double life, a life of the “pretty boy” on the town, “willful and petulant” (19-20), while, in his attic, the painting suffers the ingratitude of old age, the “hideous corruption of his soul” (152).. While the novel plays on the subject of a fantasy novel, the story is a metaphor for art. In real life, we grow old, and we look to art to please us because it is eternally beautiful. Wilde has masterfully reversed these roles, and instead of the human growing old, he becomes like a work of art, and the work of art takes on the demands of growing older through the years.
There is a satirical tone to the novel for Wilde is poking fun at those who only find pleasure in consumer pleasure. Throughout the book, the reader is witness to people’s pleasure at beautiful things like satin or women’s dresses: “ yellow satin could console one for all the miseries of life” (144). Dorian says “I love beautiful things that one can touch and handle” (144). However, Dorian Gray covers the artwork (his self-portrait) with a purple satin cloth (148-149). The cloth covers his guilt. Wilde writes about the portrait hidden in the closet that “for weeks he would not go there, would forget the hideous painted thing and get back his light heart, his wondrous joyousness, his passionate absorption in mere existence” (182).
The covering up the portrait is a symbol of his vanity. Dorian Gray represents this sort of person who has good taste, but their good taste only leads them to the surface of things. Dorian Gray is not a person who goes deeper into things than he needs to do to survive. The counterpoint to Dorian is Basil Hallward -- the artist of the story. In fact, the artist who paints the portrait embodies just this kind of aesthetic. The artist is the maker of beautiful things (1). In fact, he is extolled that the portrait of Dorian Gray is the best work he has ever done (2). The artist is the one who takes what he sees to be beautiful — but often it is an ideal beauty.
The artist sees something that no one else sees. For example, the artist paints Dorian’s visage, but he sees something beautiful that Dorian only notices after the work is done. Wilde writes that Dorian was “listless,” reclining in a “luxurious armchair” in Mayfair, but upon seeing his portrait he becomes overjoyed (55-56). Dorian is surrounded by art in the house of Lord Henry, but he is sulky. In this passage, it is evident that Dorian does not know how to notice real beauty until it is stylized before him. The artist can see the beauty in the human form, but what Dorian wishes is a beauty that is ethereal. In fact, Dorian does have a revelation in the novel that he had this desire and it at first scares him: “he had uttered a mad wish” (113). Dorian wishes that his beauty “might be untarnished” for he believes this is what constitutes beauty. In his wish all of his suffering, all of his pain, go on to the “painted image.”
Dorian Gray gets what he wishes. However, the true artist knows that everything must fade, even physical beauty. What Dorian wants is perhaps what every human being wants deep down inside of their souls. People want what they most desire. Moreover, for Dorian what he most desires is to be seen for his beauty, his outward appearance. However, behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic” (44). In one way, Wilde seems to be poking fun at this sentiment, for he realizes that we are all imperfect and that it is silly to think that art can come from something perfect. The artist sees the beauty in the imperfect, an aesthetic concept that Dorian cannot understand. Dorian realizes how art can deceive. And Basil had realized how Dorian had shown him “He is all my art to me now” (12-13). Dorian understands that beautiful things give him pleasure. However, the reason that his portrait grows old is that he cannot have it all. He has to grow old somewhere, so it is the profound irony of the story that it is a portrait that grows old in the attic.
Wilde is not trying to make a moral claim about what art does. Making beautiful things in art is not about morality. The reason Dorian has a split life in the story is that he is unable to see anything beyond a strict duality. For him, he must remain young, and the artwork grows dim and sour. However, is art only the production of surface beauty? Isn’t art supposed to be something more than just what gives us pleasure? Moreover, what do we say about art that rattles us or makes us uncomfortable. For someone like Dorian, he would rather put this painting away in the attic so no one can see it.
Dorian is a superficial character. In fact he worries about his shallow nature 61). What art does well is refuse the duality that Dorian tries to uphold. Art is supposed to be about the relationship between the beautiful and the ugly, the sacred and the profane, the provocative and the boring. ng fantasy. There has to be a tension in art. It is interesting that when Dorian’s friends find him dead in his attic — for he saw the ugly portrait and could not stand so he kills himself with a knife (279-280). Certainly this is an example of melodrama, but Wilde is saying something about art in this passage. Dorian was unable to appreciate both sides of the artistic sensibility. Either he was beautiful or he was dead. Either his ugly portrait remained hidden or if it was revealed he had to die. Dorian could not keep up the double life forever. In an interesting twist, Wilde tells the story that his servants see an even more “splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him” (281). In other words, in getting rid of his double life, by killing it, the two come together to form an even more beautiful portrait.
When Lord Henry tells Basil that “The value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it” it needs to be thought of as the central point of the book (11). For everyone thinks of Dorian Gray as someone who was “made to be worshipped” (144) because he is handsome and upper class. However, the central artistic thesis of the book is that art has nothing to do with how sincere we are or how superficial appearances can be. Dorian Gray is supposed to be a handsome young man, at first. However, his beauty has nothing to do with what he values, and he what he thinks. The value of the idea of art stands alone — it is separate from the artist who creates it. Alternatively, to put the idea in a different way: art has to take everything into consideration, the real and the fantastic, and in this way, Dorian Gray’s wish is impossible.
In conclusion, Oscar Wilde’s novel is a work of aesthetics. It is also a critique of middle-class values. The novel is one in which Wilde playfully plays on the people of his day and their conception of what art does and what it is. However, what, then, is aesthetics? For Wilde, it is not middle-class desires, nor is it just the fading fantasy of being rich and famous. Art has to deal with suffering, even though Lord Henry says he can sympathize with everything “except suffering” (50). Dorian Gray tries to split himself off from pain, from heartache, and from life itself. If it is true that art imitates life, then Dorian Gray’s story only shows part of a life. Art cannot be just the representation of physical beauty, nor is art something that is supposed to make us better moral being. In the preface to the novel, Wilde states that art, if it has a moral center, is about the “perfect use of an imperfect medium” (1). The imperfect medium is the human artist who strives for something beautiful in what he creates. In this way, Wilde’s novel takes an interesting approach to art. Art may make us better people, but it is not the mandate of art. Otherwise, what results is the schizophrenic nature of a Dorian Gray, who splits himself off from his identity, and the result is tragedy told in the form of a farce.
Wilde, Oscar, and Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Leipzig: Bernhard
Tauchnitz, 1908. Internet Resource.
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