We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us.
The Preface is a series of epigrams, or concise, witty sayings, that express the major points of Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy. In short, the epigrams praise beauty and repudiate the notion that art serves a moral purpose.
The novel begins in the elegantly appointed London home of Basil Hallward, a well-known artist. Basil discusses his latest portrait with his friend, the clever and scandalously amoral Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry admires the painting, the subject of which is a gorgeous, golden-haired young man. Believing it to be Basil’s finest work, he insists that the painter exhibit it. Basil, however, refuses, claiming that he cannot show the work in public because he has put too much of himself into it. When Lord Henry presses him for a more satisfying reason, Basil reluctantly describes how he met his young subject, whose name is Dorian Gray, at a party. He admits that, upon seeing Dorian for the first time, he was terrified; indeed, he was overcome by the feeling that his life was “on the verge of a terrible crisis.” Dorian has become, however, an object of fascination and obsession for Basil, who sees the young man every day and declares him to be his sole inspiration. Basil admits that he cannot bring himself to exhibit the portrait because the piece betrays the “curious artistic idolatry” that Dorian inspires in him.
Lord Henry, astonished by this declaration, remembers where he heard the name Dorian Gray before: his aunt, Lady Agatha, mentioned that the young man promised to help her with charity work in the slums of London. At that moment, the butler announces that Dorian Gray has arrived, and Lord Henry insists on meeting him. Basil reluctantly agrees but begs his friend not to try to influence the young man. According to Basil, Dorian has a “simple and a beautiful nature” that could easily be spoiled by Lord Henry’s cynicism.
Dorian Gray proves to be every bit as a handsome as his portrait. Basil introduces him to Lord Henry, and Dorian begs Lord Henry to stay and talk to him while he sits for Basil. Basil warns Dorian that Lord Henry is a bad influence, and Dorian seems intrigued by this idea. Lord Henry agrees to stay and, while Basil puts the finishing touches on the portrait, discusses his personal philosophy, which holds that “the highest of all duties [is] the duty that one owes to one’s self.” While Basil continues to work, Lord Henry escorts Dorian into the garden, where he praises Dorian’s youth and beauty and warns him how surely and quickly those qualities will fade. He urges Dorian to live life to its fullest, to spend his time “always searching for new sensations” rather than devoting himself to “common” or “vulgar” pastimes.
Basil calls the men inside, and Dorian sits for another quarter of an hour until the portrait is complete. It is a thing of remarkable beauty—“the finest portrait of modern times,” Lord Henry tells Basil—but looking at it makes Dorian unhappy. Remembering Lord Henry’s warning about the advance of age, he reflects that his portrait will remain young even as he himself grows old and wrinkled. He curses this fate and pledges his soul “[i]f it were only the other way.” Basil tries to comfort the young man, but Dorian pushes him away. Declaring that he will not allow the painting to ruin their friendship, Basil makes a move to destroy it. Dorian stops him, saying that he loves the painting, and a relieved Basil promises to give it to him as a gift. Dorian and Lord Henry depart after Dorian promises, despite Basil’s objections, to go to the theater with Lord Henry later that evening.
The Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray is a collection of epigrams that aptly sums up the philosophical tenets of the artistic and philosophical movement known as aestheticism. Aestheticism, which found its footing in Europe in the early nineteenth century, proposed that art need not serve moral, political, or otherwise didactic ends. Whereas the romantic movement of the early and mid-nineteenth century viewed art as a product of the human creative impulse that could be used to learn more about humankind and the world, the aesthetic movement denied that art must necessarily be an instructive force in order to be valuable. Instead, the aestheticists believed, art should be valuable in and of itself—art for art’s sake. Near the end of the nineteenth century, Walter Pater, an English essayist and critic, suggested that life itself should be lived in the spirit of art. His views, especially those presented in a collection of essays called The Renaissance, had a profound impact on the English poets of the 1890s, most notably Oscar Wilde.
Aestheticism flourished partly as a reaction against the materialism of the burgeoning middle class, assumed to be composed of philistines (individuals ignorant of art) who responded to art in a generally unrefined manner. In this climate, the artist could assert him- or herself as a remarkable and rarefied being, one leading the search for beauty in an age marked by shameful class inequality, social hypocrisy, and bourgeois complacency. No one latched onto this attitude more boldly, or with more flair, than Oscar Wilde. His determination to live a life of beauty and to mold his life into a work of art is reflected in the beliefs and actions of several characters in Wilde’s only novel.
The Picture of Dorian Gray has often been compared to the famous German legend of Faust, immortalized in Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century play Doctor Faustus and in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s nineteenth-century poem Faust. The legend tells of a learned doctor who sells his soul to the devil in return for knowledge and magical abilities. Although Dorian Gray never contracts with the devil, his sacrifice is similar: he trades his soul for the luxury of eternal youth. For its overtones of supernaturalism, its refusal to satisfy popular morality, and its portrayal of homoerotic culture, The Picture of Dorian Gray was met with harsh criticism. Many considered the novel dangerously subversive, one offended critic calling it “a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.”
The fear of a bad—or good—influence is, in fact, one of the novel’s primary concerns. As a work that sets forth a philosophy of aestheticism, the novel questions the degree and kind of influence a work of art can have over an individual. Furthermore, since the novel conceives of art as including a well-lived life, it is also interested in the kind of influence one person can have over another. After all, the artful Lord Henry himself has as profound an effect upon Dorian’s life as Basil’s painting does.
While Lord Henry exercises influence over other characters primarily through his skillful use of language, it is Dorian’s beauty that seduces the characters with whom he associates. Basil, a serious artist and rather dull moralist, admits that Dorian has had “[s]ome subtle influence” over him; it is this influence that Basil is certain that his painting reveals. As he confides to Lord Henry, “I have put into it some expression of all this curious artistic idolatry.” Ultimately, however, Lord Henry’s brilliant speech is a much more influential force than aesthetic beauty. His witty and biting epigrams threaten to seduce not only the impressionable young Dorian but the reader as well. Lord Henry’s ironic speech cuts through social convention and hypocrisy to reveal unexpected, unpleasant truths.
The characters whose lifestyles Lord Henry criticizes resist his extreme theories. Basil’s resistance to Lord Henry’s argument that scandal is a function of class typifies the reactions of the characters whom Lord Henry criticizes; after all, their position and comfort depend upon the hypocrisies he tends to expose. To some degree, every character in the novel is seduced by Lord Henry’s philosophies, Dorian Gray more so than anyone else. In these opening chapters, Dorian emerges as an incredibly impressionable young man, someone who Basil fears is open to the “influence” of Lord Henry, which will “spoil” him. Basil’s fear is well founded, as before the end of his first conversation with Lord Henry, Dorian is “dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences were at work within him.”
In the end of the book, when Dorian stabs his cursed picture: Does it mean his soul is pure again, for his dead body now endures his age and sins while the picture that represented his soul is young again, or it's just about his curse being broken?
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