Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
When The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, it was decried as immoral. In revising the text the following year, Wilde included a preface, which serves as a useful explanation of his philosophy of art. The purpose of art, according to this series of epigrams, is to have no purpose. In order to understand this claim fully, one needs to consider the moral climate of Wilde’s time and the Victorian sensibility regarding art and morality. The Victorians believed that art could be used as a tool for social education and moral enlightenment, as illustrated in works by writers such as Charles Dickens and George Gissing. The aestheticism movement, of which Wilde was a major proponent, sought to free art from this responsibility. The aestheticists were motivated as much by a contempt for bourgeois morality—a sensibility embodied in Dorian Gray by Lord Henry, whose every word seems designed to shock the ethical certainties of the burgeoning middle class—as they were by the belief that art need not possess any other purpose than being beautiful.
If this philosophy informed Wilde’s life, we must then consider whether his only novel bears it out. The two works of art that dominate the novel—Basil’s painting and the mysterious yellow book that Lord Henry gives Dorian—are presented in the vein more of Victorian sensibilities than of aesthetic ones. That is, both the portrait and the French novel serve a purpose: the first acts as a type of mysterious mirror that shows Dorian the physical dissipation his own body has been spared, while the second acts as something of a road map, leading the young man farther along the path toward infamy. While we know nothing of the circumstances of the yellow book’s composition, Basil’s state of mind while painting Dorian’s portrait is clear. Later in the novel, he advocates that all art be “unconscious, ideal, and remote.” His portrait of Dorian, however, is anything but. Thus, Basil’s initial refusal to exhibit the work results from his belief that it betrays his idolization of his subject. Of course, one might consider that these breaches of aesthetic philosophy mold The Picture of Dorian Gray into something of a cautionary tale: these are the prices that must be paid for insisting that art reveals the artist or a moral lesson. But this warning is, in itself, a moral lesson, which perhaps betrays the impossibility of Wilde’s project. If, as Dorian observes late in the novel, the imagination orders the chaos of life and invests it with meaning, then art, as the fruit of the imagination, cannot help but mean something. Wilde may have succeeded in freeing his art from the confines of Victorian morality, but he has replaced it with a doctrine that is, in its own way, just as restrictive.
The first principle of aestheticism, the philosophy of art by which Oscar Wilde lived, is that art serves no other purpose than to offer beauty. Throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray, beauty reigns. It is a means to revitalize the wearied senses, as indicated by the effect that Basil’s painting has on the cynical Lord Henry. It is also a means of escaping the brutalities of the world: Dorian distances himself, not to mention his consciousness, from the horrors of his actions by devoting himself to the study of beautiful things—music, jewels, rare tapestries. In a society that prizes beauty so highly, youth and physical attractiveness become valuable commodities. Lord Henry reminds Dorian of as much upon their first meeting, when he laments that Dorian will soon enough lose his most precious attributes. In Chapter Seventeen, the Duchess of Monmouth suggests to Lord Henry that he places too much value on these things; indeed, Dorian’s eventual demise confirms her suspicions. For although beauty and youth remain of utmost importance at the end of the novel—the portrait is, after all, returned to its original form—the novel suggests that the price one must pay for them is exceedingly high. Indeed, Dorian gives nothing less than his soul.
It is no surprise that a society that prizes beauty above all else is a society founded on a love of surfaces. What matters most to Dorian, Lord Henry, and the polite company they keep is not whether a man is good at heart but rather whether he is handsome. As Dorian evolves into the realization of a type, the perfect blend of scholar and socialite, he experiences the freedom to abandon his morals without censure. Indeed, even though, as Basil warns, society’s elite question his name and reputation, Dorian is never ostracized. On the contrary, despite his “mode of life,” he remains at the heart of the London social scene because of the “innocence” and “purity of his face.” As Lady Narborough notes to Dorian, there is little (if any) distinction between ethics and appearance: “you are made to be good—you look so good.”
The painting and the yellow book have a profound effect on Dorian, influencing him to predominantly immoral behavior over the course of nearly two decades. Reflecting on Dorian’s power over Basil and deciding that he would like to seduce Dorian in much the same way, Lord Henry points out that there is “something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence.” Falling under the sway of such influence is, perhaps, unavoidable, but the novel ultimately censures the sacrifice of one’s self to another. Basil’s idolatry of Dorian leads to his murder, and Dorian’s devotion to Lord Henry’s hedonism and the yellow book precipitate his own downfall. It is little wonder, in a novel that prizes individualism—the uncompromised expression of self—that the sacrifice of one’s self, whether it be to another person or to a work of art, leads to one’s destruction.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The picture of Dorian Gray, “the most magical of mirrors,” shows Dorian the physical burdens of age and sin from which he has been spared. For a time, Dorian sets his conscience aside and lives his life according to a single goal: achieving pleasure. His painted image, however, asserts itself as his conscience and hounds him with the knowledge of his crimes: there he sees the cruelty he showed to Sibyl Vane and the blood he spilled killing Basil Hallward.
The homoerotic bonds between men play a large role in structuring the novel. Basil’s painting depends upon his adoration of Dorian’s beauty; similarly, Lord Henry is overcome with the desire to seduce Dorian and mold him into the realization of a type. This camaraderie between men fits into Wilde’s larger aesthetic values, for it returns him to antiquity, where an appreciation of youth and beauty was not only fundamental to culture but was also expressed as a physical relationship between men. As a homosexual living in an intolerant society, Wilde asserted this philosophy partially in an attempt to justify his own lifestyle. For Wilde, homosexuality was not a sordid vice but rather a sign of refined culture. As he claimed rather romantically during his trial for “gross indecency” between men, the affection between an older and younger man places one in the tradition of Plato, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare.
Interestingly, Dorian’s trajectory from figure of innocence to figure of degradation can be charted by Wilde’s use of the color white. White usually connotes innocence and blankness, as it does when Dorian is first introduced. It is, in fact, “the white purity” of Dorian’s boyhood that Lord Henry finds so captivating. Basil invokes whiteness when he learns that Dorian has sacrificed his innocence, and, as the artist stares in horror at the ruined portrait, he quotes a biblical verse from the Book of Isaiah: “Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them as white as snow.” But the days of Dorian’s innocence are over. It is a quality he now eschews, and, tellingly, when he orders flowers, he demands “as few white ones as possible.” When the color appears again, in the form of James Vane’s face—“like a white handkerchief”—peering in through a window, it has been transformed from the color of innocence to the color of death. It is this threatening pall that makes Dorian long, at the novel’s end, for his “rose-white boyhood,” but the hope is in vain, and he proves unable to wash away the stains of his sins.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The opium dens, located in a remote and derelict section of London, represent the sordid state of Dorian’s mind. He flees to them at a crucial moment. After killing Basil, Dorian seeks to forget the awfulness of his crimes by losing consciousness in a drug-induced stupor. Although he has a canister of opium in his home, he leaves the safety of his neat and proper parlor to travel to the dark dens that reflect the degradation of his soul.
James Vane is less a believable character than an embodiment of Dorian’s tortured conscience. As Sibyl’s brother, he is a rather flat caricature of the avenging relative. Still, Wilde saw him as essential to the story, adding his character during his revision of 1891. Appearing at the dock and later at Dorian’s country estate, James has an almost spectral quality. Like the ghost of Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, who warns Scrooge of the sins he will have to face, James appears with his face “like a white handkerchief” to goad Dorian into accepting responsibility for the crimes he has committed.
Lord Henry gives Dorian a copy of the yellow book as a gift. Although he never gives the title, Wilde describes the book as a French novel that charts the outrageous experiences of its pleasure-seeking protagonist (we can fairly assume that the book in question is Joris-Karl Huysman’s decadent nineteenth-century novel À Rebours, translated as “Against the Grain” or “Against Nature”). The book becomes like holy scripture to Dorian, who buys nearly a dozen copies and bases his life and actions on it. The book represents the profound and damaging influence that art can have over an individual and serves as a warning to those who would surrender themselves so completely to such an influence.
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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