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.”