Discuss the character of Lord Henry and his impact on Dorian.
“Don’t spoil him,” Basil begs Lord Henry just before introducing him to Dorian. “Don’t try to influence him. Your influence would be bad.” But influence is what Lord Henry does best and what he enjoys most; inevitably, his charm, wit, and intellect hold tremendous sway over the impressionable Dorian. This influence, as Basil foresees, is primarily negative—if Dorian is like Faust, the fictional character who sells his soul for knowledge, then Lord Henry is something of a Mephistopheles, the devil who tempts Faust into the bargain. Lord Henry is a cynical aesthete, a lover of beauty with a contempt for conventional morality, and he views Dorian as a disciple with the potential to live out his philosophy of hedonism.
One must not overstate Lord Henry’s role as a villain, however. Indeed, above all else, Lord Henry prizes individualism, which allows one to live one’s life boldly, freely, and according to one’s own edicts. Because Dorian so willingly assumes the role of disciple, the real source of his downfall rests in his willingness to sacrifice himself to another’s vision. Following Lord Henry’s advice and influenced by the “yellow book” that Lord Henry gives him, Dorian gradually allows himself to fall deep into a life of sin, all in the name of pursuing pleasure—which, according to Lord Henry, is the highest good. But, significantly, Lord Henry himself never seems to stray from the straight and narrow: he shocks cocktail guests with his ideas but never puts them into practice himself. He is a thinker, not a doer, and by the end of the novel, he seems curiously naïve about where his philosophy, if put into action, would lead him. Unwilling (or unable) to see the effects of his philosophy, he continues to champion his ideas even after they have ruined his protégé’s life.
Discuss the role of homoeroticism in the novel.
While Wilde’s own homosexual inclinations were well known in his day, there is no explicit mention of homosexuality in the novel. In conservative 1890s England, such openness in print would have made the novel unpublishable. Some critics attacked the novel—even in its present form—as unmanly. Still, the homoerotic relationships between the male characters are vital to the novel. Initially, Basil’s affection for Dorian, which has about it the obsessive and adoring qualities of romantic love, produces the painting that forms the heart of the novel. Certainly, Lord Henry’s relationship to Dorian is also marked by a profound affection and is likened to a seduction: “He would seek to dominate him—had already, indeed, half done so.” Meanwhile, when Dorian gives in to a life of sin, there is a strong suggestion that his numerous friendships with young men contain a homosexual element. Nowhere is this element more boldly suggested than through the character of Alan Campbell, whom Dorian blackmails into helping dispose of Basil’s body. Given the era’s tightening legal strictures against homosexual acts between men and the passage of a sodomy law that came to be known as the Blackmailer’s Charter, the implication here is that the indiscretion Dorian threatens to expose is of a homosexual nature. Despite the dangers often involved in these affairs, Wilde viewed homoerotic relationships between men as a paragon of social virtue. Returning to the teachings of ancient Greece, where men and boys shared in sexual relationships, Wilde asserted that there was nothing nobler than this love, which he considered a pillar of Western culture and art.
“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” Wilde says in the Preface. “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Does the novel confirm this argument?
The idea that there is no morality in art, only beauty (or an absence of beauty, in the case of bad art), is the central tenet of a movement known as aestheticism, which sought to free literature and other forms of artistic expression from the burden of being ethical or instructive. Wilde himself was associated closely with this creed, as the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray makes clear. But the novel that follows grapples with the philosophy of art for art’s sake in a complicated way. After all, the protagonist suffers from the lessons he has learned from the yellow book that has “poisoned” him. Lord Henry insists that a book can do no such thing, and we are left to decide how much blame one can place on a book and how much blame must be placed on the reader. Indeed, in one respect, The Picture of Dorian Gray seems to be a novel of extremely moral sensibilities, since Dorian suffers because he allows himself to be poisoned by a book. In other words, he defies the artistic principles that structure the yellow book. One must wonder, then, if there is such a thing as a book without some sort of moral or instruction.