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.