The Picture of Dorian Gray is the most universally-read and renowned of Oscar Wilde's works. His writing style falls under many genres of literature. It is necessary to note that within a literary period can lay several different literary movements. A literary period is an interval of time characterized by the prevalence or an overlying standard of morals or a general theme. (For example, Wilde and his contemporaries are classified as writers of the Victorian school, as they wrote during a time when morals gleaned from Queen Victoria's reign permeated the culture of writing at the time). Literary movements, however, are dispositions toward specific ideologies expressed in writing within a literary period. Though Oscar Wilde wrote during the Victorian period, he has been considered to be one of the most famous authors of the Aestheticism and Decadence movement. Many use the terms “aesthetes” and “decadents” interchangeably, but the two are not synonymous. Aestheticism comes from the Greek root ‘aesth,’ meaning “feeling” or “perception.” In modern times the word “aesthetic” has come to mean something relating to or appealing to the sense of beauty. The Aesthetic movement is well-defined in the adage, “Art for art’s sake.” Oscar Wilde himself said, “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming…Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated.” In short, aestheticism deals with the creation of art as a thing to be treasured and appreciated, not for an underlying purpose; in this sense, the movement has been aptly named. Works of art or literature written during and adhering to the criteria of the Decadence movement apply the aforementioned aestheticism to works of art and life. In addition to this application of aestheticism to art, decadence in art and literature has been associated with mind-altering drugs, the imagination, and deterioration of both the psyche and the body. Also, the term is used to refer to often macabre natures of works fitting the Decadence movement. Today it refers to a style of art, but in its time, the Decadence movement referred to not only the literature and fine arts at the time but life that fit into the criteria of the period. The Picture of Dorian Gray can be classified as Gothic; this means that it is “of or relating to a late 18th and early 19th century style of fiction characterized by the use of…horror and gloom, and macabre, mysterious, and violent incidents,” or “Of or relating to a literary style or an example of such style characterized by grotesque, macabre, or fantastic incidents or by an atmosphere of irrational violence, desolation, and decay.”
In the commencement of The Picture of Dorian Gray, painter Basil Hallward discusses his newest self-projected artistic masterpiece to his friend Lord Henry Wotton, also called Harry. Basil describes how he met the title character at a social event, and how Dorian Gray, Basil’s new-found friend, will be sitting to have his portrait painted. The subsequent painting is the “finest portrait of modern times.” Dorian, a young man with an inflated opinion of his own handsomeness, rashly wishes aloud that he himself could stay “always young, and the picture…to grow old!” Thus begins a surreal ordeal for the sinister and vain Dorian Gray. Unwittingly, he brings in motion his own destruction: the painting begins to show the effects of the dangerous and cruel life Dorian leads, while the man himself remains fair of face, not aging or losing comeliness.
In the first of his many trials as a result of his hasty wish, Dorian becomes enamored with a young actress that he has seen act on stage, Sibyl Vane. Each night he goes to the theater in order to see her act in different roles. Not even having told the girl his name, Dorian proposes marriage. Sibyl’s acting abilities wane, as the girl prepares herself to expend energy into a romance instead of her career. Disgusted, Dorian breaks off their engagement. "You are nothing to me now…I will never think of you…You have spoiled the romance of my life. How little you can know of love, if you say it mars your art! Without your art, you are nothing…The world would have worshipped you, and you would have borne my name. What are you now? A third-rate actress with a pretty face." Sibyl pleads with her “Prince Charming” to forgive her and take her back, but he refuses and leaves her. Soon after, he hears that Sibyl Vane has committed suicide. Dorian briefly muses that possibly he could have prevented her from killing herself, but then his vanity leads him to be grateful that he did not married her. Upon looking at the painting that Basil has done of him, Dorian realizes that the beautiful face on the canvas has begun to look cruel.
As the novel progresses, Dorian becomes more and more angry as the painting that so fittingly portrayed him as a handsome and dashing man is ravaged by sinister expressions. He realizes that his own actions have caused the painting’s aesthetic corrosion, but in his characteristic vain nature blames not himself for acting in a manner that causes the portrait to change, but Basil Hallward for painting the work. Determined to punish Basil for what the painting has become, Dorian shows the painter the state of the subject in the painting. Basil is appalled at the painting, and tries to explain the condition of the painting in tangible explanations. “”No! the thing is impossible. The room is damp. Mildew has got into the canvas. The paints I used had some wretched mineral poison in them. I tell you the thing is impossible." After Dorian mocks Basil, saying that his ideal is no more, Basil entreats his friend to pray for his soul before it is too late. With tears in his eyes, Dorian tells his friend that it already is too late, and looks sadly at the painting. At that moment the painting seems to command him to kill Basil. After seeing the leer of the face in the portrait, malicious and horrible, Dorian murders Basil in a fit of raw hatred. “Suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him, as though it had been suggested to him by the image on the canvas, whispered into his ear by those grinning lips.” After the impetuous action, the hands of the Dorian in the painting are stained red with blood and “in the eyes there is a look of cunning, and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite.”
In addition to the obvious effect that Dorian’s commission of Basil’s murder has on the portrait, other not readily-obvious iniquities that Dorian commits take their toll on the painting. One such example is Dorian’s addiction to drugs, and as he frequents opium dens, the physical effects that should begin to show on an addict’s face instead appear on the picture. After the first sinister variances in his originally beautiful portrait, narcissist Dorian Gray panics at the thought of explaining what has happened concerning the painting. He locks it in an attic room behind a heavy curtain. Eventually the painting becomes so horrid and repulsive that Dorian resolves to destroy it. He stabs the canvas with the same knife that was used to kill Basil. Horrid screams are heard, and when servants break into the locked attic, an ugly old man is found with a knife through his heart, lying dead in front of a flawless, beautiful picture of Dorian Gray.
The Picture of Dorian Gray adheres to both the Aesthetic and the Decadence movements. It deals with the aesthetic aspiration of a painter whose work of a lifetime is fraught with decadence by the man of whom it is painted. Decadence is found largely in the title character. Dorian Gray contains a staggering representation of both aspects of the greater Aestheticism and Decadence movement. Aestheticism is portrayed in the painter Basil Hallward. He finds great joy in art, and his intent in painting Dorian Gray’s portrait is nothing more than to express the true nature of the subject he is depicting. “There is nothing that Art cannot express, and I know that the work I have done…is to…recreate life in a way that is hidden from me before." In this way the aestheticism is apparent, as dreamer Hallward wishes to create art and show it to the world for what it is, because artists have “lost the…sense of beauty.” Decadence is likewise blatant in The Picture of Dorian Gray, as all of its elements are present: mind-altering drugs, the imagination, and deterioration of both the psyche and the body. In the case of mind-altering drugs, the title character is a drug addict, and often uses opium in attempts to escape his situation. The imagination is a subtle factor in the novel, as one is forced to use the imagination and suspend the disbelief that a painting could mirror a man’s sins. Lastly, Dorian Gray experiences mental deterioration as his portrait experiences “physical” deterioration. The decadence movement is applied to the Aesthetic movement in the novel, making The Picture of Dorian Gray a comprehensive example of a work that is of both the Aesthetic and the Decadence movements.
The Picture of Dorian Gray contains many literary devices throughout. One of these types is symbolism. An example of a symbol present in the novel is the yellow book that Lord Henry gives to Dorian. Throughout the course of the novel, Dorian finds immense comfort in the book. The reader never ascertains what the book is, but obviously it is of some import to the main character. He buys several copies of it and allows it to control his life. The book symbolizes the negative effect that art can have on a person if one surrenders completely to it. It is ironic that Dorian Gray itself is an example of an aesthetic work, when it contains an underlying symbolism criticizing the very movement to which it adheres.
As a reader, I noted an homosexual allusion developing surreptitiously. The motive for this inclusion is clear. The Victorian English society in which Oscar Wilde lived scorned homosexuality, but he slipped sexual subtleties into his writing as a way of quietly protesting the system. There are definite parallels to the male relationships in The Picture of Dorian Gray and the male relationships in Oscar Wilde’s own life. In Dorian Gray, the title character is significantly younger than Lord Henry and Basil, and yet both men take a special liking to him. Henry gives Dorian presents, and speaks candidly about his extramarital trysts, though never specifying what gender. (While the aristocrat’s lovers could be women, by the same token, they could be men as well). Also, Lord Henry wishes to seduce Dorian. As with Basil, he is captivated by Dorian’s “beauty.”
"I turned…and saw Dorian Gray for the first time. When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale…A curious sensation…came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself…The merely visible presence of this lad--for he seems to me little more than a lad, though he is really over twenty-- his merely visible presence--ah! I wonder can you realize all that that means?…To have in it all the passion of the romantic spirit, all the perfection of the spirit…The harmony of soul and body-- how much that is!”
This passage, to me, suggests something not entirely heterosexual. Basil’s description of his meeting with Dorian Gray seems to convey that the men had a primal instinctive draw to each other. Homoeroticism in The Picture of Dorian Gray is also heavily alluded to in Chapters 12 and 13. Basil questions Dorian in a manner that suggests that Dorian’s relationships with other men are homoerotic. “Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?" Basil proceeds to tabulate the men who have come to ruin after association with Dorian. Some lose their lives, some have reputations devastated after fraternizing with the young Mr. Gray. What could Dorian have done to sully the reputations of so many men if it were not homosexual in nature? Lastly, readers schooled in history will recall that it was the tribe from Doris, called the Dorians, which brought homosexuality into Greece. Is this parallel between the Dorians, homosexual warriors, and Dorian, a young man with questionable sexuality, a coincidence, or is it yet another homosexual tie-in?
As aforementioned, Basil has a passion for the union of “body and soul.” I feel that this is perhaps the theme of the novel. The painting and Dorian are grotesquely linked in this manner…Dorian’s body affects the ‘soul’ of the painting, and the soul of Dorian affects the ‘body’ of the painting. For this reason, when Dorian’s conscience racks him with remorse for what his sins have done to the painting, he attempts to rectify the damage to his psyche by destroying the painting. But because he and the painting are mysteriously liked in a Faustian mien, once he destroys the painting, he destroys himself. The struggle between what is morally right and what is right in the eyes of society also seems to be a recurring theme of the novel. This, too, could be considered part of Wilde’s commentary on homosexuality, as society condemns it but he feels it is not morally repugnant.