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Personal opinion of the picture of Dorian Grey and how the author Oscar Wilde depicted himself in the novel. This essay reads the novel from several aspects include "beauty and art" point of view of Wilde, the connection between the novel and the social background and how the author lives his own life in the novel.
Key words: aestheticism, Victoria era, corruption, responsibility
Oscar Wilde was born in 1854, when the Queen Victoria reigned and Victoria literature style was flowering. Wilde's parents were successful Dublin intellectuals and when he was young he was tutored at home, where he became fluent in French and German. He was deeply interested in the rising philosophy of aestheticism when he was at Oxford led by his tutors, Walter Pater and John Ruskin, who had a great influence on his writings later in his life.
The prosperity in the Victoria era began to decline in the late 19th century. The hegemony of Great Britain was challenged by the rising Germany and domestic dispute with Ireland. Under the superficial vanity of the British society lies the corruption of the aristocracy. They led a dissolute life and their Vitoria values and beliefs began to vanish. Indulgence and hedonism took the place of a decent and respectable life style they used to live. Oscar Wilde was born to be a spokesman of this era in the field of literature. The picture of Dorian Gray is one and the only novel of his and, in my opinion, is a representative oeuvre of both his life and the declining era.
The story starts on a beautiful day with Lord Henry Wotton observing the artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of a handsome young man named Dorian Gray. Dorian arrives later and meets Wotton. After talked with the libertine lord, Dorian begins to believe that beauty is the only thing that deserves to pursue in all his life. Distraught that his beauty will fade, he wishes that the beautiful and ever-lasting portrait can grow old instead of him, which finally comes true in some way. Later in his life, the portrait keep records of whatever he does and the portrait gets older and uglier once he does something criminal or corrupt. In the end, he thinks the only way to absolve him is to destroy the painting with a knife, which ends his horrible life instead. What is ironic is that his painting becomes what it used to be but Dorian himself dies with an aged and withered face.
Acknowledged as the spokesman of the philosophy of aestheticism, Wilde's doctrine was "Art for art's sake". For Wilde, the purpose of art would guide life if beauty alone were its object. The picture of Dorian Gray reveals the belief that beauty on the surface can only exist in tragedies. As Henry said in the story -in the presence of off behind every beautiful thing there is some tragic things are (The picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde 1891), tragedy if the nature of beauty. Wilde, a pursuer of extreme art and beauty, combined the character of both Dorian's and Basil's. He once said that: "Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry is what the world thinks me; Dorian gray is what I would like to be-in other ages perhaps". These three main characters in the story are the spirit of the story.
Dorian Gray is a handsome young man who accepts Lord Henry's idea of hedonism. He indulges himself in all kinds of pleasure, moral and immoral. Like Oscar Wilde, Dorian thinks that beauty is the only object of life and that is why he would like to trade his conscience for life-long youth and beauty. Dorian is actually an extremist of aestheticism, a person that Wilde admires. Wilde highlights Dorian's pleasure of living a double life and being an example of duplicity. Although Dorian is extremely indulgent, he replies "take care, Basil. You go too far" when Basil accuses him of making Lord Henry's sister's name a "by-word". This indicates that Dorian still cares what he looks like in people's eyes and his image in the Victorian society. 24 hours after committing a murder, he happily attends a party and feels "keenly the terrible pleasure of a double life". Dorian enjoys this double life as an integration of good and evil. I think this kind of life is what Wilde dreams of. Actually Wilde is just like Dorian. His life is a paradox because he is both good and evil, both sophisticated and simple, both honest and hypocritical. Different from other writers, he leads a much more real life than others. Being accused of sodomite (gay person) by his lover's father, he has lots of scandals and was imprisoned for two year. He abandons his wife and children for his male lover again after he is released. But he does not get what he pursues at last. Different from other writers, he belongs to the upper-class instead of the impoverished known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversations. Wilde was one of the best known personalities of his day (On Characters in "the Picture of Dorian Gray"--An Interpretation of Oscar Wilde' 2008). He converts to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed. All those experience are the reflections of his motto "I want to live rather than survive". He himself is a living character in his own life story. Wilde gives what he wants and what he respects to this person-Dorian Gray.
Another character in this story named Basil Hollward is also a reflection of Wilde himself. Wilde says that Basil Hollward is what he thinks he is. I think that is because Basil Hollward is a complete artist. Attracted by Dorian's gorgeous face, he paints the portrait of Dorian which proves to be his finest work. Art is the only pursuit of basil and he does not want to believe that Dorian is evil although he was murdered by him at last. He still thinks that he is beautiful yet incomplete. What he commits is just a flaw in an apparently perfect thing. In my opinion, he knows what happened as the painting changes but he just does not want to believe. Once Basil acknowledges all the evil sides of Dorian, his dream of art was destroyed. Dorian is a work of art to Basil as well as a lover deep in his heart. Who'd like to admit his or her lover is evil and corrupted? Wilde once said "my life as an artist depends on him." This is because basil, as an artist, possesses all the doctrines of what Wilde think an artist should have. He is a perfect reflection of Wilde's witticism: "all that I desire to point out is the general principle that life imitates art far more than art imitate life.
Disappointed to the society, Wilde gives all the social characteristics to this Lord. He tricks Dorian to become a half-human half-evil spirit with his corrupted lifestyle. What he does in the story is to lead Dorian to be destroyed in his ideology. As he says that "the purpose of life is self development and the full realization of the nature of their requirements". His position in the story is best described by basil, as "never says anything good but never does anything bad."(Aestheticism in the picture of Dorian grey, 2006)
Besides the theme of aestheticism, this masterpiece also reveals the social situation and people's sense of irresponsible at that time. When Dorian visit to the opium dens of London, according to what Lord Henry asserts "crime belongs exclusively to the lower ordersâ€¦I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us". In Henry's eyes, different social status has different world view and a tainted value must belong to the lower class. What ironic is that Dorian conflates criminal and aesthete.
Back in the last stage of the Victoria era, people were crazy about indulgence and corruption but did not want to be responsible for their behavior. This theme is also reflected in the picture of Dorian Grey. In my opinion, Dorian uses his portrait to avoid his responsibility. He also justifies his actions according to the philosophy of the new hedonism. At the end of the novel, he chooses to destroy the painting as a way to confess. All these behavior depicts a spirit which aims to avoid all the commitments and condemnation.
Professor John Sutherland once said in his lecture that "this writing would have secured Wilde only a minor place in literature, but his status is elevated by his notoriety." I am not totally on board with this statement. Wilde may not be a very successful novelist but he is a successful living human being pursuing what he really wants for all his life. He thinks that it was the artist's duty to rebel against precisely sacred orthodoxies. He and his novel are of total success in this sense as a perfect reflection of art and beauty.