Examining A Portrait Of Oscar Wilde English Literature Essay

Published:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

In April 1891 Oscar Wildes only published novel was released in its final format by Ward Locke & Company publishers. It was heavily criticised at for being "immoral", "effeminate" and "unclean" by literary critics of the time. The Picture of Dorian Grey would go on to be not only Wildes most recognised and critically acclaimed works but also his most infamous. The critical fame the book has amassed since it's released its match only by the fame and indeed infamy the books themes have garnered, themes such as the aforementioned roles the artist should play in society, criminality, class conflict and most tellingly, though only ever implicit, of homosexual relationships and undercurrents between it's mains characters. Dorian Grey presents his reader with a puzzling insight into the philosophies and moral outlooks of the society Wilde found himself in. To this day the true meaning of the novel remains subject of debate for academics. With aspects of the gothic novel, decadent literature, the philosophies of aestheticism and Baudelairian Dandyism Wilde presents to us a work that, as I hope to demonstrate, is as revealing about him as it is the society around him as it revealing about himself. From its philosophies on the relationship between artist and art, to its illustration of the aesthetic hollowness of morality and Victorian society I hope to uncover how much Wilde reveals of himself in the now and how much he reveals of the Victorian self. Finding to what extent can we draw conclusions on the respective "selves" based on this work, set in the context of 19th Century Victorian London and Oscar Wilde's other works and essays.

Contents

Introduction

In April 1891 Oscar Wildes only published novel was released in its final format by Ward Locke & Company publishers [1] . The Picture of Dorian Grey, though first published in July of the previous year by the influential magazine Lippincotts Monthly Magazine [2] , was heavily criticised at for being "immoral", "effeminate" and "unclean" by literary critics of the time (Guest, 1968). This lead to the addition of six extra chapters, including a preface in which Wilde outlines what the role of the artist should be in society at that time, this done in order to try and alter the way the book was being read and received (Guest, 1968). The Picture of Dorian Grey would go on to be not only Wildes most recognised and critically acclaimed works. The critical fame the book has amassed since it's released its match only by the fame and indeed infamy the books themes have garnered, themes such as the aforementioned roles the artist should play in society, criminality, class conflict and most tellingly, though only ever implicit, of homosexual relationships and undercurrents between it's mains characters Dorain Grey, Lord Henry Wooton and Basil Hallward have both intrigued and scandalised academics, critics and anyone else who should come into contact with the book. The themes of homosexuality and homoerotic relationships between men can be seen as Foreshadowing the "fall from grace" Wilde was to have just months later. During the latter part of the 19 century Wilde was to embark on a series of court room battles that would eventually lead to his imprisonment on 25thth May 1895 for "Gross Indecency" [3] . In what would be one of Britains most famous series trails regarding the issue of homosexuality, Oscar Wilde had evidence presented against him, obtained by private undercover detectives which documented his allegedly sexual relationships with other men [4] . These being alleged visits to underground brothels, use of male prostitutes and his much publicised relationship with 9 Marques of Queensbury, John Douglas's nephew Lord Alfred Douglas [th] (Which it's self had the subject of a battle between Wilde and Queensbury, in which Wilde successfully sued Queensbury for liable allegations regarding his sexuality.) [5] 

Wilde Bio

Wilde himself was born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin Ireland (Britannica, Oscar Wilde, 2010). Educated at Trinity College Dublin he went on to study at Oxford University and eventually settled in London (Britannica, Oscar Wilde, 2010).

There Wilde became a star socialite amongst the artistic crowd of the time, this sect included influential and brilliant artists such as poet W. B. Yeats and people with influence as regards the state such as mistress to the prince of Wales Lillie Langtry (Britannica, Oscar Wilde, 2010). Here Wilde became famous for his social flair and wit, achieving fame with his comic plays such as the Nihilist (1880), Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and finally his most famous, critically acclaimed and remembered play The Importance of Being Ernest (1895) (Britannica, Oscar Wilde, 2010).

Around the time leading up to the opening of Importance… his homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, nephew of Marquess of Queensbury was beginning to scandelise the circles Wilde frequented. After some very public arguments the aforementioned trails took place, firstly a libel case of Wilde suing Queensbury for liable, due to the public criticism Queensbury had made towards Wilde. Then Wilde himself was convicted in a high profile trial, for acts of gross indecency in 1895. As punishment for what was then considered crime, Wilde was to spend two years in hard labour (Britannica, Oscar Wilde, 2010). During his time in imprisonment Wilde wrote a long and now famous letter of heartbreak entitled De Profundis (Britannica, Oscar Wilde, 2010).

On release Wilde left England, living in poverty until his death in Paris, 30thth November 1900, converting to roman Catholicism on his death bed (Britannica, Oscar Wilde, 2010). During the time between imprisonment and death did not release anything under his own name. However under a pseudonym he publish The Ballad of Reading Gaol in 1898.

As mentioned prior Dorian Grey was his only novel, being published first in its first format in the July edition of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine and was heavily criticised and deemed immoral. This, as mentioned above, lead to Wilde adding six new chapters and a preface. The preface, as mentioned before, anticipating some of the criticism that the work would receive. Dorian Grey presents it's reader with a puzzling insight into the philosophies and moral outlooks of the society Wilde found himself in. To this day the true meaning of the novel remains subject of debate for academics. With aspects of the gothic novel, decadent literature, the philosophies of aestheticism and Baudelairian Dandyism Wilde presents to us a work that, as I hope to demonstrate, is as revealing about him as it is the society around him as it revealing about himself. From its philosophies on the relationship between artist and art, to its illustration of the aesthetic hollowness of morality and Victorian society I hope to uncover how much Wilde reveals of himself in the now and how much he reveals of the Victorian self. Finding to what extent can we draw conclusions on the respective "selves" based on this work, set in the context of 19th Century Victorian London and Oscar Wilde's other works and essays.

The Picture of Dorian Grey Bio.

The novel itself, set at the time it was written in Victorian London, depicts the totally fictional gothic and on the surface supernatural tale of Dorian Grey. Who after being painted by artist and one of the main characters of the book, artist Basil Hallward, promises his soul in order to live a life in which he would be in a state of aesthetic and physical youthfulness forever. Dorain then is introduced to Lord Henry Wotton, a controversial, yet witty figure who scandalises those around him with his philosophies on youth, beauty and the pursuit of hedonism. An impromptu speech on the transient nature of beauty and youth by Lord Henry distresses Dorian, who feels a recent painting done by the aforementioned Basil would forever remind him of the youth he will all too soon leave. In a fit of despair he pledges his soul in exchange for eternal youth. In exchange the painting would age instead of himself.

"How sad it is!" murmured Dorian Gray with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. "How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. . . . If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that--for that--I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!" [6] 

From this point in the book Dorain becomes infatuated with his interpretations of the teaching of Lord Henry. He pursues a life of hedonism which leads him to have an affair with a working-class aspiring actress named Sybil Vane. The pair quickly become engaged, however the affair ends in disaster however as Sybils "Prince Charming" (Dorian), leaves her, ending the engagement, after she retires from acting. This was because Dorian seemingly was in love with her skill at acting rather than her. It is at this point Dorian notices changes in the picture. A sneer is now across his face in the portrait. Upon realising his wish had come and the picture now bears the disfigurement of his sins in reality he pledges to make amends for his wrong doings towards Sybil the next day. However the following day Lord Henry brings news of Sybils suicide. Dorian is shocked at this news, however Lord Henry invites Dorian to regard Sybils death as an artistic triumph, a classic tale of tragedy personified. He tells Dorian to put the event behind him.

"…[Y]et I must admit that this thing that has happened

does not affect me as it should. It seems to me to be simply like a

wonderful ending to a wonderful play. It has all the terrible beauty

of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I

have not been wounded." [7] 

Dorian proceeds to hide the picture from the view of the world, in order to hide the evidence of his sins. He then receives a book from Lord Henry which changes his outlook on life. The book itself, referred to as "The Yellow Book" is commonly thought to be J.K. Huysmans brilliant and genre defining piece of decadent literature À rebours (1884) (Ellman, 1988), though this is never stated in the book by Wilde.

Dorian then goes on to commit himself to a life of hedonism and the teachings of the aforementioned "Yellow Book". The book used as a guide of sorts to forbidden pleasures, hedonism and decadence. His actions soon become infamous around Londons high society, rumours spread about his life style which scandalize those around him. However his peers continue to accept him because he remained young and beautiful.

Even those who had heard the most evil things against him-- and from time to time strange rumours about his mode of life crept through London and became the chatter of the clubs-- could not believe anything to his dishonour when they saw him. He had always the look of one who had kept himself unspotted from the world[…]There was something in the purity of his face that rebuked them. His mere presence seemed to recall to them the memory of the innocence that they had tarnished. They wondered how one so charming and graceful as he was could have escaped the stain of an age that was at once sordid and sensual. [8] 

As the novel Dorian's life degenerates into a quest to seek out new experiences and sensation, because he has no regard for the moral consequences of his actions his actions continue to become more immoral and unethical. Eighteen years pass and Dorian's reputation continues to suffer at the hands of his hedonistic lifestyle and while his peers continue to be scandalised by rumours of his actions they still cannot bring themselves to persecute him due to his youthful beauty.

Finally the artist Basil Hallward confronts Dorian at his home about his actions. Dorian flys into a fit of rage and shows Basil the portrait which had remained hidden from Sybils suicide up until this point. Basil is horrified by what he see's and pleads with Dorian for him to change his ways, Dorian says its too late for him to change and kills Basil. Dorian then solicits the help of a doctor so he can dispose of the body. He continues blackmails the doctor into helping him.

In the proceeding night after the murder Dorian visits an opium den, it is here he encounters Sybils brother James Vane who has pledged vengeance on Dorian, the man who he believes is responsible for the death of his sister.

Later while entertaining guests Dorian see's James Vain peering through the window of his home, Dorian is wracked with panic and guilt. However a hunting party shoots Vain by accident, killing him and thus unintentionally solving Dorian's problem.

The fright of having his life hang in the balance causes Dorian to resolve to change his ways. He however does not have the courage to confess his crimes and in his picture he can now see his hypocrisy being depicted.

At this Dorian picks up the knife he used to murder Basil Hallward and slashes at the painting, attempting to destroy it. His servants in other quarters here the commotion and rush to the room. On entering however they find the portrait unharmed, depicting the original image of a young, beautiful Dorian Grey. Beneath it lying in a pool of blood an ugly, disfigured old man. A knife sticking out of his heart, they soon realise it is the body of their master Dorian Grey

When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid

portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all

the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor

was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart.

He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage.

It was not till they had examined the rings that they

recognized who it was. [9] 

The above plot summary of the novel helps us to establish the main themes and philosophical aims of the novel that have been touch upon before. It is in identifying these themes that we can begin to look at how or at least to what extent Wilde portrays aspects of his self through the story of Dorian Grey, but also to what extent Wilde portrays other aspects of the Victorian self as a whole.

Themes

As mentioned above the themes in this novel are key to understand and realising to what extent Wilde reveals himself and the Victorian self in this piece of work. One of the main fundamental ideas expounded in the novel is that of the purpose of art and the role of the artist. All Wildes views on the artist and the role of art must be taken in the historical context of the time and the philophies Wilde appeared to subscribe to at the time if we are to find signifiers of himself and the Victorian self in a wider sense within the work. Thus with that in mind we need to look at Wilde's views on the artist which are expounded throughout the work as a whole but most clearly and concisely in the preface of the final published edition, in the context of the views Victorian society had of the artist at large and the views of Wildes contemparies and like minded thinkers, namely Baudelrian Dandies, decadent writers and more specifically the 19 Century Aesthetic movement.

Most of Wildes views on the role of art and the artist in Victorian society were made in the preface, which as mentioned prior, was added after the book had initially been released in Lippincotts Monthly Magazine, in response to the heavy criticism the book had received. In this additional preface we can gain an insight into not only what we can take as Wildes personal philosophy regarding art but also the context in which Wilde wanted people to regard the book in. In order to analyse Wildes personal philosophies on art and on a broder level the philosophies on art shared by the Aesthetic movements of the time. His personal justification for the novel and in a sense his own life style we must regard the way art was viewed by mainstream society in mid to late 19thth Century Victorian England. In addition to this we must also look at the moral climate in which these views were formed, in order to find out why these views were held and why Wilde felt the point needed to be made, a point which undoubtledly he had to know would be held as contrary to the majority of Victorian society.

The majority of Victorian society can be seen as viewing art a means of social apparatus, a means of educating people socially and morally. This is expounded mostly in Victorian "Realist" literature of the time. The most popular mainstream Victorian writers of the time usually depicted a character who lived an idealised version of a hard life in which hard work, perserverance, luck and universally held Christian ethics of selflessness, politeness, fear of sin and the following conventional Christian virtues, lead to self improvement, thus a better life. The resolution of a typical, mainstream, Victorian novel of the day would see virtue rewarded and wrong dooers punish. All this in accordance with an overall moral of the story, which would again serve to promote the morals and ethics of the day. The Days most popular and widely read authors such as Charles Dickens (The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1839) [10] , The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839) [11] , A Christmas Carol (1844) etc.), George Gissing (Thyrza (1887), The Nether World (1889), New Grub Street (1891) etc.) and George Elliot (Romola (1863), Middlemarch (1871), Daniel Doronda (1876) etc.) to name a few of the popular and acclaimed "realist" authors of the time attempted to portray a story of self improvement and betterment set against the hard-life, realist backgrounds of Victorian Britain, usually London, though other places in Britain and even other countries were used. The points of view adopted in these works are reflected in the fine art of the time which was popular at the time and been given accolade by the Royal Academy J. Tissot (Departure Platform, Victoria Station (1881)), A.L.Egg (Past and Present I, II, III (1858)) and Richard Doyle are amongst many artists that were house hold names at the time, that followed the realist ideals in art of Victorian England.

So see that for the majority of Victorians a piece of Art carried a degree of not only educational and social responsibility with it but moral responsibility as well.

Wilde himself however was in opposition to this point of view, from the preface and views made through characters seemingly acting as his mouth pieces throughout the novel we can see elements of Wildes self and his ideas of the role that the artist should play coming to the forefront.

Wilde himself was a proponent of the Aesthetic movement in art which came into being in the 19 Century. In opposition to the previously discussed view of Victorian England at the time the Aesthetic movement wanted to separate morality and social commentary from art (Woods, 1983). This can be seen as being movtivated by a contempt for the strict moral codes of the day influenced by the Upper Classes reading of Christianity. The Aesthetic movement valued Aesthetic or visual beauty in Art, be it literature, painting or otherwise, over the view of the time that art should bear moral and social messages and responsibility- "Art for Art's Sake" a term coined by Philosopher Victoria Coins was to be their slogan.

In deliberate contrast to the Royal Academy method, the pictures were widely spaced apart, with groups of one artist's work placed together. This enabled the spectator to form an overall impression of an artist's style, and was widely welcomed by the artists themselves. The Grosvenor was also the first gallery to be lit by electric light [th] 

This part of Wildes self and personal philosophy, a hard line aestheticism is certainly displayed and expounded throughout Picture…, the very first lines of the preface set out Wilde's personal stance about the place of the artist in Victorian Society:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things. [12] 

Indeed in the first chapater of the book the proclamation of painter Basil Hallward is: "My heart shall never be put under their microscope. There is too much of myself in the thing, Harry--too much of myself!" [13] Basil continues to lament his work in a manner in which, it would seem, is a response to the criticism Wilde was receiving about the book and indeed his personal life:

"An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty. Someday I will show the world what it is; and for that reason the world shall never see my portrait of Dorian Gray." [14] 

In this sense Basil Hallward and Lord Henry act as Wildes mouth pieces in Picture… however it is my belief that as regards Wildes self in terms of the artist and on a wider scale the self of a 19th Century Victorian artist the novel is almost autobiographical.

This is a view shared by literary historian A.H. Nethercoat who in his essay "Oscar Wilde and the Devils advocate puts it to us that Wilde used not only this work but all of his works as a kind of confessional, an autobiograhical revealing of sorts. It is put to us that Wilde reveals aspects of himself with every character confession, agony, plea and extenuation (Nethercot, 1944).

While Wilde does seem to reveal his own philosophies on art through the mouth pieces of the novel Basil Hallward and Lord Henry the philosophy of Aestheticism seem to be contradicted by the two main pieces of art in the book. The picture of Dorian Grey itself, painted by Basil Hallward and the "yellow book" which Lord Henry gives to Dorian, in order to guide him through experiments of sensation and hedonism.

While Wilde has his characters at length speak of the value of Aestheticism and we know that Wilde himself was a purponent of the philosophy the two focused on pieces of art in the book, indeed two of the main focal points of the novel, are in fact presented as the very opposite of the philosophy of aestheticism and more in keeping with the traditional Victorian writings of the time.

Both of the featured pieces of the art in the novel serves purposes not only crucial to the plot, but which come to define said items and have lasting effects on the main protagonist Dorian.

Basils painting of Dorian in the novel is given the purpose of being a mysterious and magical gage of Dorians immorality and age. The picture itself ageing and distorting as Dorian commits immoral acts, visibly changing while Dorian remains youthful.

The "Yellow Book" Lord Henry gives to Dorian serves the purpose of being Dorian's guide to sensations and decadence, causing Dorian to condemn himself to a life of infamy amongst his peers and leading him to corruption.

It is unclear with these contradicting views what Wilde was trying to demonstrate with the novel. On the one hand, he plainly sets out his Aesthetic philosophies on art and the role of the artist via his main mouthpieces of the novel Basil Hallward and Lord Henry. However the two main pieces of art, that are used as focal points of the book, all have purposes, thus are all in direct contradiction with Wildes view on art. It could be the case that Wilde highlighting the wrongness of the Victorian societies view on what the artist should be. In doing so demonstraiting that insitance on art having meaning and purpose leads to it becoming a corrupting force in society and has negative influence over the individual. This can be seen as a Platonic view of the artist, for Plato, in his classic look at the workings of society Republic who puts to us a view of Art as a corrupting force when not strictly controlled or moderated.

Writing Services

Essay Writing
Service

Find out how the very best essay writing service can help you accomplish more and achieve higher marks today.

Assignment Writing Service

From complicated assignments to tricky tasks, our experts can tackle virtually any question thrown at them.

Dissertation Writing Service

A dissertation (also known as a thesis or research project) is probably the most important piece of work for any student! From full dissertations to individual chapters, we’re on hand to support you.

Coursework Writing Service

Our expert qualified writers can help you get your coursework right first time, every time.

Dissertation Proposal Service

The first step to completing a dissertation is to create a proposal that talks about what you wish to do. Our experts can design suitable methodologies - perfect to help you get started with a dissertation.

Report Writing
Service

Reports for any audience. Perfectly structured, professionally written, and tailored to suit your exact requirements.

Essay Skeleton Answer Service

If you’re just looking for some help to get started on an essay, our outline service provides you with a perfect essay plan.

Marking & Proofreading Service

Not sure if your work is hitting the mark? Struggling to get feedback from your lecturer? Our premium marking service was created just for you - get the feedback you deserve now.

Exam Revision
Service

Exams can be one of the most stressful experiences you’ll ever have! Revision is key, and we’re here to help. With custom created revision notes and exam answers, you’ll never feel underprepared again.