The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel by Oscar Wilde, one of the most prominent members of the aesthetic movement. His novel relates to art, and its purpose. Wilde argues in the introduction to the novel that art’s purpose is to have no purpose- simply to exist, without having an overreaching moral lesson. He writes that “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely” (8).
The protagonist, Dorian Gray, is a young man who is said to be very beautiful and innocent. An older artist, Basil Hallward, cultivates a friendship with him that leads to his meeting Lord Henry, a gifted and influential speaker. The Lord advocates a radical policy of hedonism, or the pursuit of pleasure above all else, which is quite controversial in the morally strict time period. He enjoys shaping Dorian’s beliefs, and says that “’Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed’” (23). This becomes true for the impressionable Dorian when he is told that his beauty has more value than anything else in his life. Basil has painted a portrait of him, and the young man despairs that he shall age while it shall not. In thinking this, Dorian trades his own aging for that of the portrait’s, though he does not discover this for some time, when he begins to commit many sins in trying to live Lord Henry’s philosophies more fully. Sin is said to make a person ugly, and ages the portrait just as time does. One of the first examples of his sins is spurning the young actress, Sibyl Vane, whom he claimed to be in love with until she performed badly at a play. His rejection caused her to commit suicide, and though it shook Dorian, it was not enough to change his course. His lifestyle grew increasingly careless, causing his portrait self to decay with every misdeed. Dorian does not escape karma, however, when his choices ultimately lead him to a final desperate and destructive act. The portrait Basil painted was given a purpose, in being used for Dorian Gray’s selfish life, and consequently caused the man’s destruction.
1) Do you think that Dorian is responsible for his actions throughout the novel, or is Lord Henry instead responsible for teaching a moral code that he himself did not understand the implications of?
2) Wilde’s view on the purposelessness of art was highly controversial in the time. Many still believe that art is created to influence, or display views. Which philosophy do you personally agree with?