Monday, February 27, 2012

Wilde: Option 1

[Posted by Julia]

In the preface, Oscar Wilde makes claims about both art and literature.  He states that "the purpose of art is to conceal the artist," as well as "there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written, or badly written. That is all."  Is Dorian Gray truly in line with either of Wilde's arguments? How so?


  1. In the novel, art serves as a representation of the subject, not of the painter. The man in the portrait ages and deteriorates because of the actions of his real life counterpart. It is Dorian that changes the landscape of the painting, not Basil. Even though Basil was the original creator and stated that he had put his soul into this work, the fact that changes occur unbeknownst to him shows that the artist doesn’t play as huge a role in the creation as one might believe. Thus, the novel seems to be in line with Wilde’s argument that the purpose of art is to conceal the artist. Whenever the reader sees the painting, they focus on how it has changed since the last viewing. They don’t consider Basil’s role in creating the piece at all. He is someone relegated to the background, as evidenced by his decreasing appearances in the novel. The story opens with his conversation between Lord Henry, but as the novel progresses, the focus is mainly on Dorian Gray and his actions. Readers watch Dorian change from the content of a painting into a selfish, living character. He goes from enjoying the company of his friend Basil to ignoring this man so he can spend time with another. He feels no remorse for breaking his promise to meet Basil early in the novel. Since Wilde focuses solely on the transformation of Dorian, Basil is absent for most of the novel. In the end, Basil is murdered and never seen again. This shows that the role of the artist is minimal in Wilde’s view.

    I believe that Wilde’s other argument, that there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book, is also evident in the text. I interpret this statement as meaning that every person who views a work of art will have a different opinion. No two perspectives will be the same. This can be seen when Lord Henry encourages Basil to send his portrait to the Grosvenor. Lord Henry deems the painting Basil’s “best work.” Basil, though, doesn’t want to send the portrait away because he has put too much of himself into it. When Basil looks at the painting, he sees himself. When Lord Henry looks at it, he just sees a handsome man. After the transformation occurs, Dorian sees in the portrait all of the evil sins he has committed. Wilde writes, “As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul” (110). Dorian calls it the “most magical of mirrors,” but instead of reflecting his physical appearance, it reflects the evilness of his true soul through its grotesqueness. Whereas he once viewed the portrait as a testament of his youthful beauty, Dorian now sees it as a “horrible thing.” He ends up hiding it where “no eyes but his would ever see his shame” (126).

  2. Oscar Wilde plays with his own identity in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde was considered an influential figure in both society and art at the time of its publication. His art was considered controversial for its style and its salacious content. Wilde plays with this caricature of himself through the character of Lord Henry. Lord Henry manipulates and influences Dorian, turning him into a piece of artwork. He puts his soul into him, having an influence on every action and behavior Dorian commits throughout the novel. But Dorian exists as an outlet of what Lord Henry says, not what he does. In this way, Lord Henry is Wilde’s caricature of his reputation. But Lord Henry does not actually do any of the hideous things he preaches, as Basil points out. Like Wilde, Lord Henry merely talks about doing only what is pleasing. Lord Henry encapsulates part of Wilde’s identity, but Wilde exaggerates him, turning him into a caricature.

    To a degree, Dorian Gray is about being beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. Not only does the plot have to do with a beautiful piece of art, the portrait of Doran and Dorian himself to a degree, but the style is fluid and beautifully written. But Wilde is doing more with Dorian Gray than creating something beautiful; he is warning about the pitfalls of focusing entirely on beauty and on the self. Dorian’s demise and eventual death represent the errors that one may fall into when they only focus on the aesthetic.

  3. The connection between art and artist, as well as art and the audience, is very complicated within The Picture of Dorian Gray. The artist of the portrait of Dorian, Basil, is not corrupted by the work he created and does not turn to the life of absolute hedonism which Dorian does. Also Lord Henry who in a sense "creates" the actual Dorian does not reflect the artwork which he makes through Dorian. Because of this it would seem that it is the not the artwork which reflects the artist, but rather the artwork which causes reactions within the audience (Dorian).
    Yet on the other hand it is hard to reconcile that the artist is hidden in Wilde's work since a great deal of Wilde's own life seems to have seeped into the work. In this way it can also be said that Lord Henry is seen within Dorian since he created Dorian in the vein of his own interests, and is therefore responsible in a sense for what Dorian does despite not participating in it himself.

  4. Nicole D'AngeloFebruary 28, 2012 at 8:28 PM

    The extent to which the story of Dorian Gray supports its preface is ambiguous—perhaps intentionally so. Wilde clearly did not base the story on his own life, and yet it is impossible for a writer to keep his passions and thoughts out of his writing. Therefore, to what extent did his art “conceal the artist?” Similarly, the preface claims that “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” and several events and ideas in Dorian Gray are morally ambiguous. Yet Dorian Gray can also be considered a cautionary tale. There are no easy answers and many points for confusion, yet overall the story gives more support than contradiction to the statements in its preface.

    All art both conceals and reveals the artist by nature of being a product of the artist’s imagination then subjected to the prejudices of the audience. Both the portrait in the story and the story itself have this duality inherent in them. In the first chapter, Basil says about his portrait that “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter . . . The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul” (9). This statement is almost directly contrary to the one in the preface. Basil says that the painting reveals much of himself, and that it contains his own soul. Yet the story takes a very different turn from this idea. Dorian Gray somehow transfers his sins and his aging onto the portrait and, essentially, puts his own soul onto the portrait. It is safe to say that as time goes on and the painting becomes more and more disgusting, it no longer contains Basil Hallward’s soul. Basil’s soul has been replaced by Dorian. Therefore, the painting itself contains a complex duality of being created as a projection of the artist, but abandoning that state to become a projection of the viewer. Perhaps this is Wilde’s point when he says that “the purpose of art is to conceal the artist.” No matter how much of the artist is put into the art upon its creation, the artist’s soul will always be, in some way, replaced by the spectator’s.

    In regards to the morality of books, again there is a complicated duplicity. Few, if any, stories are completely lacking in some sort of moral compass, but few of the best stories contain a blatant moral theme. Rather, they simply tell the story and allow the reader to pick up the moral theme from there. Dorian Gray is the same way. Nowhere in the story does the reader get an overly direct message of what is good or bad. The reader knows that Dorian Gray has sinned, but it takes exploration into the text to see the specific message that the writer is trying to preach. Dorian Gray is a story presented solely for the reader’s discernment. Therefore, it holds true to the preface’s statement that “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book” while still maintaining a thematic message that is not completely devoid of morality.

    Overall, The Picture of Dorian Gray does support the statements of its preface. However, there will always be details within the story that contradict it. The Picture of Dorian Gray does not give easy answers. Rather, it intentionally creates contradictions and to force the reader to think for themselves about the art they are engaging with.

  5. Throughout the plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the relationship between subject, artist and morality is complicated, leaving the reader to question Oscar Wilde’s claims that “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” and “the purpose of art is to conceal the artist.” On the surface, it would appear that the portrait of Dorian is the cause of his eventual demise. If it had never existed, he would never have had a visual reminder of his passing youth and beauty.
    However, the painting is not the source of this reaffirmation until Lord Henry begins to influence the young and naïve beauty. In fact, the painter, Basil, has little power over the fate of Dorian and eventually mysteriously disappears altogether. In this way, the portrait and the artist are merely microcosms in comparison to the influence of Lord Henry.
    Dorian transgresses from a life of moralistic and philanthropic interest to a life based on immorality and hedonistic ideals. Perhaps Lord Henry’s influence represents society as a whole. All it takes is one meeting with Dorian, one suggestion on Lord Henry’s part, for Dorian’s life to be thrown completely thrown off course. Basil created a beautiful portrait and there is no problem until Lord Henry interferes. His powerful influence mirrors the way that Wilde was persecuted. One comment from one viewer automatically transforms the work of art to a symbol of eventual degradation. The art is then transfigured and manipulated to serve as a representation of something that was never intended by the artist. Thus, the art was not moral or immoral; it was the interpretation of it that turns Dorian to immoral pastimes.