The Picture of Dorian Gray: Corruption Through Aestheticism


Picture of Dorian Gray: Corruption Through Aestheticism

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
is the story of moral corruption by the means of aestheticism. In the novel,
the well meaning artist Basil Hallward presets young Dorian Gray with a
portrait of himself. After conversing with cynical Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian
makes a wish which dreadfully affects his life forever. "If it were I who
was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! 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" (Wilde 109). As it turns out,
the devil that Dorian sells his soul to is Lord Henry Wotton, who exists
not only as something external to Dorian, but also as a voice within him
(Bloom 107). Dorian continues to lead a life of sensuality which he learns
about in a book given to him by Lord Henry. Dorian's unethical devotion
to pleasure becomes his way of life.

The novel underscores its disapproval of
aestheticism which negatively impacts the main characters. Each of the
three primary characters is an aesthete and meets some form of terrible
personal doom. Basil Hallward's aestheticism is manifested in his dedication
to his artistic creations. He searches in the outside world for the perfect
manifestation of his own soul, when he finds this object, he can create
masterpieces by painting it (Bloom 109).

He refuses to display the portrait of Dorian

Gray with the explanation that, "I have put too much of myself into it"
(Wilde 106). He further demonstrates the extent to which he holds this
philosophy by later stating that, "only the artist is truly reveled" (109).

Lord Henry Wotton criticizes Basil Hallward
that, "An artist should create beautiful things but should put nothing
of his own life into them" (Wilde 25). Ironically, the purpose of Basil

Hallward's existence is that he is an aesthete striving to become one with
his art (Eriksen 105). It is this very work of art which Basil refuses
to display that provides Dorian Gray with the idea that there are no consequences
to his actions. Dorian has this belief in mind when he murders Basil. Here
we see that the artist is killed for his excessive love of physical beauty;
the same art that he wished to merge with is the cause of his mortal downfall
(Juan 64).

Lord Henry Wotton, the most influential
man in Dorian's life, is an aesthete of the mind. Basil is an artist who
uses a brush while Wotton is an artist who uses words:

There is no good, no evil, no morality
and immorality; there are modes of being. To live is to experiment aesthetically
in living to experiment all sensations, to know all emotions, and to think
all thoughts, in order that the self's every capacity may be imaginatively
realized (West 5811).

Lord Henry believes that, "it is better
to be beautiful than to be good" (Wilde 215). Although he attests that
aestheticism is a mode of thought, he does not act on his beliefs. Basil

Hallward accuses him saying, "You never say a moral thing and you never
do a wrong thing" (5). However, Lord Henry does take the immoral action
of influencing Dorian.

Although Lord Henry states that, "all influence
is immoral" (Wilde 18), he nonetheless drastically changes Dorian Gray.

As Dorian acts on the beliefs of Lord Henry, the portrait's beauty becomes
corrupted. "Lord Henry presents Dorian with the tenants of his New Hedonism,
whose basis is self-development leading to the perfect realization of one's
nature" (Eriksen 97). If Lord Henry's aesthetic ideas have validity ,Dorian

Gray's portrait should not become ugly, but rather more beautiful. Since
the picture becomes loathsome, it is evident that Lord Henry's beliefs
are untrue (West 5811). Dorian becomes so disgusted with the horrible portrait
that he slashes the canvas, and the knife pierces his own heart. Because

Lord Henry is responsible for influencing Dorian Gray, he is partly the
cause of the death of Dorian (5810).

While Lord Henry is indirectly the cause
of Dorian's death, he too causes his own downfall. Lord Henry changes Dorian
with the belief that morals have no legitimate place in life. He gives

Dorian a book about a man who seeks beauty in evil sensations. Both Lord

Henry's actions and thoughts prove ruinous, as his wife leaves him and
the remaining focus of his life, youthful Dorian Gray, kills himself in
an attempt to further the lifestyle suggested to him by Lord Henry. Eventually,
he is left destitute, without Dorian, the art he so