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).

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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 cherishes, because he tried to mold it,
as dictated by aestheticism. Of all the protagonists, Dorian’s
downfall is the most clearly recognized. A young man who
was pure at the beginning of the novel becomes depraved by
the influence of Lord Henry. “He grew more and more
enamored of his own beauty, more and more interested in
the corruption of his own soul” (Bloom 121). He begins to
lead a life of immorality, including the murder of his dear
friend Basil Hallward. “There were moments when he
looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could
realize his conception of beautiful” (Wilde 196). However,
there is still a spark of good left in Dorian. He lashes out at
his twisted mentor, Lord Henry, declaring, “I can’t bear this
Henry! You mock at everything, and then suggest the most
serious tragedies” (173). This trace of goodness is not
enough to save Dorian, for he has crossed too far towards
the perverted side of aestheticism and cannot escape it.

“Dorian experiments with himself and with men and women,
and watches the experiment recorded year by year in the
fouling and aging corruption of his portrait’s beauty” (West
5811). Dorian becomes so disgusted with this portrait of his
soul and his conscience, that he slashes the canvas, killing
himself. For Dorian, this is the ultimate evil act, the desire to
rid himself of all moral sense. Having failed the attempt to
escape through good actions, he decides to escape by
committing the most terrible of crimes. Aestheticism has
claimed its final victim. “Basil Hallward is what I think I am:
Lord Henry what the world thinks of me: Dorian Gray what
I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps” (Hart-Davis
352). Because of the endings he creates for these
characters, Oscar Wilde proves that he does not envisions
himself in the immoral characters of this story nor is he
attempting to promote their lifestyles. Of all the characters
whom he creates, he sees himself as Basil, the good artist
who sacrifices himself to fight immorality. “It was his beauty
that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had
prayed for” (Wilde 242). Contrary to Wilde’s claim in the
preface that, “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral
book” (vii), this novel has a deep and meaningful purpose.

“The moral is that an absence of spirituality, of faith, of
regard for human life, separates individuals like Wilde’s
Dorian Gray from humanity and makes monsters of them”
(West 5831). W.H. Auden feels that the story is specifically
structured to provide a moral. He compares the story to that
of a fairy tale, complete with a princess, a wicked witch, and
a fairy godmother. This leaves “room for a moral with which
good every fairy tale ends.” Not only is the novel seen as
existing on the pure level of fairy tales, but it is claimed to
contain “ethical beauty” (Auden 146). The Picture of Dorian
Gray is a novel including a moral dialogue between
conscience and temptation that is powerfully conveyed.

Though it is made to seem an advocate for aestheticism on
the surface, the story ultimately undermines that entire
philosophy. Wilde brings the question of “to what extent are
we shaped by our actions” (26). He also demonstrates that
“art cannot be a substitute for life” (Eriksen 104). It is a
fantastic tale of hedonism with a moral to be learned and
remembered. Works Cited Auden, W.H. “In Defense of the
Tall Story.” The New Yorker. 29 November 1969.

pp.205-206, 208-210. Bloom, Harold. Oscar Wilde. New
York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985. Ellman, Richard.

Oscar Wilde. New york: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1987.

Eriksen, Donald. Oscar Wilde. Boston: Twayne Publishers,
1977. Hart-Davis, Rupert. The Letters of Oscar Wilde.

New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962. Juan,
Efifanio. The Art of Oscar Wilde. New Jersey: Princetown
University Press, 1967. Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian
Gray. New York: Random House, Inc., 1992.