The Art of Immorality in The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Murder, sex, scandal, and drug abuse-all of these sins of the main character thread together to shape Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, a dark tale of a young man who sells his soul for eternal youth while his portrait bears the scars of his crimes. However, before Wilde's readers plunge into this dark immorality, they encounter the novel's preface, where Wilde claims that "all art is quite useless" and "there is no such thing as an immoral or a moral book" (Wilde 3-4). These statements support Wilde's position as a key player in the Aesthetic Movement, advocating "art for art's sake." They also demonstrate his position that morality simply has no place in art. Yet despite all of this, many critics have attempted to impose a moral on this novel. In the following paper I will examine both the novel and the arguments of those critics to determine whether or not Wilde presents his readers with a lesson in this particular piece of art.

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There is little argument among contemporary critics that The Picture of Dorian Gray is truly a literary masterpiece. A 1990 review of the novel notes that "despite the dark theme, it gives us the peculiarly Wildean brand of flashing wit and paradox, and finely wrought descriptions of color, sound, and even scent" (Picture 1). In a few descriptive words, Wilde manages to draw the reader into the sense he is attempting to convey, allowing the reader vicarious experience through his descriptions. He also presents a constant flow of wit and paradox through the character of Lord Henry, whose statements include "a great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures" and "a man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her" (Wilde 48, 139). Wilde combines his wit and description with a suspenseful plot that manages to keep readers intrigued as he reveals each character's fate. Together these elements form a work of art, but the question is whether there is more to be found in the novel than art alone, whether or not a moral is also present.

The majority of critics attempting to claim The Picture of Dorian Gray as a moral book use its conclusion to support their argument. In Oscar Wilde, Sheridan Morley claims "a strict, underlying morality" in the text based on the fact that "after his years of sinister and voluptuous living, Dorian is after all left on the ground, dead, a figure of senile decay, while the portrait reverts to its original beauty" (72). Even early reviews claiming the book as immoral note the Wilde made a "desperate effort to vamp up a 'moral' for the book at the end" (Mason 65). While it is true that Dorian dies at the end of the novel, we must closely examine the two parts of this argument in order to determine whether or not his death provides the reader with a moral. The first deals directly with the nature of Dorian's character. The latter reviewer supports the presence of a moral on the basis that Dorian's death is appropriate for a character he describes as "cool, calculating, [and] conscienceless" (69). To have no conscience is not to feel guilt or remorse for one's actions; however, Dorian frequently feels both. We first witness Dorian's guilt when he notices the painting's initial change and becomes aware of his first misdeed, the ending of his engagement with Sibyl Vane. The very thought that he may have actually been cruel to her displeases him immensely (Wilde 73). Guilt continues to plague Dorian throughout the novel, showing that he is not a character entirely lacking a conscience. We see him in tears at several points in the plot showing that his sin does deeply and emotionally affect him. As a result of his most heinous crime, the murder of his friend Basil, Dorian looses his appetite and is left "crying as one whose heart will break" (136, 153). Not only does Dorian have a conscience because he feels guilt, his nature is also not cold because his crimes and guilt affect him so deeply.

Wilde not only presents Dorian as a character with a conscience, but also one who is highly impressionable. Wilde wants us to immediately note Dorian's impressionable character by referring to him as a "lad" and demonstrating how swiftly the words of Lord Henry influence his naïve thinking. Within moments of his physical entrance into the plot we see the immense influence that Lord Henry exercises over him, and later we witness how easily his mind is swayed toward fascination with immoral deeds by a single book presented to him by Lord Henry (Wilde 17, 97). Due to this highly impressionable nature and our knowledge that Dorian does in fact have a conscience, it is clear that his behavior does not stem entirely from inward evil but rather from conditioning by his environment. We, therefore, must look at Dorian's actions and intentions within the novel and their consequences to see if these consequences provide a moral. They do not. It is only when Dorian's intentions turn towards good that he is outwardly punished. For example, he learns of Sybil's suicide only after he's determined to do right by her. In fact it is immediately following the moment that he finishes writing a sincere apology to her that he learns of her death, forever linking the two together in his mind and providing him with his first lesson in the rewards of morality. These lessons continue when at the height of his evil, Dorian finds true pleasure and is exempt from all consequence. For example, fate prevents James Vane from justly killing him twice. Even his final attempt at a good deed, which I will discuss in the next section, follows this pattern, instructing Dorian and the reader that repentance brings unnecessary pain and suffering while wallowing in sin brings only beauty and pleasure.

Even though it is clear that Dorian's nature is not inherently evil, we still cannot ignore the second part of the argument of critics who impose a moral on the ending, the fact that Dorian's actions-murder, vanity, sexual promiscuity, and drug abuse-were indeed evil and his fate at the end of novel is death. The question is whether this fate truly demonstrates a sense of cosmic justice, and in order to prove that it does not I will examine the events immediately surrounding Dorian's death as well as his intentions in destroying the portrait. Dorian acknowledges to Lord Henry that "I have done too many dreadful things in my life. I am not going to do any more. I began my good actions yesterday" (Wilde 159-160). It seems that his intentions have finally turned towards good, and yet fate continues teaching its immoral lesson to Dorian when he attempts one further good act towards another woman and finds an unintentional motive in it, discovering that he has lost his chance at true purity. When he reaches this realization, he blames the portrait, recognizing it as the essence of his corruption. He destroys the portrait out of a desire to be set free from this corruption and to finally take action's consequences upon his own form, and he receives only grotesque death of both body and beauty as a reward for this last good act. Dorian is a character whose first intentions in discovering the painting's soul were to do good to prevent its further marring, whose environment later conditioned him to accept that only pain could come from repentance, and whose final attempt to reclaim morality harshly reinforced this lesson. His death was not a result of some greater cosmic justice that justly punishes the evil and rewards the noble, but rather an artfully designed plot twist that only served to take one final stab at morality in having Dorian destroy himself with repentance.

Although it clearly does not, if the novel did teach that one's fate is the just result of one's actions, then this moral should hold true for not only Dorian but the other characters in the novel as well. I will now examine the fates of the secondary characters measured against their actions to prove that there is no just moral in them. One critic claimed that "despite the general critical picture of Lord Henry as dilettante, intellectual lightweight, and effete hedonist, he is actually one of the most philosophical characters in British fiction" and then later claims that Basil had an equal hand in Dorian's corruption through his flattery (Liebman 299). Still, despite Harry's philosophy and Basil's flattery, the "morality" of these two characters is easily contrasted. The former clearly corrupts Dorian and delights in his misdeeds while the latter, his foil in the novel, continually acts as the voice of reason throughout the plot, begging Lord Henry not to corrupt Dorian and begging Dorian to pray for his soul during their last meeting. The fates of these two characters, however, do not seem just given their actions. Basil suffers a death more painful than Dorian's own, stabbed to death by Dorian as a result of attempting to redeem him. At the same time Lord Henry does not suffer even the slightest inconvenience for corrupting Dorian, and the end of the novel shows him alive and well for all his horrible actions. Another character, James Vane also loses his life while in the midst of a noble action, attempting to fulfill a promise to his deceased sister. Through the fates of both these characters and Dorian, Wilde provides no relationship between actions and consequences, a lesson from which no moral can be derived.

Although the outcomes of the characters present no moral for the reader, there remains one strong argument that a moral does exist in the work. This is the fact that the author claims one. In a letter to the editor of the Daily Chronicle, Oscar Wilde claims that "the real moral of the story is that all excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its punishment, and this moral is so far artistically and deliberately suppressed that it does not enunciate its law as a general principle" (345). The existence of a moral, however, does not make the novel itself "moral." The fact that both excess and renunciation of that excess bring punishment seems to be merely another of Wilde's famous paradoxes, not a standard that he wishes his reader to live by. Also the only excess that the reader witnesses in the novel is Dorian's, and Dorian lives in a world of eternal youth, unlimited influence and wealth, and exemption from all consequences for his deeds so long as they are immoral. The conditions of this world do not apply in the readers' world where even if they were to escape consequence by chance, they would still face the limitations of age and beauty. Despite the impracticality of this "moral," we must also acknowledge that Wilde added the novel's preface after the book's original printing but prior to its publication as a result of critics attempting to declare his book moral or immoral, chastising anyone who attempts to judge a work of art by such a standard. This preface combined with Wilde's declaring his paradoxical moral as "deliberately suppressed" demonstrates that Wilde intended his reader to take no lesson from this tale, and those readers who carefully follow the plot and take both action and intention into consideration for all characters do not.

Anyone who searches long enough and hard enough can find some moral to impose on any work of literature, but this does not necessarily mean that the author intended to place that moral within the text or that it even exists at all. This is the case with The Picture of Dorian Gray. Although critics have attempted to find a moral in the work since its publication, these imposed morals cannot hold up against the text. Wilde had no intentions of teaching the reader a lesson. Instead he wished simply to provide the reader with a truly enjoyable piece of art, and his novel serves to do nothing more than that.

Works Cited

Liebman, Sheldon W. "Character Design in The Picture of Dorian Gray." Studies in the Novel. 31.3 (1990): 296-317.

Mason, Stuart. Oscar Wilde: Art and Morality. New York: Haskell House, 1971.

Morley, Sheridan. Oscar Wilde. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1976.

"The Picture of Dorian Gray." Rev. of The Picture of Dorian Gray. by Oscar Wilde. Magill Book Reviews 15 Sept. 1990.

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Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray: Authoritative Texts, Backgrounds, Reviews and Reactions, Criticism. Lawler, Donald L. (ed.) New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988.

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