Good novels are a window into society which take readers to interesting places, but great novels however allow readers to experience where they need to go. Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, written in 1890 brings audience on a journey to Victorian England to explore the hidden sides of humanity through the use of romanticism juxtaposed with the gothic aesthetic. The story follows a young man named Dorian Gray who trades his soul with a portrait of himself to gain everlasting physical youth and beauty to experience a life of immoral pleasures without damaging his physical appearance, leading to inner ugliness that is revealed by the painting. Readers journey along with the corrupt upper-class noble experiencing Victorian society and its value of aestheticism, social perceptions of woman and the narcissistic hidden world of moral corruption. The hedonistic lifestyle is compensated by the ultimate consequence of death. Through this, readers come to contemplate the result that society must come to face when aesthetics and outward mannerisms are valued over the conduct of your character, turning a blind eye towards their façade over debauchery. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel commenting on society’s hedonistic lifestyle which consumed good conduct and morals. Wilde comments on the necessities of people in the 1890s for audiences to realize the lower side of society and consider issues that they may not be wanted or uncomfortable to address. Today The Picture of Dorian Gray has become a canonized work of literary art that has withstood the test of time.
The Victorian era was a time where aestheticism was valued highly and was a means of communicating and signifying class. Through The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde reveals the obsession people have with aesthetics and superficiality as opposed to the content of one’s character. The novel uses the romantic literature style to accentuate aesthetics and beauty. Within the first two pages the reader is immersed in the ornamental world, audiences are shown “the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-colored blossoms of the laburnum”, “fantastic shadows of birds in flight”, “tussore-silk curtains”, and a “momentary Japanese effect”, Wilde wanted audiences to experience beauty through the eyes of a person who values the art of aestheticism, he achieves this through the use of visual imagery. Basil is an artist who worships Dorian’s youth and beauty, he says “I see him in the curves of certain lines, in the loveliness and the subtleties of certain colors. That is all” showing that Basil doesn’t believe Dorian’s character is worth considering. Lord Henry Wotton doesn’t have youth and beauty but is old and intellectual, he acts as a mentor for Dorian injecting hedonistic desires within him, all Lord Henry wants from Dorian Gray is the beauty. Wotton remarks “this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made of ivory and rose-leaves. Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus”, this superfluous type of diction connotes beauty and makes the writing extra descriptive and romantic. The word Narcissus means ‘full of intense beauty’ this word exaggerates and shows the obsession Victorian England had with beauty. Oscar Wilde shows the importance of art in social education and moral enlightenment and simultaneously takes readers on a journey to address the issue of giving too much value to aestheticism and superficiality.
Looking back from the 21st century audiences are seeing that the novel is commenting on the objectification, social perceptions and value of women in the Victorian English society. In The Picture of Dorian Gray women are portrayed as the “decorative sex” and their only true purpose is to be beautiful. Lord Henry’s opinions and thoughts towards women corrupt Dorian Gray’s mind, “Oh, she is more than good—she is beautiful,” hinting that being beautiful is worth more than being good showing audiences the low value, almost similar to objects, given to women. Dorian’s actions and rude attitudes towards women are evident when he goes and discourteously rejects Sibyl Vane because he thinks she is just a “third-rate actress with a pretty face” without her art of acting. After rejecting Sibyl, he brushes off the blame by saying “women were better suited to bear sorrow than men.” Sibyl begs Dorian for forgiveness laying at his feet “like a trampled flower,” the simile compares Sibyl to a flower which connotes beauty and femininity and the word ‘trampled’ alludes to being weak and inferior, suggesting that women are the decorative, inferior and weaker sex. Sibyl ends up killing herself because she gives herself to Dorian but he used and rejected her, strong societal values at the time made women expect the man they loved to marry them, the same values forced Sibyl to believe that if Dorian wasn’t going to marry her then there was no use in living a life she could not live with her “love” and “respect”. Oscar Wilde is taking audience to Victorian England and showing them the value given to women and addressing the issue of objectifying women in society which people choose to ignore because it is seen as unimportant or irrelevant.
Oscar Wilde uses his novel to take readers to the less flattering side of Victorian England through the journey of Dorian Gray’s hedonistic life. When Dorian finds that his portrait will bear the scars of all his wrong doings and leave his physical appearance unstained, he chooses to abandon good morals for a life of pleasure knowing his unblemished looks will save him from accusations of corruption and he will receive both the acceptance of society and fulfillment of his narcissistic desires. The characterization of Lord Henry Wotton through his dialogue, “I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks” suggests that he is an antagonist and sly villain in the story who is carefully selecting who he interacts with and thus choosing and influencing young Dorian’s mind with his poisonous theories becomes Dorian becomes an experiment to him. Lord Henry passes a yellow book full of “the sins of the world” to Dorian as a part of his experiment and it works horrifyingly well leading Dorian down the path of immorality. The yellow book is a symbol for Lord Henry passing his theories on for Dorian to live the life of hedonism. The titular object in the novel in Dorian Gray’s painting is a motif which goes from a beautiful image of a young man to a corrupted and horrific representation of his soul that has been influenced by the hidden darkness and ugliness in society that was previously trapped away. The painting is a symbol of society’s behavior and conveys an important message to the audience informing them that the truth no matter how deeply hidden will reveal itself with time. Through Wilde’s characterization of Dorian Gray and Lord Henry Wotton, readers see the juxtaposition of beauty against moral depravity and its consequences. Dorian Gray’s beauty juxtaposed with the dark gothic themes of his soul transferring to the painting show that behind beauty lie darker truths that are waiting to be exposed. Oscar Wilde’s use of the romantic and gothic aesthetics help bring the hedonistic underworlds of society that are hidden from the rest of the world to light.
Ultimately through the consequence of death that Dorian suffers, and the demise of Basil readers come to contemplate and are reminded of the effects of leading a life of bad morals and values through the cautionary tale. On a positive note, audience are also taught to appreciate beauty and art but never forget morality, it teaches them to live life to the fullest and live it beautifully but live it with morality. The various literary conventions in the novel allow readers to see the value given to aestheticism and superficiality, the objectification of women and hedonistic lifestyles that are covered by the façade of upper-class mannerisms. The novel takes readers back to the 1890s Victorian England and life there. The novel illustrates the long-term effects of following a hedonistic form of life and shows the gradual destruction of Dorian which ultimately leads to madness and his own death. The Picture of Dorian Gray is an allegory with a deep hidden meaning that is uncovered with time, making the novel a high-brow canonized work of literary art.