Essay about The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Grayis the only published novel byOscar Wilde, appearing as the lead story inLippincott's Monthly Magazineon 20th June 1890, printed as the July 1890 issue of this magazine.Wilde later revised this edition, making several alterations, and adding new chapters; the amended version was published byWard, Lock, and Companyin April 1891.
This is the story of one beautiful, innocent young man's seduction, moral corruption, and eventual downfall. We meet our three central characters at the beginning of the book, when painter Basil Hallward and his close friend, Lord Henry Wotton, are discussing the subject of Basil's newest painting, a gorgeous young thing named Dorian Gray. Basil and Henry discuss just how perfectlyperfectDorian is he's totally innocent and completely good, as well as being the most beautiful guy ever to walk the earth. Lord Henry wants to meet this mysterious boy, but Basil doesn't want him to; for some reason, he's afraid of what will happen to Dorian if Lord Henry digs his claws into him.
Basil Hallward is a talented, though somewhat conventionally minded, painter. His love for Dorian Gray changes the way he sees art; indeed, it defines a new school of expression for him. Basils portrait of Dorian marks a new phase of his career. Before he created this masterwork, he spent his time painting Dorian in the veils of antiquitydressed as an ancient soldier or as various romantic figures from mythology. Once he has painted Dorian as he truly is, however, he fears that he has put too much of himself into the work. He worries that his love, which he himself describes as idolatry, is too apparent, and that it betrays too much of himself. Though he later changes his mind to believe that art is always more abstract than one thinks and that the painting thus betrays nothing except form and color, his emotional investment in Dorian remains constant. He seeks to protect Dorian, voicing his objection to Lord Henrys injurious influence over Dorian and defending Dorian even after their relationship has clearly dissolved. Basils commitment to Dorian, which ultimately proves fatal, reveals the genuineness of his love for his favorite subject and his concern for the safety and salvation of Dorians soul.
However, Lord Henry gets his wish Dorian shows up that very afternoon, and, over the course of the day, Henry manages to totally change Dorian's perspective on the world. From that point on, Dorian's previously innocent point of view is dramatically different he begins to see life as Lord Henry does, as a succession of pleasures in which questions of good and evil are irrelevant.
Lord Henry is a man possessed of wrong, fascinating, poisonous, delightful theories. He is a charming talker, a famous wit, and a brilliant intellect. Given the seductive way in which he leads conversation, it is little wonder that Dorian falls under his spell so completely. Lord Henrys theories are radical; they aim to shock and purposefully attempt to topple established, untested, or conventional notions of truth. In the end, however, they prove nave, and Lord Henry himself fails to realize the implications of most of what he says. Although Lord Henry is a self-proclaimed hedonist who advocates the equal pursuit of both moral and immoral experience, he lives a rather staid life. He participates in polite London society and attends parties and the theater, but he does not indulge in sordid behavior. Unlike Dorian, he does not lead innocent youths to suicide or travel incognito to the citys most despised and desperate quarters. Lord Henry thus has little notion of the practical effects of his philosophy. His claim that Dorian could never commit a murder because [c]rime belongs exclusively to the lower orders demonstrates the limitations of his understanding of the human soul. It is not surprising, then, that he fails to appreciate the profound meaning of Dorians downfall.
At the opening of the novel, Dorian Gray exists as something of an ideal: he is the archetype of male youth and beauty. As such, he captures the imagination of Basil Hallward, a painter, and Lord Henry Wotton, a nobleman who imagines fashioning the impressionable Dorian into an unremitting pleasure-seeker. Dorian is exceptionally vain and becomes convinced, in the course of a brief conversation with Lord Henry, that his most salient characteristicshis youth and physical attractivenessare ever waning. The thought of waking one day without these attributes sends Dorian into a tailspin: he curses his fate and pledges his soul if only he could live without bearing the physical burdens of aging and sinning. He longs to be as youthful and lovely as the masterpiece that Basil has painted of him, and he wishes that the portrait could age in his stead. His vulnerability and insecurity in these moments make him excellent clay for Lord Henrys willing hands.
Basil finishes his portrait of Dorian, and gives it to the young man, who keeps it in his home, where he can admire his own beauty. Lord Henry continues to exert his influence over Dorian, to Basil's dismay. Dorian grows more and more distant from Basil, his former best friend, and develops his own interests.
One of these interests is Sybil Vane, a young, exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally talented and exceptionally poor actress. Though she's stuck performing in a terrible, third-rate theatre, she's a truly remarkable artist, and her talent and beauty win over Dorian. He falls dramatically in love with her, and she with him. For a moment, it seems like everything will turn out wonderfully. However, this is just the beginning of Dorian's story. Once he and Sybil are engaged, her talent suddenly disappears she's so overcome with her passionate love for Dorian that none of her roles on stage seem important to her anymore. This destroys Dorian's love for her, and he brutally dumps her. Back home, he notices a something different in his portrait it looks somehow crueler. In the meanwhile, the distraught Sybil commits suicide, just as Dorian decides to return to her and take back his terrible words.
Dorian soon leaves Basils studio for Lord Henrys parlor, where he adopts the tenets of the new Hedonism and resolves to live his life as a pleasure-seeker with no regard for conventional morality. His relationship with Sibyl Vane tests his commitment to this philosophy: his love of the young actress nearly leads him to dispense with Lord Henrys teachings, but his love proves to be as shallow as he is. When he breaks Sibyls heart and drives her to suicide, Dorian notices the first change in his portraitevidence that his portrait is showing the effects of age and experience while his body remains ever youthful. Dorian experiences a moment of crisis, as he weighs his guilt about his treatment of Sibyl against the freedom from worry that Lord Henrys philosophy has promised. When Dorian decides to view Sibyls death as the achievement of an artistic ideal rather than a needless tragedy for which he is responsible, he starts down the steep and slippery slope of his own demise
Sybil's suicide changes everything. At first, Dorian feels horrible but he rather quickly changes his tune. On Lord Henry's suggestion, Dorian reads a mysterious "yellow book," a decadent French novel that makes him reevaluate his whole belief system. The protagonist of the book lives his life in pursuit of sensual pleasures, which intrigues Dorian. From this moment on, Dorian is a changed man.
Dorian starts to live as hedonistically as his wicked mentor, Lord Henry, does. The only thing that documents this turn for the worst is the portrait, which alarmingly begins to exhibit the inward corruption of Dorian's soul; the beautiful image changes, revealing new scars and physical flaws with each of Dorian's dastardly actions. As years pass, the man in the picture grows more and more hideous, as Dorian himself stays unnaturally young and beautiful. Rumors start to spread about the various people whose lives Dorian has ruined, and his formerly good reputation is destroyed.
As Dorians sins grow worse over the years, his likeness in Basils portrait grows more hideous. Dorian seems to lack a conscience, but the desire to repent that he eventually feels illustrates that he is indeed human. Despite the beautiful things with which he surrounds himself, he is unable to distract himself from the dissipation of his soul. His murder of Basil marks the beginning of his end: although in the past he has been able to sweep infamies from his mind, he cannot shake the thought that he has killed his friend. Dorians guilt tortures him relentlessly until he is forced to do away with his portrait. In the end, Dorian seems punished by his ability to be influenced: if the new social order celebrates individualism, as Lord Henry claims, Dorian falters because he fails to establish and live by his own moral code.
On Dorian's 38th birthday, he encounters Basil, who desperately asks his former friend if all the horrifying rumors about him are true. Dorian finally snaps and shows Basil the portrait, in which the horrible truth about his wicked nature is revealed. Basil recoils, and begs Dorian to pray for forgiveness. In response, Dorian murders Basil, stabbing him brutally. He blackmails another of his former friends into disposing of the body.
Dorian retreats to an opium den after dealing with all of the evidence, where he encounters an enemy he didn't know he had Sybil Vane's brother, James. Through a rather complicated turn of events, James (who's on a mission to punish Dorian for his mistreatment of Sybil) ends up dead. Dorian isn't directly responsible, but it's yet another death to add to Dorian's tally of life-wrecking disasters.
Dorian is relieved that his enemy is out of the way, but this event sparks a kind of mid-life crisis: he begins to wonder if his vile but enjoyable lifestyle is worth it. He actually does a good(ish) deed, by decidingnotto corrupt a young girl he's got the hots for, which makes him question his past actions even more. Seeking some kind of reassurance, Dorian talks to Lord Henry, who's not any help at all, unsurprisingly. Dorian even practically admits to murdering Basil, but Henry laughs it off and doesn't believe him.
That night, Dorian returns home in a pensive mood. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he hates his own beauty and breaks the mirror. Again, he vows to be good, but we find out that his various crimes don't really haunt him, because he doesn't consider them his fault. Instead, he selfishly wants to be good so that the painting will become beautiful again. Heartened by this thought, he goes up to see if his recent good deed has improved the painting in fact, it only looks worse. Frustrated, Dorian decides to destroy the picture, the visible evidence of his dreadful crimes, and the closest thing to a conscience he has. Dorian slashes at the painting with the same knife that killed Basil, trying to destroy the work as he did the artist.
A tremendous crash and a terrible cry alert the servants that something very, very bad has happened it's even audible outside the house. Finally, they go upstairs to check it out, and are horrified by what they find: a portrait of their master, as beautiful as ever, hangs on the wall, and a mysterious, grotesquely hideous dead man is lying on the floor with a knife in his heart. Upon close examination, the rings on the dead man's hand identify him as Dorian Gray.