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'The Picture of Dorian Gray' by Oscar Wilde (Pt. 3)

Part 3: The Theoretical Lenses

By Annie KapurPublished 5 years ago 11 min read

Now that we have gone through how Dorian's identity is changed and influenced, we are going to look through some lenses to do with the novel and the character of Dorian. The two lenses we will use are: orientalism and aestheticism. We will then contextually compare The Picture of Dorian Gray in terms of the protagonist's character, to a work written before it and therefore more traditionally gothic than Wilde's novel and then, a work written after it, and therefore more into the era of 20th Century Realism.

Edward Said was the leading theorist on orientalism and there were various statements he has made in the past that we can link into this novel in order to explore and critique the way in which authority and influence work together in the tragedy of Dorian's life. It was also said who began to critique 19th century British imperialism and offer a more binary look at how the British saw the rest of the world.

In the novel, this is depicted as the way in which Dorian dedicates himself to a life of debauchery following the Faustian pact. As in the 19th century only the aristocrats could afford artwork, it shows that degeneracy and wealth are tied together. In oriental theory this is a depiction of the fall of the rich, wealthy man to immoral acts because of the luxury that is considered to be artwork.

It is phrased in "Imperialism, Aestheticism and Gothic Confrontation in The Picture of Dorian Gray" as:

"Oscar Wilde offers his readers a glimpse of what the downfall of British imperialism might look like if art were entirely to fall victim to excess and degeneracy" (Scheilbe, E. 2014).

The idea that these luxuries such as artwork would be the cause of the downfall of the occident-thriving character is something that was new to the Gothic; the idea that it is the luxury that the character spends incredible amounts of money, self and time thinking about presents irony when the character must destroy it in order to regain their true selves. It is even more ironic when this thing has no real life value and is simply there for the pleasure of its subject.

Another theory in Orientalism concentrates on the "other," or more precisely, Wilde's "attention to foreign models" in order to present the gothic aesthetic. The act of corruption, for many years, has been reserved for many domestic or city gothic novels and this one is no exception. In chapter one, the aristocratic sense of musing and corrupting material items is depicted as a piece of foreshadowing. Dorian corrupts the painting by acting immorally, and we know this is true from how the novel turns out. But, it is very clear that someone has corrupted items before him.

Now, it is very well known in orientalism that the more "eastern" or "oriental" the object is, the more direct the corruption upon the product will be. Since a painting is reserved for the occident and the rich, the corruption is far more indirect. But, the most direct form of corruption upon an item is Lord Henry smoking on the Persian Saddlebags and therefore, tainting them:

"From the corner of the divan of Persian saddlebags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms..."

This oriental image is prominent in the text as the Opium Dens attended by Dorian and Henry show a more vivid image of the "other"—and with the opium, it is tainted by the smokers of the occident. Therefore, it is not only Dorian's personality that is tainted through influence in the novel, we could take this more direct tainting of the oriental items as a metaphor for Dorian's personality. It would sound like this:

The "other" items of the orient are a metaphor for Dorian's personality as, most of the time they are described as beautiful, but a lot else is overlooked. They are both tainted by the influence or direction of Lord Henry and therefore, both suffer the same fate of becoming destroyed.

As we know, Oscar Wilde was an aesthete, a theorist of aestheticism. Aestheticism's grounds work on the appreciation of "art for art's sake"—a line from Walter Pater's History of the Renaissance philosophy text. This was a text that drove aesthetes like Wilde on in the subject. We're going to go through what Wilde has to say about his text by looking at the cryptic but evocative preface he puts at the beginning of it.

The very first thing Wilde states is, "The artist is the creator of beautiful things." Now, this can refer to one of two things. The first of which is that Wilde thinks that he is the artist and this piece of literature is a beautiful thing. This is what happens when we look at the surface, Wilde is massaging his own ego and therefore, making the assumption that the book is beautiful before the reader has read it. But there is little doubt on the fact that this book is beautiful.

The second of which is that Basil is the creator of beautiful things. As he is in polar opposition with Lord Henry, this would mean that Lord Henry is the creator of ugly things, rather the destroyer of beautiful things. And of course, the "beautiful thing" is, in fact, Dorian. This shows that Wilde has pitted the two against each other at the very beginning. The aesthete sees this as the way in which the artist states what is beautiful and, therefore, has no meaning. The "art for art's sake" line can only make sense if the beautiful thing, or the art piece/subject, has little or no meaning and is only there to be appreciated.

"To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim," is the very next line. This is most obviously implying that there is something about the artwork that reveals and conceals Basil's own personality when it comes to his opinion of Dorian Gray. It is well-documented that there are homosexual undertones in this novel and thus, Basil is "concealing" these parts of himself in fear of being persecuted and revealing his own aesthetic appreciation for Dorian. This "revealing" must be an aesthetic appreciation for the reader to assume it has little or no meaning or context. It is a simple appreciation of youth, that is all. The artwork is what reflects this and it is Basil who states he shall never exhibit it as he has disturbed this reveal/conceal equilibrium and "put too much of (himself)" into the painting. Thus, Dorian's version of himself is shown to him as a personality of Basil; the amount of aesthetic appreciation put into the painting has reflected back on the subject as looking substantially better than himself in reality.

The next statement Wilde makes is: "The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things." The critic is most obviously Lord Henry. Lord Henry manages to "translate" Dorian's true nature and impress upon him an idea which destroys and morphs Basil's appreciation of the subject and the subject's appreciation of himself. Lord Henry is by far the most philosophical in the novel and therefore, makes a great impression on the mind of the "beautiful thing" and his impression of the "beautiful thing" gives background to its beauty and context to its depth. Therefore, demoralising it in the eyes of an aesthete who would state that meaning should not be impressed upon the beautiful thing in order to keep it beautiful.

Wilde then goes on to discuss the relationship between Basil and the painting and Henry and the subject. He states this as, "The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography." When Basil states that he has "put too much of himself" into the painting, this is seen as the "highest" form of criticism. This is the mode of autobiography in which art "conceals and reveals the artist" and this is "art's aim" according to the author. Therefore, Basil is serving us something of high criticism based on the subject's aesthetics. This must mean that his polar opposite, Lord Henry, serves us the lowest form. Lord Henry "translates" and therefore, destroys the "beautiful thing". Thus, he gives the reader a reason to believe that he was, in this circumstance, a villainous character. His autobiography is impressed upon the subject and therefore, the subject reflects this back on to the artwork, giving the artwork a controversial meaning and thus, digging below the surface to make a context followed by a Faustian pact. Being that this is caused by the autobiographical philosophies of Lord Henry, this is the lowest form of criticism.

Wilde follows this with a statement cementing the fact that Lord Henry has found an "ugliness" in the "beautiful thing" and therefore, corrupts it to the point of disaster. Wilde's statement is that: "Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault." Thus, the next statement, which is the polar opposite to this one, must apply to Basil as being the one for which the beautiful thing means only beauty: "Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty."

In this statement, Wilde addresses the book and how books and art cannot be "moral" or "immoral"—"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." This is not a reference to the book itself, but the book as in the yellow book Henry gives to Dorian. This book is known as the "immoral" book and teaches Dorian how to be "immoral" when in fact, according to Wilde it is not anything of a sort. According to Wilde, the book is, in fact, simply written badly so that the ideas are not put across to be understood and appreciated, but rather interpreted. It seems that to Wilde, both Henry and Dorian interpreted the ideas in the wrong way if they believe this book was to teach a life of hedonism.

As we have discussed previously, Basil represents realism and Henry represents romanticism with Dorian in between them representing the Fin-De-Siècle. Wilde states this about the two eras:

"The 19th century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass." These statements are cryptic, but if we first consider what each of these eras mean in context of what Wilde is stating about reflection and meaning, we can figure out how they relate to the characters and thus, how this relates to the subject.

Realism is, most obviously, looking at the everyday lives of real people. In literature, this is the works of Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway. This began at the end of the 19th century and therefore, is represented by Basil as he is a real person with a real job.

Romanticism is the concentration on the individual self, emotion and the sublime in order to achieve great art. In literature this is the works of Lord Byron, John Keats and Percy Shelley. This is the second leg of romanticism and began in the beginnings of the 19th century. It is represented by Lord Henry as he is the most philosophical out of the two men and he concentrates on the pleasures of the self not being related to the moral or the immoral.

In the Fin De Siècle, these two things were each trying to make their mark and therefore, we get the struggle of Dorian's character. Dorian is Basil's friend, representing the turning into the 20th century, but is constantly pulled and held back by things left behind by romanticism. The teachings of romanticism therefore spill over into the 20th century and stay around long after they are welcome. The influence of realism is thus making far less of an impact and is drowned out by the criticism upon romanticism rather than the want for realism that comes with the next century and the end of the 19th century.

Oscar Wilde then goes on to talk about how art has to be "useless" in terms of meaning to be appreciated. He states that a man can only be forgiven of making a useful thing as long as he doesn't admire it. This means that the making of a useful thing that is given meaning must only be useful to others as its meaning is up for criticism. Whereas, art criticism cannot be so as "all art is quite useless" and to be appreciated it must be for its beauty only. Dorian is the "beautiful thing" and rejects aestheticism in order to give his life meaning, this is a fault and therefore, as he gives his life more meaning it is up for criticism. He cannot live without intrigue and thus, his downfall is a result of "usefulness" becoming intensely admired.

The aesthete would criticise Dorian's want for his life to become useful as he cannot admire it as it does; this would result into the criticisms of others plaguing his life (which they do in the novel) and so, he is forced to destroy the "useless" thing that forced him to give his own life meaning and usefulness.

In the next part, we will look at Oscar Wilde's only novel in comparison to others.


About the Creator

Annie Kapur

195K+ Reads on Vocal.

English Lecturer

🎓Literature & Writing (B.A)

🎓Film & Writing (M.A)

🎓Secondary English Education (PgDipEd) (QTS)

📍Birmingham, UK

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