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Aesthetics in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (Essay Sample)


Discuss the portrayal of Aesthetics in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and its impact on the understanding of the role of art in society.

Aesthetics in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
Aesthetics is a philosophical approach to art as a way of appreciating nature and beauty. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray illustrates the aesthetic rendering of art. The novel portrays the glorification of beauty and pursuit of pleasure as the highest ideals in life. However, the tragic end of the novel’s protagonist shows that beauty and pleasure are superficial values that promote moral decadence, leading to the breakdown of the moral fabric that holds society together. This essay discusses the portrayal of aesthetic ideals in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In addition, the essay examines the corrupting influence of an aesthetic understanding of the role of art in society.
The pronouncement by Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Adler 77), offers significant insight for interpreting Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This epigraph raises serious questions on how the major character, Dorian Gray, his friends, and readers, respond to his character and actions. The novel’s thematic concerns focus on the connection between art and morality, with regards to the relationship between an individual’s values and the behavioral patterns he chooses to follow.
The novel portrays the character shaping effect of New Hedonism, an ethic system that glorifies the pursuit of personal pleasure without due regard to societal values (Gillespie 145). This approach to the understanding of works of art absolves characters from being held accountable for their pleasure-seeking actions. Consequently, Dorian pursues pleasure with a free conscience, urged on by his mentor Lord Henry. In his first encounter with Dorian Gray, Lord Henry introduces the naïve youth to the concept of New Hedonism, telling him that “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul” (Wilde 20). This blunt appeal to Dorian to seek pleasure of the senses “rejects the call to duty,” (Gillespie 156) and glorifies self gratification by all means. Thus, he convinces Dorian that his youth and beauty would eventually go into waste as he ages, hence the need to exploit these qualities while they last. He urges him to realize his youth while he has it.
Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar…..The world belongs to you for a season (Wilde 22).
In this assertion, Lord Henry suggests that there are no relevant values to govern individual behavior. Accordingly, Dorian’s pursuits of pleasure at the expense of moral values represent Wilde’s portrayal of the aesthetic role of art. Art provides a medium to freely express individual feelings and pursue one’s fancies. Dorian’s obsession with his youth and physical appearance, and the passion of Basil to capture his (Dorian’s) youth in a portrait suggests art’s glorification of beauty and sensual tastes, a part of human nature that is often suppressed by societal values of morality (Graham 14). Therefore, Wilde portrays art as a means of glorifying beauty through creative imagination. This is made evident through the portrait of Dorian Gray, which exudes beauty and youth. It also serves the aesthetic role of revitalizing wearied senses, as demonstrated by the effect Dorian’s picture has on Lord Henry, who is usually cynical in his approach to life.
Art is also a means to escape the brutal realities of life. Dorian immerses himself in learning about beautiful things and pleasure. He enjoys the good things of life such as rare tapestries and jewels, and music. The yellow book that Lord Henry gives him serves as a distraction from the horror of his immoral actions and guilty conscience by directing his attention to the pursuit of pleasure. His dealing with Vane Sibyl illustrates Dorian’s succumb into the trappings of pleasure and sensual experiences. He seeks sexual gratification without showing any moral implications of his actions. When he feels that Sibyl no appeals to his sexual desires, he cruelly breaks up with her. The fact that Dorian is able to seek pleasure freely depicts the importance that Wilde attaches to the aesthetic philosophy of art.
As a way of celebrating beauty, art removes the restrictions of moral values on sexual relationships. The Victorian society of Wilde’s time frowned upon same-sex relationships. However, The Picture of Dorian Gray portrays homoeroticism as a sign of a refined and civilized culture. Whereas societal conventions condemn the expression of sexual feelings to a member of the same sex, Wilde makes his characters to express this attraction without moral hindrances. Indeed, Basil confesses to Lord Henry (p. 20) that capturing the real image of Dorian, with all his youth and beauty, makes too much of his feelings for his subject to surface. This statement may be interpreted to suggest that Basil is sexually attracted to Dorian. In this case, Basil’s homosexual feelings for Dorian portray the New Hedonistic understanding of art as a way of celebrating and appreciating beauty without any inhibitions. Lord Henry emphasizes this idea when he observes that the desire to appear noble to others suppresses the true manifestation of human nature. According to Lord Henry, human beings are sensual creature given to sensori-emotional tastes such as sexual desires (Graham 15). Not surprisingly, he is overwhelmed by his fondness for Dorian and desire to mold him into a character that embodies his hedonistic ideals. In this regard, the portrayal of erotic feelings and sensuous camaraderie between men reveals Wilde’s aesthetic values. Wilde not only glorifies beauty and youth, but also presents male-to-male physical relationships as a fundamental aspect of refined cultures. Thus, Wilde suggests the possibility of art helping to create a society that is tolerant to homosexuality and the uninhibited pursuit of pleasure. This attitude is perhaps informed by Wilde’s own homosexual tendencies, whereby he uses art to justify his lifestyle (Mossman 3). In his aesthetic approach to art, Wilde suggest that homosexuality is not a sordid vice to be condemned in society, but a sign of a liberal and refined culture.
The Picture of Dorian Gray removes the inhibitions that moral values place upon people’s behaviors. In line with the philosophy of aesthetism, Wilde criticizes moral and ethical values of conduct as a mere pretenses that masks human nature. This is shown through Lord Henry’s lamenting that people like thinking so well of others (upholding societal values) because they are afraid for themselves (their sensual nature). Further, he observes that “We praise the banker that we may overdraw our account, and find good qualities in the highwayman in the hope that he may spare our pockets” (Wilde 74). These values, in Lord Henry’s view, go against human nature by suppressing the freedom for genuine self-expression. The purpose of art, therefore, is to promote the appreciation of beauty and pleasure, and not to a medium for moral enlightenment and social education.
Moreover, through Lord Henry’s cynicism of societal values, Wilde attacks the hypocrisy the Victorian society of his time. His glorification of “new Hedonism” as a standard for guiding human behavior portrays Wilde’s view that conventional morality is bad for the individual. Towards this end, the aesthetic philosophy absolves art from this responsibility by glorifying beauty, nature, and the sensual. Later on, Lord Henry advances a hierarchy of moral standards that contradict universal values of behavior. He advises his young protégé to always aim for pleasure, and live the w...
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