A Student Response to Dorian Gray

Thoughts about the Conceptions of Beauty in The Picture of Dorian Gray

The notion of beauty and what constitutes beauty, comes up frequently within Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, especially as Dorian himself encompasses what is perceived to be beauty. However, this image raises fundamental questions that surface even in our own society today. What is beauty and at what price are we willing to pursue this ideal?

Basil and Lord Henry have a fascinating conversation in which they ponder the nature of beauty. Accordingly, “it is better not to be different from one’s fellows”(45)  and as such, ugliness and stupidity rank above that of intelligence and beauty. I have to disagree on the context of this remark, I believe that ‘ugliness’ is not specific to one’s looks; ugliness is subjective. A person can be beautiful on the outside and treat people badly, and it is this type of person that, to me, is ugly. In this context, the portrait of Dorian is a physical manifestation of his inner ugliness while his exterior remains young and flawless.

At what cost are we willing to preserve our outer beauty though? In an instance, Dorian bargains away his soul for eternal beauty and lives a life of decadence, but all the while, his inner beauty is rotting away. So what is wrong with imperfections? To me, the wrinkles on one’s face are a work of art that tells the story of the individual. Each line on a persons face is a story or a memory yet to be told, like the laugh lines around my mouth; they are a result of long hours laughing at the silliest of things with my sister and my best friend, laughing so hard that our stomach’s hurt as we struggle to breath. I would not want to get rid of these lines for anything because this is beauty in itself. So, I pose a question, which would you rather have: eternal beauty or an inner beauty that radiates outward?

Basil suggests that there “is a fatality about all physical and intellectual distinction” (45) but I think he is missing the point. Yes we as human beings are vulnerable creatures, but we should not allow our intellect or our physical appearance to keep us in the shadows. We should embrace our differences and our intelligence. These qualities are what make us who we are and without them we would all be the same, doomed to walk in a world without colour, without beauty, and without individuality. I do not think we should live “undisturbed, indifferent, and without disquiet” (45) but rather, we should embrace our unique qualities.

Even though Harry suggests that “being natural is simply a pose” (46), I think that there is something to be said about naturality. By not putting on a mask, or trying to alter onesself by conforming to the ‘ideal’ body image, we are at least staying true to ourselves and not putting on airs to be someone we are not. As Oscar Wilde suggests in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, masks can be deceiving and can lend themselves only as convers for the true self.

I know that in this day and age it is becoming harder and harder to stay true to oneself and not to want to alter your appearance to fit with all those images you see. I have gone through the same thing myself, but as I read Dorian Gray, I find myself thinking more on what it means to be beautiful in my own eyes. As a hobby photographer, I see beauty around me everywhere I go, from the sunrise in the morning to the slightest angle of a tree blowing in the breeze. So why then can I not see beauty in myself? Maybe these ‘ideals’ that are being forced upon us by unknown entities should not be taken as hard concrete rules to be followed. The Portrait of Dorian Gray in a way stands as a warning against undo emphasis on outer beauty. As such, maybe these advertising images of beauty can be used as inspiration so that we can externalize our own inner beauty in a way that stays true to ourselves, so that at the end of the day, our blemishes, wrinkles, and laugh-lines reflect the lives we have lived and the stories we have created.

3 thoughts on “A Student Response to Dorian Gray

  1. *Let’s try this again, shall we?*

    Dear OP,

    I’m interested in your suggestion that we refuse the impulse to don a mask or conform to idealized standards of beauty. These are noble goals, to be sure, but can we really conflate the two? And what of the psychological theory of “masking”? I, too, noticed myriad masks throughout Wilde’s work and I would like to hear your thoughts on these masks, but first I am curious to know whether or not you see value in donning a mask. I don’t mean to suggest that anyone take it as far as Dorian, or even Lord Henry, by the way, but what of self-preservation? (Not in the literal sense, of course, but in a social sense.)

    S.

    Postscript–To clarify for anyone reading who may not be familiar with the idea of “masking,” it is, in very simple terms, the persona that one presents to the outside world. We all do this to an extent–smiling instead of crying, lying about your identity online, &c.–and it can be just as innocuous or as devious as one wants. Furthermore, it is important to note that masking is not necessarily a conscious action.

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  2. Stacey and OP,
    You bring up an interesting point. A while back there was trend of people posting pictures on facebook with #nomakeup #allnatural #nofilter. Not to generalize, but I would assume that most of those “natural pictures” were staged with head tilts, lighting adjustments and camera angles, as we all do when taking a selfie. I’m also sure that some people wore makeup or edited themselves to present a flawless natural “I woke up like this” look. I think this is a ironic modern example of the quote OP used: “being natural is simply a pose.” Thus, although we may remove our literal makeup masks, we are still presenting ourselves, masked by the natural pose, to the world. As Stacey pointed out, these masks are for self preservation. If someone were to criticize my very styled and deliberate “natural selfie”, I can still protect my self image by reasoning that it is not the real me. But if I were to put my true self out there, without any masks, and someone criticized the essence of my soul, then I have no mechanisms to protect myself. I think this is why Dorian is so scared to show anyone his portrait. It is the essence of his soul, unmasked, leaving Dorian vulnerable.

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  3. Hello OP,
    I agree with you, Dorian does indeed possess a beautiful appearance but he harbors a hideous soul which the portrait showcases. Many of the novel’s characters possess a beautiful physical appearance but very few have inner beauty. Lord Henry is certainly not a person who can described as having a beautiful soul or mind, he is corruptive and manipulative, perhaps Basil and Aunt Agatha could be considered of the few characters who have some inner beauty. As for not hiding behind masks and being true to oneself, I think everyone wears or hides behind a mask at some point – unconsciously or not. It could be as simple as a false smile or emotion or a “I’m fine” when the person is not. We all don masks or personas to hide our real self rather than be true to who we really are.

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