Paradoxical Aestheticism in The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde rejects the tired conventions of Realism and suggests that the cure for this vulgarity is pure Aestheticism, which, as he expresses in The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a seemingly unattainable ideal. Lord Henry Wotton, or Prince Paradox as he is so appropriately dubbed, uses paradoxical epigrams throughout the novel to express this distain for reason and the general boredom with Realism. The Picture of Dorian Gray is itself a paradox that suggests the way to live life to its fullest potential is to live for pleasure and what is beautiful and to reject vulgarity and ugliness. And yet, throughout the book, we see that this decadent, pleasure seeking, absorption in physical beauty, leads Dorian to turn into something quite ugly. Dorian’s Aesthetic lifestyle was not what Lord Wotton had promised. Here, I find myself wondering if this book is promoting Aestheticism at all, as it seems to be warning against it. Perhaps, however, Wilde is pointing out a misinterpretation of Aestheticism and the failure of the Victorians, as well as himself, to maintain its ideals.
The dismissal of morals is a common theme in the Aesthetic movement as we have seen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, particularly in the scene with the duchess where she states: “how fond she is in finding morals in things” (Carroll 130). Presumably, this is in reference to society and the tendency to write only with the purpose of teaching a moral, as is the role of writing in the Realist tradition. Wilde rejects this notion in the preface when he claims that “all art is quite useless” (Wilde 42). Walter Pater also makes claims about art’s purpose suggesting that it is for art’s own sake, and to give “nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake” (Pater 213). And yet there certainly seems to be a moral in this book, consequently, giving Dorian Gray yet another over-arching paradox. Wilde wrote in a letter, as Dickson cites in A Mirror that Mirrors the Soul, which states: “I cannot understand how they [referring to the literary critics and newspapers] treat Dorian Gray as immoral. My difficulty was to keep the inherent moral subordinate to the artistic and dramatic effect, and it still seems to me that the moral is too obvious” (Dickson 3). It is hard not to see the very obvious moral of Dorian Gray, who lived to excess, purely in pursuit of pleasure, and was miserable, alone, and dead at a young age. So, if Aestheticism is the approach by which we are to “burn always with a hard-gem like flame” and to “maintain ecstasy always” (Pater 211), then why is The Picture of Dorian Gray such an unfortunate example? If Wilde wanted to promote Aestheticism, why is there a very apparent moral warning against what he claims to believe in?
Wilde is perhaps satirizing the bastardization of true Aestheticism, which was prevalent in the later Victorian period. Wilde argues that the reason for this failure to achieve a truly Aesthetic lifestyle is due to the divorce of body and soul. Basil states, “The harmony of soul and body—how much that is! We in our madness have separated the two and have invented a Realism that is vulgar, an ideality that is void” (Wilde 52). Wilde quite literally shows this divorce of body and soul when Dorian sells his for beauty. His body thereafter imitates art, as it stays just as beautiful as the day he was painted, but his soul imitates life as it reflects all the ugly and deplorable acts of Dorian Gray, thus creating the vulgar Realism that Basil refers to. The aim of Aestheticism is to make ones whole self, body and soul, beautiful: a detail that Dorian Gray and Victorian society, seem to have forgotten.
Carroll, Lewis and Richard Kelly. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1998.
Dickson, Donald R. “’In a mirror that mirrors the soul’: Masks and Mirrors in Dorian Gray.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 26.1 (1983): 5-15.
Pater, Walter. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Macmillan and Company, 1873.
Wilde, Oscar, and Norman Page. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1998.