A Student Response to Dorian Gray

One of the major themes running through Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is the fixation that Victorian society had over surface level qualities. Yet the attention to visuals has hardly disappeared in our own time; in fact, it seems to be increasing with improvements to visual communication technologies. In Victorian society, Dorian Gray’s outer image manages to capture the trust and admiration of all those who meet him. From the moment Basil Hallward lays his eyes on Dorian, he describes the experience as coming “face to face with someone whose personality was so fascinating” that Basil feels his nature will be consumed (Wilde 49). For Basil, Dorian’s beauty equates to being an interesting person, as if hours of conversation could be conveyed through perfect cheek bones. Even more fatal for Basil is his belief that Dorian has a “simple and beautiful nature” (Wilde 55), while stating earlier in the same conversation with Henry Wotton that Dorian “seems to take real delight in giving me pain” (Wilde 53). Wilde is foreshadowing Dorian’s capacity for cruelty, but also Basil’s fatal inability to link Dorian’s actions with the image of Dorian that he has in his mind. Just as nearly everyone else does, Basil projects onto Dorian all the best qualities in a person, even when the young man’s actions clearly contradict this image.

Despite being the benefactor of this effect, Dorian also falls for image as well. When he first tells of his enchantment with actress Sybil Vane, he points out only physical features, and in a twist of irony, judges her character based on her ability to play characters from Shakespeare’s plays (Wilde 90). Unfortunately for Sybil, once Dorian’s presence becomes more beautiful than art, she can no longer take art and acting as seriously as she once could, causing the spell she had over Dorian to break. The carefully crafted image she cultivated onstage—albeit one that was rotating through characters—is ruined for Dorian, causing him to feel angered and even betrayed for shattering his illusions (Wilde 124).

As any reader will recognize, this theme of image and projection is universal to many aspects of life; whether “love at first sight” or the image that parents have of their kids and vice versa, there is often an element of refining one’s image, and assuming people’s nature at the heart of many human interactions. Yet perhaps there is no realm more synonymous with this aspect of human life, than that of politics. In today’s democratic society, the modern political campaign for executive office is heavily geared towards maximizing this effect with individual voters. Each campaign must identify which collection of voters they feel they can appeal to, and carefully tailor the image of the candidate towards the ideals of those groups.

The result of this effort on the part of political parties leads to a growing number of daily photo-ops for politicians, as research has shown humans are better at recalling images and the way they felt about them, than recalling verbal information such as the kind delivered in a speech (17 Grabe and Bucy). This trend has had the arguable effect of pitting style above substance in politics as well as creating elections centered on the candidate, rather than focusing on the issues which demand a democratic government in the first place. Among the reasons that we should give pause to this possibility, is the very lesson at the heart of Oscar Wilde’s novel.

As humans, we cannot fully judge a person’s character based on their outward appearance. Indeed, given the right cultivation of image and good looks, we are prone to think more highly of a person than they may deserve, just as the Victorians did of Dorian. Yet if we go no further than judging the surface, we also risk hurting ourselves when we become cynical and feel betrayed by politicians for breaking the illusion that we had of them, exactly as Dorian felt cheated by Sybil Vane (for being a human no less). This particular danger shows itself in the rising amount of political apathy displayed by decreasing volumes of voter turnout in democracies worldwide (Kopf). Additionally, Dorian’s own spiral into depravity is aided by the fact that nobody cares to dig more deeply into his behavior, allowing him to feel capable of getting away with more reprehensible acts. We ought to consider if a similar effect might not be had on politicians whose misdeeds go unnoticed or unpunished, and the message that sends to the one who will eventually replace them. In the end, characters such as Dorian Gray are shaped by the societies which allow them to flourish.

Works Cited

Grabe, Maria Elizabeth, and Erik Page Bucy. Image Bite Politics : News and the Visual          Framing of Elections, Oxford University Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central,           https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.macewan.ca/lib/macewan-       ebooks/detail.action?docID=415422.

Kopf, Dan. “Voter turnout is dropping dramatically in the free world” Quartz        https://qz.com/899586/global-voter-turnout-is-dropping-dramatically-across-the-world/

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Edited by Norman Page, Broadview, 2005.

11 thoughts on “A Student Response to Dorian Gray

  1. This cultural fascination on visuals is an interesting concept. I imagine that it is something of a universal idea, running back long before the Victorian era as well. I also think that there is something special about the way that Wilde portrays the concept. He is obviously affected by his views on aesthetic principles. Though he does present Dorian as being a despicable character, it is still difficult to think that Wilde didn’t admire his beauty as well. Wilde never really concedes that vanity and beauty are inherently evil. Much like the cult of personality that politicians create to influence the vote, it all depends on the politician. Some will even cultivate identities of kindness if they think that is what people want to see. I think you are right to say that both the image, and what lies underneath, are both important in creating meaning, and it may be dangerous to separate the two.

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    • Your analysis paints a very vivid picture of society as a whole. In many ways, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a cautionary tale. Dorian’s surface level materialism is rooted in vanity. At one point, just prior to Sybil’s suicide we think Dorian is about to acknowledge his faults and show us, the reader, some humility. Instead, her death acts as a pivotal moment. At first, he is grief stricken. However, this changes over time with the influence of Lord Henry who expresses Dorian indulge in life’s more sensual pleasures. His soul becomes corrupted. The interesting point though, is that Oscar Wilde doesn’t present it as a cautionary tale as I suggested. In many ways, he was a huge proponent of this hedonistic outlook. The element of time, death itself, and Wilde himself all speak to the fact that humans, in all walks of life, can be shaped by those around us and it has for centuries. There are no signs of this slowing down.

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    • Thank you for the input! Yes, the concept probably does go back quite a ways, at least as far back as Ulysses dressing as a beggar once he reaches his home island, allowing his wife’s would be suitor to under estimate him. It’s certainly fascinating contemplating the paradox that is Oscar Wilde, he seems both aestheticism strongest champion, and yet able to see above it. I don’t think Wilde concedes vanity is inherently evil either, its a source of fun that he probably used quite a bit.

      Let’s hope people keep critically thinking about political advertisements–maybe all advertisements really!

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  2. Fantastic analysis on individualistic perception towards beauty! In this post, you discuss how people perceive others and how society influences an individual’s self-image. Unfortunately, this image is constantly changing as life moves forward because an individual encounters different people, places and events while society is evolving into a more modern or evolved era. Dorian is seen as a breathtakingly picturesque man who is at the peak of his beauty (according to Basil). However, Dorian wants to keep this prime appearance frozen in time with the desire to prevent society’s opinion from changing its perception about him. This fantasy begins to shatter once Sybil’s performance looses her lustre, due to her exposure and acceptance of love between her and “Prince Charming” (Wilde 100). This event shatters Dorian’s belief that everything will remain the same (seen at the top of his game socially and physically), leading him into a state of bewilderment. Knowing that he does not have complete control over the world around him and how others perceive him (based on his actions, rather than his appearance), pushes him into a state of paranoia and madness.

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  3. Both youth and surface are equated to first impressions that contain potentiality to be anything for the imagination in The Picture of Dorian Gray; however, it is a lack of introspection on Dorian’s part in terms of admitting to his own vanity that causes him to evade responsibility for his actions. Dorian becomes a character that cannot be redeemed due to his own disbelief in his own means for change. Dorian abandons the mere idea of changing himself, as he has come to represent not only what others have shaped him to be, but what he himself has accepted himself as being. It is the risk of going beyond the surface that exposes one to risk and danger, but this is where substance is to be found; however, it is the fear of betraying others and ourselves that maintains complacency. Within a political or personal endeavor, one is likely to cling to the evil that is known over that which is not. Cynicism and apathy are not just symptoms of being unable to trust others as a result of misdeeds that go unpunished, rather, such notions come from one’s own self-doubt that one will not inevitably conform to the very thing that one denounces.

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  4. Thank you for this fascinating discussion of the ways in which society tends to equate physical beauty with good character. We also saw this notion in Lady Audley’s Secret, as Lady Audley’s sweet and child-like appearance caused some characters to believe she was just as innocent and sweet on the inside. I am struck by your comparisons to appearance being important in political campaigns. I just would like to add that this equating of physical appearance with character often falls on women (though it obviously affects men, too). There have been experiments where male news anchors and politicians have worn the same suit every day for a year and no one noticed, but female politicians and news anchors have their every outfit criticized and conflated with their personality.

    Thanks for your insights on this intriguing topic.

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  5. This blog post is super thought-provoking, and the parallel the writer draws between Dorian and modern politics is thoughtful and creative. The study the writer cites about appearances in political campaigns is unsettling and scary (because propaganda!), and tempted me to make a joke about the Cheetos aesthetic, but I won’t go there.

    This post (and the blog post comparing Dorian and selfies) has me thinking about how else Dorian compares to modern life. The writer is absolutely correct in pointing out the fallacy of people perceiving attractive individuals as inherently good. But what about the trope that, say, Mean Girls presents? Of the attractive woman automatically being perceived as a bitch, often times by other women. This trope is equally as harmful. It perpetuates the shallow idea that women pit themselves against each other based on their appearances, and jealousies about said appearances.

    P.S. The same thing that happens with Dorian happens with Lady Audley, hey? Her beauty offers her a sort of immunity from suspicion too, at least for awhile.

    Thank you, writer, for your original topic, and your thorough research. This post is an interesting and edifying read.

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  6. This is awesome insight into how appearance plays such a central role in Dorian Gray! This analysis leads me into thinking deeply into how Dorian and his portrait act as a translation of a public persona verses an someone’s actual personality that they keep guarded. Dorian literally keeps himself hidden away as he hides away the portrait, and only every allows others to see the Doran Gray he wants them to see. When Basil finally sees what has become of the portrait, it’s like an exposé on Dorian’s whole character. Basil may be the painter, but Dorian did well as someone akin to being a con artist for most of his life.

    Though it’s died down a bit now, your connections to modern politics immediately brought to mind the Trudeau trip to India for myself. And how many times I’ve seen comments on the internet from people from other countries about how one of the good points of our Prime Minister is that he photographs like a model. As if that’s going to impact the quality of his leadership. It’s a highly relevant topic that does not get as much attention as it deserves. Thank you for writing on it!

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  7. The connection you make between the image of Dorian Gray and the image of the politicians is interesting, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s interesting how we react when a candidate breaks the illusion they portrayed during their campaign. Your take on Dorian’s persona and how it affects those around him is an intriguing comparison to the political candidates and how they portray themselves.

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  8. It was quite interesting to read your comments on “love at first sight” and the idea of “one’s image” taking a turn to address political issues. The fascination with visuals dating back to the Victorian era has grown to become a universal concept. Your analysis of this concept effectively addresses Wilde’s take on the reliance on visuals and society’s dependence on aesthetic ideals. Dorian is an abdominal character, nevertheless Wilde chooses to highlight his beauty and youth throughout the novel. This proves the aesthetic principle that art supasses moral restraints, sine Dorian’s sinister acts do not take a direct toll on his beauty. The idea of Dorian being this picturesque man, with never ending youth hides his grotesque acts of evil due to the portrait – a visual. Society is exposed to his beauty and is kept from the reality and consequences of his actions. Due to this, your comparison to political issues is justifiable since political leaders, like Justin Trudeau, gain attention in media solely for their appearances. The passage where you mentioned this parallel made me reevaluate the media coverage for Trudeau’s trip to India since they questioned his outfits rather than his goals or mission for the trip. Another relatable character to Dorian would be Lady Audley, since her admirable and innocent appearance veil her malicious nature and actions. Your post sheds light on the ongoing issue surrounding physical appearance taking precedence over personalities and where this may lead us as a society.

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  9. I am super happy to see a parallel in the aesthetic representations of innocence represented through Beauty in Dorian and Helen! The interpretation of Basil is bang on, in my opinion. I enjoyed reading the way that Basil was so protective over Dorian and trying to keep him from being “corrupted” by Lord Henry. And later, even when presented with Dorian’s corruptions and bodily poisons, Basil refuses to give up on the idea of innocence and presses Dorian to pray for forgiveness in an attempt to save him. Of course resulting in the murder of Basil.

    Going in the ideas of the physical appearance and politics. The Dorito Orange of Trump, the memes that came out right after Trudeau was elected (you know him being young and “hot” and charity boxing), as mentioned above, the Indian attitre in India. All of these physical representations as interpretations of people are fascinating in comparison. Especially in the realm of politics where all you get from those above us are their image and their “words” so that is an interesting parallel.

    Great work!

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