Aestheticism in Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

Seminar Paper, 2010

18 Pages, Grade: 2.0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Aestheticism and Wilde’s Concept of Art

3. Aesthetic Behavior and Moral Beliefs
3.1 Basil Hallward
3.2 Sibyl Vane
3.3 Lord Henry Wotton and New Hedonism
3.4 Dorian Gray and Narcissism

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, can be considered a revolutionary piece of literature not only because it broke out of the traditional value and belief pattern of the Victorian society but also because it replaced the traditional pattern with new concepts coined by Wilde and his former tutors.

Several themes such as homoeroticism, an aesthetic lifestyle or influence and corruption, were issues that many had been afraid to address in the time before Wilde.

In this research paper, I will place my main focus on the matter of aestheticism, the causes that it has and the consequences that result from an aesthetic lifestyle. In order to analyze these aspects, it is inevitable to have a closer look at Oscar Wilde’s beliefs about art and morality which serve as a basis for understanding the main character’s behavior in the novel.

To begin my paper, I will outline Wilde’s thoughts on art and aestheticism as presented in his famous selection, Intentions, which consists of a number of essays and dialogues on aesthetics as well as his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that has been regarded as Wilde’s personal praise of aestheticism. This background information is essential to understanding the main character’s motivations in the story, which can often be related to Wilde’s life as an artist.

I will then make a detailed analysis of the characters Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton, Sibyl Vane and Dorian Gray and will explain how their aesthetic behavior and their moral beliefs can be linked to Wilde’s thoughts.

To end, I will attempt to summarize my findings referring to the statement that Wilde also included criticism of aestheticism in his novel.

2. Aestheticism and Wilde’s Concept of Art

The term ‘aestheticism’ derives from Greek, meaning “perceiving through senses” and is a nineteenth-century European concept that rejects the moral rules and conventions of Victorian society, and focuses instead on beauty and the resulting pleasure in life.

Since it is hard to nail down ‘aestheticism’ to one definition and since it has different meanings to different people, I will take a closer look at Oscar Wilde's thoughts about this concept, in order to better understand the correlation between this idea, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

When it was first published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine on 20 June 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray was attacked fiercely as it suggested a new set of moral beliefs and a new norm for the popular aestheticism of 1890s England.

As a reply to these accusations, Wilde, who was not the inventor but rather “a major spokesman for the Aesthetic Movement in the late 19thcentury” (Breda 1), decided to revise his novel by adding a foreword and six new chapters.

His most celebrated preface to the novel became a manifesto of aestheticism and represents a great “debate over art and morality” (Lawler vii). In it, Wilde points out that “the artist is the creator of beautiful things.

To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” (Wilde 3). People who see “ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming” (Wilde

3) and only those who recognize the positive meanings in art are considered “cultivated” (Wilde 3). This illustrates that art should be beautiful and pleasurable to the observer without having any further-reaching influence. We can find a very similar statement in Wilde’s The Decay of Lying, when Vivian says, “Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of my new aesthetics.” (Weintraub 194). People who search for meaning and regard it as a means of guidance are mistaken and are therefore corrupt. There is no distinction between moral and immoral acts. There exists only a distinction that differentiates between the increase and decrease of one’s happiness. Wilde makes this clear by claiming that, “there is no such thing as a moral or an book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” (Wilde 3). An aesthete therefore has to make choices without paying attention to moral or didactic issues. Duggan summarizes this aspect nicely, stating, “aestheticism advocate[s] whatever behavior was likely to maximize the beauty and happiness in one’s life, in the tradition of hedonism” (Duggan 61).

Wilde continues in substantiating the role of the artist in stating that, “no artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.” (Wilde 3). This definition is clearly extended to life itself by limiting aestheticism not only to art but also including literature, music and any kind of work that creates pleasure.

One of the 25 aphorisms declares that, “it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors” (Wilde 3). Again, Wilde has formulated a phrase in The Decay of Lying that corresponds: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” (Weintraub 195). This shows that to the aesthete the ideal life mimics art and that even though art might be attractive, it is at the same time useless beyond its beauty.

For the sake of completeness, Wilde mentions two other doctrines that are part of Aestheticism as Vivian summarizes it:

All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art's rough material, but before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything.” (Weintraub 195)

This doctrine displays the ‘art for art’s sake’ mentality clearly, which is perfected by Wilde’s statement, “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art” (Weintraub 195).

Wilde concludes his preface by saying, “All art is quite useless” (Wilde 4), meaning that even though art has the purpose of creating beauty and pleasure, it has no further use beyond its elegance.

This somewhat abstract definition of Wilde’s doctrines of aestheticism will help us to understand the main character’s behavior in The Picture of Dorian Gray more easily. Even though this is based on his most important essays and the author’s take on the ideal aesthetic lifestyle, we will learn also that Wilde poses warnings toward the concept of aestheticism if it is not executed accurately1.

3. Aesthetic Behavior and Moral Beliefs

Keeping the concepts and ideas of Aestheticism in mind, as Wilde defines them, we will now take a closer look at the four main characters: Basil Hallward, Sibyl Vane, Lord Henry Wotton and Dorian Gray.

Each one of the characters lives up to certain aesthetic ideals, despite gradual changes in behavior which we can witness throughout the novel. It will be my goal to identify the issues that can be found within the characters and explain the reasons for their change of personality.

3.1 Basil Hallward

Even though Basil seems to be less interesting than Dorian or Lord Henry on the surface, his character deserves to have much attention paid to it, since Wilde himself remarked that “’Basil Hallward is what I think I am’” (Charlesworth 396). Being a pseudo-mirror image of Wilde, several critics regard Basil Hallward as the central character in the novel (Kohl 250).

The artist Basil Hallward is referred to as “the painter” (Wilde 5) throughout the novel, which emphasizes his solidarity with art which influences his attitudes towards art and beauty. He understands his obligation as an artist and works according to Wilde’s statement from the preface: “to reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim” (Wilde 3). Hallward's understanding of his artistic responsibilities becomes blatantly clear when he states that, “an artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them” (Wilde 13). Basil also agrees with Wilde’s concept of aesthetic beauty by mentioning that, “it had all been what art should be – unconscious, ideal and remote” (Wilde 92). To summarize, the painter had created art for the sake of beauty and without any further-reaching thoughts, following the main ideals of Wilde's new aestheticism perfectly.

All this changes when Basil meets Dorian Gray for the first time. He is tremendously fascinated from the first second that he sees Dorian’s face.

I turned half-way round and saw Dorian Gray for the first time. When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself. (Wilde 9)

Here it becomes clear that Basil sees Dorian’s presence not only as an inspiration, but also as art itself. Hallward sees the young man as an embodiment of “an entirely new manner in art, an entirely new mode of style.” (Wilde 12). It becomes apparent that Basil has violated his former understanding of aestheticism and has betrayed Wilde’s ideas when he states, “I see things differently, I think of them differently. I can now recreate life in a way that was hidden from me before.” (Wilde 12)

After painting the portrait, Basil becomes more and more allured to the beautiful man until eventually his life revolves around him. Dorian has such a great influence on the artist that he even confesses to homosexuality and explains in what way Gray has changed his art and his life:

Dorian, from the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me. I was dominated, soul, brain, and power, by you. You became to me the visible incarnation of that unseen ideal whose memory haunts us artists like an exquisite dream. I worshipped you. I grew jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you. When you were away from me, you were still present in my art Of course, I never let you know anything about this. It would have been impossible. You would not have understood it. I hardly understood it myself. I only knew that I had seen perfection face to face, and that the world had become wonderful to my eyes--too wonderful, perhaps, for in such mad worships there is peril, the peril of losing them, no less than the peril of keeping them. (Wilde 92)

On the one hand, his affection for Dorian inspires him artistically. On the other hand however, it causes a conflict between his idealistic perception and reality. His philosophy of life is very moralistic and idealistic, characterized by values such as “goodness”, “purity”, “a clean name” and “a fair record”, all of which serve as a basis for evaluating both Dorian’s and his own behavior (Kohl 252).

When Dorian recognizes the change in the portrait, his relationship to Basil changes radically. Hallward had always tried to follow social , stating that, “it is better not to be different from one's fellows.” (Wilde 7) in order to save oneself from social disintegration. However, he has to accept Dorian’s rejection when he says, “’I owe a great deal to Harry, Basil,’ he [Dorian] said at last, ‘more than I owe to you. You only taught me to be vain.’" (Wilde 88). In this passage of the novel, one gets the impression that Basil has a premonition of what is going to happen to him. He declares, “Well, I am punished for that, Dorian - or shall be some day,” (Wilde 88) which might be a reference to the fact that he himself thinks that he has put too much of himself into the portrait and will be punished because of this betrayal of his idealistic concept of art (Kohl 251).

Before his death, Basil is confronted with the portrait and blamed for the alteration by Dorian. When the artist tries to bring him to justice, Gray sees no other solution but to kill Basil2.

In the scholastic realm, much has been talked about the reasons for Basil’s death, but Kohl’s summary of explanations is accurate: “Der Maler versucht, aus seinem Modell ein dauerhaftes, den Wandlungen der Zeit nicht unterworfenes Ideal zu formen und muss erkennen, dass er sich geirrt hat” (Kohl 252). Basil wanted the “Dorian Gray […] [he] used to paint“ (Wilde 88), but never did receive him. Dorian Gray had influenced the painter’s life so significantly that he had abandoned his former beliefs. Basil himself acknowledges this fact stating, “I did not want any external influence in my life. You know yourself, Harry, how independent I am by nature. I have always been my own master; had at least always been so, till I met Dorian Gray.” (Wilde 9).

To conclude, one can say that his principles have been turned around. In the end, Basil didn’t reveal art any more, but art, in this case represented by Dorian, revealed Basil.


1 For further explanation refer to the end of chapter three

2 For a more specific analysis of this scene, refer to chapter 3.4 Dorian Gray

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Aestheticism in Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
University of Kassel
Anglo-American Literature
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ISBN (Book)
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Aestheticism, Oscar, Wilde, Picture, Dorian, Gray
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Jannis Rudzki-Weise (Author), 2010, Aestheticism in Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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