Simply A Shell? A Literary Analysis Of The Protagonist In Oscar Wilde's "The Picture Of Dorian Gray"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The Concept Of Art And Morality
2.1. Lord Henry’s “New Hedonism”

3. The Division Of Body And Soul
3.1. A Beautiful Soul
3.2. Dorian And The Portrait

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Beauty isn’t everything. To Dorian Gray it is, as he wants to be beautiful and only beautiful. He enters Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, published in 1891, as a naive, young man whose physical beauty attracts the attention of a painter and an aristocrat. Basil’s talent in painting and Henry’s talent in talking cause the protagonist’s desire for absolute beauty to be evoked which leads to a series of unfortunate, scandalous events finally resulting in Dorian’s death.

It may be difficult, however, to examine Dorian’s character at one glance, as he seems to be a living mask hiding his true face in the attic and furthermore because his thoughts and actions are so heavily influenced by Basil’s and especially Henry’s views. It appears as if, before meeting his two friends, before being told to seize the moment and to grab youth and beauty by its roots on the one hand, while being moral and virtuous on the other hand, Dorian did not know who he was and who he wants to be. He seems to be “given birth to”, the moment the portrait is finished. Could one, therefore, go so far as to state that Dorian is simply the shell of a beautiful man whose substance was only constructed by Henry’s talking and Basil’s painting? If so, to which extent can Dorian be regarded as autonomous?

In this term paper, I will examine Dorian’s journey to accomplish his desire of becoming beautiful and leading an aesthetically fulfilling life. Therefore, I will firstly take a closer look at the role of hedonism, as it not only heavily influences Dorian’s lifestyle, but literally his fate. Afterwards, I will exhibit Dorian’s idea of beauty, while considering the concept of art and morality in the novel. Before I will come to my conclusion, I will examine his relationship to the portrait and the “pact“ itself that Dorian makes which causes the division of body and soul. As Basil and Henry may be regarded as representatives of these aspects, I will also partly lay the focus on their characters in the above mentioned contexts.

2. The Concept Of Art And Morality

2.1. Lord Henry’s “New Hedonism”

In Wilde’s novel, the “most vocal exponent of New Hedonism” (Gillespie 146) is surely Lord Henry Wotton who has a great talent in talking and seems to mold the basis for Dorian’s erotic lifestyle. His theories are based on the philosophical approach of hedonism which is defined as “[t]he ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life.” (“Hedonism”, def. 2) It has to be mentioned, though, that Henry’s approach to hedonism is completely voyeuristic. While he is a man of extravagant words, he is a rather passive character concerning actions and accomplishing his desires. Henry considers Dorian “a wonderful study.” (Wilde 73) Therefore, he seems to treat Dorian more as a human guinea pig rather than as a friend in order to experiment with his ideas of this philosophical approach. It also appears as if both Henry and Dorian do not know exactly what the ethics of this kind of hedonism include from the start, but they are enlightened with each chapter more and more.

Henry believes that life can only be enjoyable and worth living when living “fully and completely”. Obeying morals and rules of society is just a waste of life and one should “always be searching for new sensations.” (25) He defines “[t]he aim of life [as] self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly - that is what each of us is here for.” (20) Those who “feed the hungry, and clothe the beggar” let their own souls “starve”, he claims. So, according to Henry, leading a charitable life and feeding the hungry does not feed one’s own soul. His form of “new Hedonism” (25), as he calls it, teaches people an aesthetic form of selfishness. Michael Patrick Gillespie defines Henry’s ethical approach as a

system [that] makes a direct claim for the shaping effect of art upon one’s character, and it asserts the primacy of a doctrine of pleasure that absolves individuals from the ordinary responsibilities for their actions. (Gillespie 145)

It does not deny morality completely, but it comes with a differently structured hierarchy in which the fulfillment of the individual’s senses has the highest priority. “The shaping effect of art” suggests a rather “erotic education” (Ostermann 298) concerning pleasure. Decisions should not be made regarding their moral value, but regarding their aesthetic value.

It is interesting, however, that Henry speaks about “feeding one’s soul”, when referring to “New Hedonism”, as this implies a certain degree of essential significance, since the human body needs to be fed food in order to survive. After all, the soul does not have to be “fed” aesthetically or intellectually to survive. Through this, it becomes evident that Henry’s hedonism requires a certain prosperity, as “[b]eautiful sins […] are the privilege of the rich” (Wilde 76) which expresses that this form of life philosophy is overly luxurious. At the same time, it also emphasises Henry’s role as the embodiment of lust for life, as he enjoys eating, drinking and smoking. The term “soul”, on the other hand, alludes to something much profounder. Henry does not only refer to fulfilling one’s senses aesthetically, but also one’s inner urge for aestheticism: To not only live aesthetically, but to actually be aesthetic.

He justifies his worldview by stating that it “belongs to Nature” (76). Since his hedonism presumes wealth, however, this statement may appear quite paradoxical. His philosophy is only for civilised men, as “no civilized man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilized man ever knows what pleasure is.” However, Henry’s hedonism requires a certain amount of selfishness. It is not only that his ethical approach presupposes egoism in order to fully adapt to the individual’s life and to bring him pleasure, in addition, Henry sees “unselifsh people” (Wilde 72) as “colourless. They lack individuality.” Once again, Henry’s voyeuristic features become apparent, as he himself, praises the significance of aestheticism and pleasure in every individual’s life, while doing nothing to actually accomplish that. His thirst for aestheticism seems to be fulfilled by the tutoring and observation of Dorian.

Henry successfully convinces him of his “New Hedonism” because Dorian is fascinated by beauty and this ethical approach follows the appreciation of beauty through the fulfillment of pleasure. However, Dorian does not only “seize the moment”, as his tutor told him to. On the outside, it appears as if simply his interest in art and poetry was growing, yet he also turns off his emotions and conscience to be able to completely satisfy his senses. Instead of aiming for happiness, he aims for pleasure, dark pleasure: He has numerous affairs, regularly takes drugs and eventually becomes a murderer. He claims to be a fan of beauty which seems to lie in art, thus he does not make any effort to achieve internal beauty or to perform beauty through art or through being a good person because he believes to be eternally beautiful already due to his external beauty and immortality. This causes a vicious circle, as he cannot fulfill his internal need for beauty and instead tries to put his conscience to silence which only leads to his death.

3. The Division Of Body And Soul

3.1. A Beautiful Soul

One says that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Although there is no official standard of beauty, Dorian seems to be considered beautiful by everyone. Is his beauty so universal that it is objective? According to Hume, there is no objective form of beauty, as it “exists merely in the mind” (Hume 1757, 136). If beauty is indeed entirely subjective, it would have no higher status or significance than simple entertainment. If one looks at Henry and Basil, for instance, it becomes clear that their perception of beauty is very different and yet, they both regard Dorian as beautiful. However, their ways of doing so are subjective. While Basils’s idea of beauty fulfills his thirst for aestheticism on an artistic and equally moral level, Henry considers beauty as something that comes along with pleasure. An aesthetic or a beautiful way of living is a pleasurable one, according to him. Yet, Basil is so fascinated by Dorian’s innocent beauty, at first, that he reminds him of “all the passion of the romantic spirit, all the perfection of the spirit that is Greek.” (Wilde 13). To him, Dorian already represents the “harmony of body and soul” - at least in the beginning. His perception concerning this matter, however, changes throughout the novel.

Is Dorian’s fate entirely his own fault because he confuses art with life? One has to consider that without Henry and Basil, Dorian would have never undergone this severe change, as he, first of all, needs the portrait, which Basil created, to conceive his beauty. Basil even refuses to share the portrait with the world, as “[t]here is too much of [him]self in the thing…” (Wilde 14) This emphasises Dorian’s lack of independence and the fact that he is created by Basil “physically” through the painting of the portrait and by Henry “mentally” through the introduction of his “New Hedonism.” Yet, it is interesting that Basil is the artist standing for morality, while Henry is the praising moralist standing for art, respectively for aestheticism. Dorian was “born” the moment the picture was finished. Before that, he was “simply a motive in art” (14). However, Dorian only blames Basil for his crisis, as he “only taught [him] to be vain” (105), while he acts as if he owed his life to Henry: “…it never would have happened if I had not met you. You filled me with a wild desire to know everything about life.” (48)

It seems as if the two friends do not even think of Dorian as a person, but simply as beautiful. Basil regards Dorian a subject of aesthetic desire, while Henry considers Dorian “simply a wonderful study.” (73) Their obsession with Dorian as a desirable being and as a study lead to the protagonist’s wish to be eternally beautiful. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, the term “beauty” is defined as: “A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight. […] A combination of qualities that pleases the intellect.” (“Beauty”, def. 1, def. 2) Dorian is externally beautiful, as his “form pleases the aesthetic senses”, yet seeing his reflection in form of the portrait makes him realise that he wants to be universally beautiful. Following Plato’s idea of beauty, in order to achieve this, Dorian has to follow these steps:

First of all, […] he will fall in love with the beauty of one individual body […] Next he must grasp that the beauties of the body are as nothing to the beauties of the soul […] And from this he will be led to contemplate the beauty of laws and institutions. And when he discovers how every kind of beauty is akin to every other he will conclude that the beauty of the body is not, after all, of so great moment.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Simply A Shell? A Literary Analysis Of The Protagonist In Oscar Wilde's "The Picture Of Dorian Gray"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
English Decadence and Aestheticism
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
535 KB
Dorian Gray, Plato, Beauty, Character Analysis, Art, Shell, Oscar Wilde
Quote paper
Media Esfarjani (Author), 2016, Simply A Shell? A Literary Analysis Of The Protagonist In Oscar Wilde's "The Picture Of Dorian Gray", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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