Sexuality, Aesthetics and Morality in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Fin de Siècle and the Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th Century

3. Morality vs. Aestheticism in Dorian Gray
3.1 Gender Boundaries
3.2 Lord Henry Wotton
3.3 Basil Hallward
3.4 Sybil Vane

4. Sexuality in Dorian Gray
4.1 Homoeroticism
4.2 Possession
4.3 Vampirism
4.4 Secrecy & Omission

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. introduction:

Literature, like every other form of art, can never be fully separated from the time it was created in. It always reflects aspects of its date of origin, thereby exposing a reader to political, religious, moral and aesthetic values of the historical era it depicts. At the same time, though art should never be seen as synonymous with its creator, an artist often unconsciously inserts parts of his own views and values into his work.

Since The Pictare of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde was first published in 1890, it can be seen as a representation of the Victorian era; a period that lasted uncommonly long from 1837 till 1901. While the length of more than sixty years complicates the exact classification of typical Victorian literary movements, certain recurring ideas and literary approaches can be found in its literature. Especially the conception of art and aesthetics seemed to experience a time of change, reshaping the way in which art was received and the role of the artist in comparison to the spectator.

Still, as art seemed to be in a state of carination, the public reception of new artistic attempts was not always positive. Especially the representation of morality and sexuality caused ground for public discontent.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, though it does not contain any explicit statement of homoeroticism, was criticised by Oscar Wilde’s contemporaries, causing a scandal and even a trial, which led Oscar Wilde being sentenced to two years of imprisonment with hard labour (Raby 1997: xxi), since in the Victorian era homosexuality was a punishable crime. Wilde, who “allowed for a ‘higher ethics’, in which artistic freedom and full expression of personality were possible” (Ellmann 1987: 305), The first publication of Wilde’s novel was followed by voices labelling it as indecent, though Wilde denied the sexual aspects of the novel. In a letter to Arthur Conan Doyle, he comments on the accusations made, claiming that he “cannot understand how they can 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.” (Varty 2014: 113, quoting Wilde 1890)

This statement accentuates a connection of morality, aesthetics and sexuality in The Picture of Dorian Gray that seems to be of high importance for the novel. This paper, therefore, is going to analyse the novel regarding these aspects and the way they influence each other, illuminating whether morality is really depicted as subordinate to an artistic effect or if it is needed in order for the story to advance.

2. Fin de Siècle and the Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th Century

British Aestheticism is a movement that can be appointed from the second half of the 19th Century into the early stages of the 20th. It is often associated with the term ‘art for art’s sake ’, which was primarily introduced by Algernon Charles Swinburne in 1867; an expression mostly referring to the ‘high’ art of painting. Aestheticism, however, manifested itself in poetry, painting and literature, as well as art forms like furniture design or fashion.

Throughout the 19th century, art gained a new authority, since Romanticism freed it from society and Christianity, while photography secured art’s freedom from realism (comp. Paglia 1990: 513), leaving new spaces for art to explore. In the late 19th century, art, therefore, was “more separate and elevated than it had ever been” (Paglia 1990: 513).

As a category, Aestheticism is elusive. Elizabeth Prettejohn describes it as “difficult to pin down” (2000: 2). “Aestheticism is one of those terms in literary criticism that are impossible fully to define” (Prettejohn 2000:2, quoting Freedman 1969). This is already perceptible in the diversity of names for the concept; reaching from ‘Aestheticism’ and ‘Aesthetic Movement’ to ‘Decadence’, ‘Fin de Siede’ and ‘Beauty without Realism’ (comp. Prettejohn 2000: 2). While the term Aestheticism emerged in the mid 19th century from a need to emphasise the importance of art and the “beauty of everyday life” (Schaffer/Psomiades 1999: 3), it was only fully articulated in the 1870s and ‘80s by Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde himself.

Aestheticism not only indicates a certain kind of literature or art but rather represents the idea that art has the ability to improve life by making it more beautiful. According to Elizabeth Prettejohn, there is no limit of aesthetic pleasure in Aestheticism: It secures an openness to the varieties of aesthetic experience. (Prettejohn 2000: 12)

As Joseph Pearce points out, the movement has never been “an homogenous whole and never shared anything other than the broadest and vaguest aims and aspirations” (Pearce 2004: 131). Still, Schaffer and Psomiades identify “The Picture of Dorian Gray” as the central text of the Aesthetic Movement and Oscar Wilde as its “visible embodiment” (Schaffer/ Psomiades 1999: 3). From 1889 until 1895 “were the years in which aestheticism was revised and perfected” (Ellmann 1987: 305) by Oscar Wilde.

Wilde’s connection to the movement is often innervated by the depiction of artistic appreciation and sensory pleasures in his works since aestheticism can be read as the “celebration of ‘perverse’ sexuality in ways that take into account desire between women as well as between men” (Schaffer/Psomiades 1999: 11). Additionally, Aestheticism is frequently “portrayed as feminine or effeminate in contrast to modernism’s masculine rigor” (Schaffer/Psomiades 1999: 6).

3. Morality vs. Aestheticism in Dorian Gray

Until today, Oscar Wilde can be seen as one of the leading writers of aestheticism and decadence. Already the Preface of The Pictare of Dorian Gray shows the unique aesthetic approach Wilde pursued in his writing. Especially regarding the critical reception of his novel by Victorian contemporary critics, the Preface clearly shows Wilde’s position relating to art and morality in art: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” (Wilde 1891: 3) he states, thereby distancing himself from the idea of morality within art. He adds that “[tjhose who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming” (Wilde 1891: 3), clarifying such thinking as being defective.

He declares a freedom within art, that reflects basic points of the Aesthetic Movement, clarifying that an “artist can express everything” (Wilde 1891: 3) and that art mirrors the spectator rather than life itself (comp. Wilde 1891: 4), thereby handing the burden of analysing art in any way to the person regarding and criticising it, instead of blaming the artist for his aesthetic or moral intentions while creating art. Richard Ellmann states that “Aesthetics are higher than ethics. (...) Even a colour - sense is more important in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong” (1987: 305).

The concepts of Aestheticism and Morality are closely linked in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, cause even though Wilde liberates art from morality in his Preface, subtle moral aspects can be found throughout the novel.

While the main character, Dorian Gray himself, starts out unaware of his own beauty at the beginning of the novel, his aesthetic description precedes his actual first appearance: “As the painter looked at the gracious and comely form he had so skilfully mirrored in his art, a smile of pleasure passed across his face, and seemed about to linger there” (Wilde 1891: 5). The painting Basil Hallward creates of Dorian shows an ideal form, in turn sparking the interest of Lord Henry Wotton to meet Dorian, whom he describes as being “made out of ivory and rose- leaves” (Wilde 1891: 6), in person.

Only Dorian’s encounter with Lord Henry sets off the chain of events happening in the novel: Not only does Lord Henry’s open admiration for his beauty make Dorian aware of the use his beauty can have, he simultaneously apprehends the inevitable decay of beauty with time. Becoming jealous of his own picture, he begrudges the painting’s ability to stay flawless forever, wishing to be able to keep his youths in the painting’s place. The characters do not realise the bargain Dorian has unknowingly made, therefore emphasising the need to take advantage of the time one has, corrupting the innocent Dorian to the point of total preoccupation with his own beauty. Mirroring the state of his painting, Dorian becomes “enclosed within an invisible frame that separates him from the continuum of history” (Felski 1991: 1096), turning him into a second painting that is unchanging and not ageing.

In the course of the novel, Dorian, who is influenced by Lord Henry’s way of life, seduces women and abandons them, introduces young men, who look up to him in admiration to drugs and vices, thereby ruining their lives and even causes the deaths of several people, while showing no remorse for his deeds.

Raymond Corbey argues, The Pictare of Dorian Gray can be seen as an “experiment in narcissism” (1991: 64), in which every fate described throughout the story, from Sybil Vane’s death to Basil’s murder, is “associated with Dorian’s outwardly unblemished identity” (Bristow 2006: 211). As soon as Dorian becomes aware of his beauty, an inner life develops which is directly reflected on his painted copy. Dorian’s painting is then “tyrannised by passions that need to be disciplined” (Bristow 2006: 213), causing a change in appearance that is suppressed by the real Dorian’s moral obliviousness.

Adapting to the ideas presented to him by Lord Henry, Dorian starts to view negative aspects of behaviour as a means to gain a positive outcome. In this regard, insincerity becomes “merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities” (Wilde 1891: 125). After Sybil’s death Dorian is even able to regard the incident coldly, seeing it as an “aesthetic event” (Carroll 2005: 4). This opinion is also shaped by Lord Henry’s influence and guidance. As Alexander Lowen puts it, “the innocent can be seduced by the promise of power or love or position” (2012: 38), turning Dorian’s newfound want for beauty and aesthetics in his life in combination with a lack of moral boundaries into something “loathsome of visage” (Wilde 1891: 194), as mirrored in his painting. While Dorian at first tries to repress guilty feelings by indulging in drug use, buying himself “oblivion” (Wilde 1891:161) and destroying old sins with “the madness of sins that were new” (Wilde 1891:161), he soon reaches a point where he starts gaining pleasure from his misdeeds. Dorian finds himself in circle, where he starts hiding his crimes by committing new ones, like blackmailing his former friend Alan Campbell to conceal Basil’s murder (comp. Wilde 1891:14Iff). The changes in his portrait at this point represent the only visual evidence of Dorian’s actions. “The mask of youth” (Wilde 1891:174) saves Dorian from any consequences arising from his deeds. The aesthetic way in which his appearance is described therefore creates a false picture of innocence and morality, which hides his true corrupt and conscienceless self.

The painting itself seems to be in the position of a spiritual pre-eminence, whose power throughout the novel increases (comp. Paglia 1990: 513). While at the beginning only indicating Basil’s fascination of Dorian, since the painter does not want to exhibit his work, claiming he had put “too much of [himjself in it” (comp. Wilde 1891: 6), the painting’s changes soon leave Dorian, who has been gifted the picture, to conceal it. At first, Dorian feels safe leaving it behind a screen, before hiding it behind a drapery and in the end locking the painting away from prying eyes in an attic. Camille Paglia argues, that this need to keep people from viewing the painting and Dorian’s growing obsession with it, make the painting holier and holier, while at the same time becoming more and more demonic through Dorian’s dire deeds (comp. 1990: 513).

By stating that Basil fears the painting reveals too much of himself, “Wilde the preface- writer and Wilde the novelist deconstruct each other” (Ellmann 1987: 315), as the preface clearly states that art’s main aim is to conceal the artist while showing the artwork (comp. Wilde 1891: 3).

“Dorian Gray is a web of Romantic fascination, a force field of apollonian and daemonic charisma, heir to Christabel in its dark vision of sex and power.” (Paglia 1990: 527) Paglia points out that no moral axioms are needed to interpret the novel since it is rather a story of taboos than morality. In the end, there is no sudden victory of morality or conscience, since Dorian Gray is destroyed by his own portrait as a mirror of his inner self, thereby reminding the reader of an observation Dorian himself has made several chapters before: “There is something fatal about a portrait. It has a life of its own” (Wilde 1891: 103). The final conclusion on morality in art becomes clear in Dorian’s fate: Dorian Gray’s picture, which is representative of art in general, is freed from immorality by the death of the man who executed the immoral actions, giving art back its beauty and clarifying that the fault lies with the spectator.

3.1 Gender Boundaries

As Joseph Carroll points out, the characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray seem to cross gender boundaries (comp. Carroll 2005: 12) and especially Dorian’s depiction seems to be very feminine, as he is portrayed with “scarlet lips, golden hair, and eternal youth” (Felski 1096). Lord Henry even tells Dorian not to get sunburnt, feeling this would be “unbecoming” for Dorian’s pale beauty (comp Wilde 1891: 22)- a characteristic which is normally attributed to female beauty standards.

Camille Paglia, in turn, describes Dorian’s character as modelled on “pagan prototypes”, such as Adonis, Narcissus, Paris and Antinous and thus can be seen as a representation of Aryan absolutism (comp. 1990: 513). His golden-blond hair and Greek name support a category of “ephebic androgyne” (Paglia 1990: 513), in which an adolescent bloom remains into the adulthood of the character.

Additionally, Dorian’s sometimes very emotional and over dramatising behaviour, for example when being confronted with the ephemerality of his own beauty, with “hot tears” welling in his eyes and “flinging himself’ on a divan (Wilde 1891: 27) can be seen as characterizations associated with women.

Rita Felski annotates the use of stylistic and thematic motifs normally classified as feminine as a means to challenge both “sexual and textual norms” (Felski 1991: 1094), even arguing that Dorian, as a feminized figure, takes the part of women whose images “circulate in commodity culture as objects of identification and desire” (Felski 1991: 1096). According to Felski, the feminized male protagonist can be identified with “love of artifice, excess and everything unnatural” (Felski 1991: 1095), thereby creating a clear picture of the way Dorian Gray evolves throughout the novel: “He is male, yet disassociated from masculine rationality, utility and progress” (Felski 1991: 1099). Until Lord Henry makes Dorian aware of his own beauty, he remains innocent, while afterwards succumbing to the Lord’s views on life.

3.2 Lord Henry Wotton

Lord Henry, called Harry by his friends, himself can be seen as a “spectator of life” (comp. Bristow 2006: 213), encouraging Dorian to experience it at its fullest. In his position as an influential character that fascinates the people around him, amongst others Dorian Gray, he uses his charisma to influence his fellowmen. To him, life is not about moral consequences, but undergoing new things. Sybil Vane, in this respect, is merely seen as one experience on a greater scale. “People who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people,” (Wilde 1891: 46) Lord Henry tells Dorian upon first hearing of the latter’s infatuation with the actress. His thoughts on life’s purpose are already clear at this point in the novel: “The aim of life is self- development. To realize one’s nature perfectly - that is what each of US is here to do” (Wilde 1891: 19).

Though Lord Henry freely states his opinions, which might sound immoral or infamous, his own actions remain flawless. Basil states at the beginning of the novel that he believes Lord Henry to be ashamed of his own virtues: “You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose” (Wilde 1891:8).

In the novel, he fills the position of a teacher or mentor, acting as the dominant influence on Dorian, whom Lord Henry considers to be his creation, thereby only slightly restrained by Basil and his moral annotations.

“Wilde, through Lord Henry, laments the stifling nature of his contemporary Victorian society and how the supposed morality it boats necessitates self- denial and rejection of life ’s most beautiful aspects. Lord Henry warns that without an enthusiastic embrace of aestheticism, one will perpetually anguish with the desire of precisely what he must deny himself, all fort he sake of propriety” (Duggan 2009: 62).


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Sexuality, Aesthetics and Morality in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
Gender and the Sister Arts
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sexuality, aesthetics, morality, picture, dorian, gray, oscar, wilde
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Mirja Quix (Author), 2016, Sexuality, Aesthetics and Morality in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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