"The Picture of Dorian Gray" and the Aesthetic Movement in England at the Turn of the Century

Term Paper, 2007

14 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Aesthetic movement in England
2.1. The Theory of Art for Art’s Sake
2.2. The main Principles of Oscar Wilde’s Aestheticism

3. The Picture of Dorian Gray in the Light of Decadent Conception

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

There are some famous writers at the end of the 19th century who are often mentioned as “decadent”. They have asserted the superiority of beauty and pleasure over all other considerations. Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray presents the aestheticism and the hedonist way of living. The novel anticipates developments and structures of society of that time. The importance of Dorian’s experiences refutes the decadent theories which are described in the Yellow Book that enthralls the protagonist. The novel as a whole can be seen as a psychological study which analyzes the gradual debasement of Dorian’s nature. At the end of the story he is responsible for every vice and crime including murder.

The author shows that on the one hand pleasure and beauty are the highest goods, on the other hand he argues that they also bring death and crime. The task of this research paper is to analyze the mentioned contradiction and the influence of the Aesthetic movement on the novel as well as Oscar Wilde’s view of art.

I would like to begin with a brief survey of the social and intellectual background at the end of the 19th century, exploring the major art movements of that time and how far they affect Wilde’s work. Afterwards his main principles of Aestheticism and their reflection in the novel are analyzed as well as Dorian’s life under the influence of the hedonist model.

2. Aesthetic movement in England

The period that marks the passage from the Victorian world to that of today is called “the turn of the century”. It can be characterized by the triumph of evolutionism in science, the rapid growth of industrialization, economic and political rivalry among countries, the emancipation of women and the rise of urbanization. Though progress causes optimism as many people more and more believe in the strength of the British Empire, there is also a negative side. Pessimism, melancholy and doubt mark the last phase of the era. The rapid industrialization also shows its less wishful sides: poverty, injustice and alienation (see Raby 1997: 18 ff.).

Creative writing is deeply affected by the general spirit of the age. If traditional literature of Victorian time is meant to set clear positions for right and wrong and to give the moral messages, the writers of the turn of the century are searching for new perspectives. The pluralism of styles and eclecticism are typical of that time. Some of the writers of the turn of the century are influenced by all kinds of philosophical ideas; others put forward their own theories. The spirit of decadence is a characteristic feature of many literary works of the turn of the 19th century. The term Fin de Siècle or the End of the Century is not strictly chronological, but much more cultural and social as well. The English expression The End of the Century does not convey so strong “a sense of cultural collapse or secular millennialism as fin de siècle” (Weir 1995: XVI).

Decadence or Decadent movement is the name given to a number of late nineteenth century writers, who are associated with Symbolism, Aestheticism and who relish artifice over the earlier Romantics’ naive view of nature (see Beckson 1981: XXII ff.). This trend appears in France in the 1840s for the first time. It protests against realism and naturalism. Similar ideas become popular about twenty years later in England. They belong to the anti-Victorian reaction against bourgeois hypocrisy and narrowness of mind. Weir (1995: XVI) describes Decadence as “cultural decline, philosophical pessimism, scientific alarmism, physical degeneration, and ‘immorality’”. He also mentions “the importance of decadent themes (sickness, decay, perversion, artificiality, aestheticism) to virtually all the modern masters of the novel: Wilde, Proust, Mann, Joyce, and so on” (Weir 1995: XVII). The movement can be characterized by suggestion rather than statement, sensuality, massive use of symbols and synaesthetic effects, the correspondence between words, colours and music (see Abeltina 1976: 102).

In contrast to the puritan ethic of the Victorian Society which expects life to be lived actively, for aestheticists life is not active but contemplative. The character of Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray serves here as a great example: “All I want now is to look at life. You may come and look at it with me, if you care to.” (Wilde 1994: 54), or as Dorian Gray himself states in one scene: “To become the spectator of one’s own life, as Harry says, is to escape the suffering of life” (Wilde 1994: 128).

Walter Pater in his essays, in which he states that life has to be lived intensely by following an ideal of beauty, has a deep influence on the British decadent writers. His essay Studies in the History of the Renaissance published in 1873 plays a decisive role for art-centric young men of the 19th century. Oscar Wilde in one of his works refers to this book calling it “that book which has had a strange influence over my life” (quoted in Bergonzi 1973: 20).

Aestheticists mention the vices of bourgeois society and in some works give a truthful description of contemporary life. At the same time they do not suggest how to overcome such vices. Instead of trying to solve their problems the aestheticists just offer an escape into the artificial world of beauty. They ignore all social and moral obligations, stating that everyone has to fight for his own happiness and enjoy life. The writers of the decadent movement confirm that there is no connection between art and morality. They worship beauty as the measure of right and wrong and live according to the formula of John Keats which says that “beauty is truth, truth is beauty” (quoted in Abeltina 1976: 103). In their opinion art is isolated from life. They believe that art does not have any didactic purpose; it only needs to be beautiful.

Aestheticists seem to seek beauty everywhere: in art, literature and life in general. Their new motto is to elevate beauty above truth and glorify it as their new deity. For them art embodies the absolute autonomy, a total superiority over other real aspects of life and an independence of moral and social conditions. The movement is at the same time some kind of a protest against the Victorian Society, dominated by thoughts of convention and tradition and ruled by the ideas of puritan morals.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


"The Picture of Dorian Gray" and the Aesthetic Movement in England at the Turn of the Century
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
Proseminar B: London Past and Present: Literary and Cultural Heritage of a Metropolis
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Picture, Dorian, Gray, Aesthetic, Movement, England, Turn, Century, Proseminar, London, Past, Present, Literary, Cultural, Heritage, Metropolis
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Natalia Spektor (Author), 2007, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and the Aesthetic Movement in England at the Turn of the Century , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/73870


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