Good, True, and Beautiful in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1998
42 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Fin de Sciècle and Late 19th Century Art Movements
2.1 Aestheticism
2.2 Decadence
2.3 Symbolism

3. “Good”
3.1 “Good” and “Bad” in the Novel
3.2 The Yellow Book

4. “True”
4.1 The Portrait, Masks, Mirrors, and Symbols
4.2 Theater - A Place of Illusion
4.3 Hidden Homosexuality
4.4 Pluralism
4.5 Sources for The Picture of Dorian Gray

5. “Beautiful”
5.1 New Hellenism
5.2 Narcissism

6. Fascination

7. The Notion of Trinity

8. Conclusion


1. Introduction:

In the following, the notions of “good, true, and beautiful” in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray will be examined, both separately and as they relate to one another. These adjectives carry a positive meaning, and they create a distinct contrast to the critiques and accusations that have been raised against the book and its writer. The Picture of Dorian Gray is in many ways a “pivotal work” (Lawler 285) in Oscar Wilde’s life and career. It sums up his major influences of the 1870s and 1880s, and anticipates the style of his celebrated comedies to come.

Why was the public’s opinion, which meant his ruin in the end, so important to Oscar Wilde? To answer this question it is necessary to look at Wilde’s audience and environment. Wilde was “the epitome of a new type of professional writer” (Small 3). Thus The Picture of Dorian Gray and the scandal it provoked have to be situated in the context of late Victorian social institutions of journalism, advertising, homosexual communities, criminology, etiquette, and theater (Gagnier, Cambridge Companion 27). Wilde had always been a great borrower and collector of literary culture, and therefore was often accused of plagiarism, but he transformed everything into his own way of expression. It is the blending of original invention and existing art that enables Wilde to create new effects and moods. This blending helps to explain how The Picture of Dorian Gray embraces the range from classic Greek and Latin masters to contemporary English, French, and German writers. From its first appearance in the spring of 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray has suggested to readers parallels to other works, ancient or modern, in English or any other language.

To specify the focus, the novel can be regarded as a study of various Victorian art movements corresponding to different stages in the development of Victorian human nature, and the main characters are meant to be personifications of these art movements and psychological states (Nassaar 37).

This paper tries to shed light not only on Wilde's paradoxical style, but also on the 1890s society by answering the following questions: Which are the major art movements at the end of the 19th century; how far do they affect Wilde's work? To what extent is the book good, true, and beautiful? Or are the opposites more appropriate? Why is the reader fascinated by The Picture of Dorian Gray; how important is fascination for this piece? And finally, what role does the notion of trinity play in this novel?

2. Fin de Sciècle and Late 19th Century Art Movements:

The 1890s have long been considered a decisive period, yet the years between 1870 and 1914 became the age of transition into modernism (Fletcher 8). Cultural trends in the final decades of the century were thus moving in two simultaneously antithetical directions: declining Victorianism (the synthesis of moral, religious, artistic, political, and social thought that had produced the wealthiest and most powerful empire on earth), and rising Modernism (with its challenges by writers and artists to the cultural foundations of Philistine society, which habitually condemned daring innovations in the arts as “immoral” or “degenerate”). Such manifestations were frequently d escribed by both sympathetic and hostile critics as characteristic aspects of the fin de siècle. The term, adopted in Britain around 1890 to indicate the end of the century, had such associated meanings as “modern,” advanced,” and “decadent” (Beckson, London xv). The French phrase also became synonymous with that sense of exhausted energy, lost values, and discontent with the commonplace that was the sad side of the “Gay Nineties” (Lawler 138). In The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde may have been one of the first in England to make use of such implications (Beckson, London xv). During a dinner conversation in the novel the hostess claims:

“Nowadays all the married men live like bachelors, and all the bachelors like married.”

“Fin de siècle,” murmured Lord Henry. “Fin de globe,” answered his hostess.

“I wish it were fin du globe,” said Dorian, with a sigh. “Life is a great disappointment. (Dorian Gray 155) ”

The 1890s have been casually regarded as the “Yellow Nineties,” suggestive of decay, principally because of the famous periodical, the Yellow Book (1894 - 1897). They were also called the “Gray Nineties” set against drab, g rim, polluted London. Indeed, the color white - symbol of purity, which, despite their protestations, the writers yearned for - dominates the literature of the period (Beckson, Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890's xxxviii). The decade has also been called the “Decadent Nineties” or the “Naughty Nineties.” But whatever these terms may mean, the fin de siècle embraced a wide variety of literary and artistic modes of expression, including Aestheticism, Decadence, Symbolism, Naturalism, and Impressionism. As Beckson explains, “reducing the late 19th century to one of them, and branding it “decadent” merely because it was anti - Establishment is to inflict simplicity on complexity”(Beckson, London xvii).

2.1 Aestheticism:

Problems exist with the term “Aesthete ,” which in the 1880s evoked visions of effeminate poets holding various floral displays in characteristic poses, as in the case of Wilde, who welcomed the label. As Beckson explains: “However, Aestheticism implies certain attitudes rather than forms of behavior, attitudes associated with the concern over aesthetic form and experience divorced from moral judgement (Beckson, Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890's xii).” The aestheticism of the 1890's was an engaged protest against Victorian utility, rationality, scientific factuality, and technological process (Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace 3). In addition, one must regard the special role of art ± its value symbolism, its power to represent individuality and selfhood.

To the essence of art a word was applied which had been traditionally associated to paradise: beauty. The religion of beauty, “aestheticism,” was thus born; for the word “aesthetic” was applied both to “that which is characteristic of works of art” and “that which is beautiful.” The refore beauty is the union of the impersonal and of the individual's experience of selfhood; and beauty is immanent in the work of art. The task of the artist is to create that beauty (Peckham 375). A strong connection exists between the aesthetic experience and religious ritual. Wilde himself underwent conversion on his deathbed. It was rumored that Dorian “was about to join the Roman Catholic communion; and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction to him” (Dorian Gray 115), as it had for many in the 1890s. The paradox of rebellious decadent writers rejecting the stifling Victorian world of bourgeois morality and the liberal theology of the Church of England in order to embrace the binding dogmas of Roman Catholicism can be explained in part by the crisis over faith that had intensified with Darwin's Origin of Sp ec ies (1859), and by the consequent need for ancient, universal authority. It was the aesthetic experience of Roman ritualism that was attractive (Beckson, London in the 1890s 49).

Wilde's aestheticism is based on Pater, Arnold, Ruskin, the French decadent poets, and on a carefully reasoned philosophical and political stance, a synthesis of Hegelian idealism and Spencerian evolutionary theory, which fundamentally shaped his criticism and fiction (Smith and Helfand 7). The aesthetic movement, Wilde told America during his lecture tour in 1881, united classical and Romantic by treating the momentary and exceptional under the conditions of serene and dispassionate form. Whatever one thinks of this judgement, it provided the working principle of his career (Shewan 3). Therefore, The Picture of Dorian Gray is “the aesthetic novel par excellence, not espousing the doctrine, but in exhibiting its dangers (Ellmann 315).” It is a tragedy of aestheticism, as Ellmann states: “By unintentional suicide, Dorian becomes aestheticism's first martyr (Ellmann 315).”

2.2 Decadence:

Decadence was nothing new in the 19th century. The concept of decadence as a universal principle of decay or decline can be traced to the earliest myths of both Eastern and Western culture (Weir 2). The history of Decadence in England has many points in common with its development in France (led by a group of French writers around 1884 who asserted their scorn for materialism of the new industrial society (Wylie, EAO), but there are significant differences, caused not only by the expected confusions about what Decadence was, but also by the lack of any coherent group of writers who accepted the name and fought for it. The climate of censorship was also different and more severe than in France (Thornton, The Decadent Dilemma 34).

Beckson states, that “Decadence emerged as the dark side of Romanticism in its flaunting of forbidden experiences, and it insisted on the superiority of artice over nature (Beckson, London in the 1890s 73).”The Decadent is a man caught between two opposite and apparently incompatible pulls: on the one hand, he is drawn by the world, its necessities, and the attractive impressions he receives from it, while on the other hand, he yearns towards the eternal, the ideal, and the unworthy (Thornton, Decadence and the 1890s 26). Indeed, the paradoxical nature of Decadence and its resistance to definition are the most important elements of its meaning (Weir 2). The term “decadence” is too unstable to carry with it any exact and specific reference: it is a word rich in connotation, poor in denotation.

“Many of the 19th century stories of horror and supernatural are decadent in the sense that their defining leitmotifs are drawn from popular reinterpretations of scientific theories that served to undermine the faith of so many eminent Victorians in the inherent stability and continued advancement of human society (Navarette 41).” The decadent story conveys beauty, disease, or tension not in any traditional sense ± strictly by means of characterization or plot, for example ± but rather by contours and shadows created by a language that exposes the reader to hidden malady (Navarette 41).

Decadent art, like aesthetic art, deals to a large extent with the world within, but while moral aesthetic art presents the soul as being essentially pure, decadent art sees it as being evil and derives pleasures from the evil. Proceeding on this assumption of decadent art, one can describe The Picture of Dorian Gray as “the benchmark of Decadence in English, a key to the psychic and creative life of its author, and a mirror of the prejudices of an era that used it against its author in a court of law as evidence of his moral corruption (Lawler 330).”

2.3 Symbolism:

The French Symbolists were antirationalists convinced that occult correspondences between the phenomenon and transcendental world could be evoked by symbols. The Symbolists also understood that symbols concealed as well as revealed the inner world of the symbol maker and symbol interpreter. The Symbolists were mainly French poets like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallamé, Verlaine, and Villiers d I'Ilse Adam; they also included writers like Huysmans and Pierre Louys, who combined strong romanticism with content for realism and middle-class values (Lawler 98).

One asks, what is the difference between the Decadent and the Symbolist Movement? And again, no clear answer is possible. Symons, for example, sees decadence as an inclusive term in “The Decadent Movement in Literature” (1893), a marginal one in “The Symbolist Movement in Literature” (1899) (Goode 112). It is interesting that Wilde also referred to the two movements in The Picture of Dorian Gray. He changed the Lippincott ’ s1 “Dècadents” (in 1890) to “Symbolists” (in 1891) (Lawler 241).

3. “Good:”

“Good” is the first of the adjectives indicated in the thesis of this paper. However, what can be understood by this term? “Good” is a subjective ter m and difficult to define exactly. Another hindrance is to determine the boundaries in comparison to the other two adjectives “true” and “beautiful.” These three words create a triangle, are therefore intertwined, and in numerous cases an occurrence fits more than one of the adjectival categories. Attention must be paid to the respective counterpart of each of the adjectives. “Good” goes together with “bad,” “true” with “false,” and “beautiful” with “ugly.” To avoid confusion, the following implications for the classification of “good - bad” are suggested: “good” includes morality, innocence, purity, and conscience, whereas “bad” covers influence, horror, and sins.

3.1 “Good” and “Bad” in the Novel:

Even the characters in the novel are not sure about what to regard as “good.” In a conversation between Lord Henry, Basil Hallward, and Dorian Gray, Lord Henry gives his definition of “good”:

“When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy.”

“Ah, but what do you mean by good ?” cried Basil Hallward.

“Yes” echoed Dorian, “what do you mean by good, Harry?”

“To be good is to be in harmony with one's self,” he replied. “Discord is to be forced to be in harmony with others, one's own life ± that is the important thing (Dorian Gray 69, italics mine).”

Lord Henry continues with an exposition about individualism, and in the process, he makes a telling point: the dandy, by making himself the center of his morality, is at least without illusions. He is not acting from a pretended belief in a code no longer in existence:

“Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one's age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of grossest immorality.” Lord Henry has adjusted to a world without absolute values by making himself his own absolute. However, Basil still believes in objective absolutes of right and wrong and even gives society the right to punish those who transgress them, not because society really understands either the sin or the sinner but because society's vengeance is the sinner's purification (Charlesworth 397). Thus, Basil asks Harry:

“But surely, if one lives merely for one's self, Harry, one pays a terrible price for doing so?” suggested the painter.

“Yes, we are overc harged for everything nowadays. Beautiful sin s, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.”

“One has to pay in other ways but money. “What sort of ways, Basil?”

“Oh! I should fancy in remorse, in suffering, in¼well, in the consciousness of degradation (Dorian Gray 69).”

In a letter Wilde opposes the consequentialist ethical tradition shared by the 19th century Puritans and utilitarians by stating his idealist ethics: “Right and wrong are qualities of actions, they are mental attitudes relative to incompleteness of the ordinary social organism. When one contemplates, all things are ‘good.'” (Hart -Davis 265) For Wilde ethical is defined as a state of mind (Smith and Helfand 97) and for Wilde “Bad people are, from the point of view of art, fascinating studies. They represent colour, variety and strangeness. Good people exasperate one's reason; bad people stir one's imagination (Hart -Davis 259).”

Most critics leveled charges of immorality against The Picture of Dorian Gr ay when it first appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. But some praised the novel for its beneficial moral effect. It is important to note that American readers of Lippincott's gave The Picture of Dorian Gray a far more friendly response than the London critics (Lawler 331). These contrasting appraisals suggest that the novel does not clearly and consistently maintain a single moral position.

In order to defend against the largely unfavorable reception, and to convey a movement toward certainty in his own moral position, Wilde revised and augmented the Lippincott's text when it was published as a book, appending to it the “Preface.”2 Through the mainly amoral aphorisms that constitute the “Preface,” Wilde intended to defend himself against the critics' attacks on The Picture of Dorian Gray by denying the applicability of moral judgements to art (Cohen 116).

Good and bad, heaven and hell, pride and repentance, Christ and devil ± Wilde situates Dorian between these moral extremes, and calls upon him to decide his fate. He must either turn from false worship to true, or be damned. Wilde stresses his possibility for salvation rather than the necessity for punishment because Basil, the spokesman for New Testament mercy, calls upon Dorian to join him in his prayer for forgiveness. The artist Basil represents and acts upon the positive force of conscience, which can bring about an inward change and lead to regeneration. But Dorian chooses rebellion rather than repentance, the hell rather than the heaven within. He blames Basil for the course his life has taken rather than accepting responsibility for his evil nature himself (Cohen 124).


1 The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in Stoddart's Philadelphia Lippincott ’ s Monthly Magazine in July 1890. The 1890s Lippincott ’ s version of the novel was revised, extended, and published by Ward, Lock & Company as a book in March 1891.

2 The “Preface” first appeared, with slight variations, in The Fortnightly Review on March 1, 1891

Excerpt out of 42 pages


Good, True, and Beautiful in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde
Grinnell College  (English Studies)
The Tradition of English Literatue
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
755 KB
Oscar Wilde, Picture, Decadence, Dorian Gray, 19. Jahrhunder, Fin de Siecle
Quote paper
Dana Kabbani (Author), 1998, Good, True, and Beautiful in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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