Sex, Drugs & Oscar Wilde: Aesthetic Philosophy of The Picture of Dorian Gray

Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.

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In the prudish Victorian-era, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde heralded the beginning of aesthetic writing. It endorsed self-satisfaction over morals, dealt with drug abuse, homosexuality, murder, death and decay, and thus obviously caught the eye of the average man. Dorian Gray is the hedonistic hero of a novel, uninhibited by the so called morals that were upheld by the society at large.

Upon a thorough reading of the novel, many details can be unravelled to be pondered upon, however, for the purpose of this analysis, the essay focuses on three major themes. Firstly, it looks into the relationship between Dorian Gray and aestheticism; secondly, it looks into the roles Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton played in Dorian’s life; and lastly, the influences in Oscar Wilde’s life which led to the character development in this novel.

For those who do not know the story of Dorian Gray; it is the story of a handsome young man whose beauty is retained through the ages, as he indulges his every fantasy through drinking, drugs and every other imaginable form of debauchery, without any attachment; while his almost life-like painting, captured by his dear friend, ages in his place and records his fallout. After causing the death of a jilted lover and killing his friend who asks him to repent; he eventually is found dead as an old, ugly man next to the painting of a young Dorian Gray.

Dorian was greatly influenced by the philosophical outlook promulgated by Lord Henry. However, in the end, what is conspicuous is Dorian’s ability to influence others’ lives by living as a work of art. While the hedonistic outlook may seem exciting and liberating at once, especially to a young boy who lived under the care of an abusive and strict grandfather, the flip side of how he touches other people’s lives cannot be neglected.

The first instance which shows his deteriorating concern for others was his relationship with Sybil Vane.  She was a young beautiful girl who fell desperately in love with Dorian, and later due to heartbreak, committed suicide. Although the scene is tragic and should rightfully evoke strong emotions in Dorian, who until recently wanted to marry her, our protagonist merely feels that he cannot be held responsible for the emotions he evokes in those who interact with him. In fact, as he did not recognise the immorality of his selfishness, he does not classify actions as moral or immoral. Dorian was only exuberant that the death of his fiancée was the end to an almost Greek-like tragedy.

The story did not try to demarcate right from wrong or give a sermon on how to live life. It merely followed the life of a man whose main aim in life was to appreciate it to the fullest. Leading his life according to Lord Henry’s principles, Dorian tried to cultivate his individualism. Living in the now and enjoying the present was the dictum. Such enjoyment without any consequences to Dorian’s health or age gave him the impetus to pursue his pleasures without bounds.

It cannot be said that the book only espouses the negative aspects of chasing pleasures. There are glimpses into the life of Dorian when he wasn’t under the influence of any substances. It is seen that Dorian wants to indulge in all things which would open him to the true nature of his senses. This included expanding Dorian’s knowledge in subjects such as rare musical instruments, jewellery, embroidery, and even aromachology. But at the same time he was linked to the downfall of many young men (some of whom even committed suicide) in the eyes of society, suggesting a homosexual relation.

Thus, through this novel, two aspects of aestheticism can be gleamed: one, which is a purely hedonistic pursuit of life; second, an intellectual perfection, which may derogate from pure and absolute enjoyment. When Dorian Gray realised that, for all purposes, he had eternal youth, he had two choices reflecting the two sides of aestheticism outlined above. Dorian quite clearly favours one over the other, but it is evident that he has not abandoned all intellectual pursuits.

This narrative brings to fore a pertinent question, i.e., if one had an eternity to live, and all the means necessary to pursue his interests, what would his choices be. An analogy can be made to the movie “Age of Adaline”, where Adaline Bowman does not age past her 29 years after being the victim of an accident, for almost 8 decades. But in this story, the female protagonist is seen to immerse herself in acquiring knowledge about myriad subjects which catch her fancy, ranging from languages to learning braille. She even works at a library to ensure maximum absorption of knowledge at all times. On the contrary, Dorian shows no such pursuit of intellectual perfection despite showing affinity to the same.

But, one cannot completely fault Dorian alone. It shows the importance of guiding influences in the formative years. It was easy for Dorian, a young, suggestible youth who was new to the city to be swayed by an idea conveyed by an influential figure. While the idea in itself may be harmless, but the systematic and uncontroverted quest of the idea, in this case of all the pleasures as were outlined in the famed “Yellow Book” led Dorian down a dark path.

It was just as possible for Dorian to have met a more conventional guide and ended up as a respectable young fellow in society with a conventional family and friends. It is just as probable that Dorian would have been imbibed with high virtues of exalted living and could have been the epitome of virtuosity. Basil Hallward realised the influence Lord Henry had on Dorian, and as any worthy friend would try, he pleaded with Lord Henry to not poison the mind of young Dorian with his views, but sadly to no avail.

The interesting recurring theme in this work is the eternal (quite literally, given his immortality) conflict that Dorian faced as to whose teachings to follow. It was either Lord Henry’s aestheticism and indulgence; or Basil Hallwards’s morality and stoicism. He followed the life as put forth by Lord Henry and regretted it. But it was too late for repentance as his soul had been corrupted beyond redemption.

Such extremism on the part of Dorian was entirely unnecessary, but it points towards the human tendency to, more often than not, resolutely choose a path to the exclusion of all else, even when it comes to reason or morality. This can be seen today in the modern context of religious extremism. Clearly, Dorian would have been better served by the path of moderation, with him imbibing the positive aspects of both trains of thought.

At the crux of it, the tale showed that Dorian sold his soul for his youth and looks. While this story line seems to be an adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, Wilde has drawn many parallels to his own life.

 It has been widely touted that Wilde was a homosexual man, challenging the norms of the straight-laced English society by including a variety of homosexual characters in his works, his flamboyant way of dressing and his string of affairs with men while still married to his wife.

He was inspired with the aesthetic lifestyle by his teachers at college, such as Walter Pater and John Ruskin. This was the time where an aesthetic movement was being born. He was also influenced by J.K. Huysmans’ “A Rebours”, which talked of the protagonist’s experiments with both moral and immoral experiences. He was so greatly influenced by the book that a parallel can be seen in this novel, where Dorian was influenced by the Yellow Book given to him by Lord Henry.

Oscar Wilde’s novel was not a reflection of the society, it was a reflection of the self, and how some would live their whole lives as art, not perturbed by their influences on others (l’art pour l’art). As Moira Muldoon once wrote, “The Picture of Dorian Gray arrived in prim Victorian England in 1891 like a naked man at a tea party.” These words wholly encompass the idea to shock and offend the sensibilities of society that lie behind this novel.

This literary work by Oscar Wilde is a rollercoaster ride of emotions. The words struck a nerve for all those who read it in the pristine and reserved generation, but the overarching themes are issues which still resonate deeply in modern society. One can at once empathise, gawk at, and feel aghast at what Dorian Gray’s life has become, but it is evident that it is only a reflection of the self, exaggerated.

It is us, but bigger (if not better) and the narrative which describes all the underlying themes in a superfluous manner, makes this classic a memorable Gothic novel of the Victorian era.


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