The Picture of Dorian Gray: Art Cannot Substitute Life
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, is the story of moral corruption by the means of aestheticism. In the novel, the well meaning artist Basil Hallward presets young Dorian Gray with a portrait of himself. After conversing with cynical Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian makes a wish that dreadfully affects his life forever. “If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that” (Wilde 109). As it turns out, the devil that Dorian sells his soul to is Lord Henry Wotton, who exists not only as something external to Dorian, but also as a voice within him (Bloom 107). Dorian continues to lead a life of sensuality which he learns about in a book given to him by Lord Henry. Dorian’s unethical devotion to pleasure becomes his way of life.
The novel underscores its disapproval of aestheticism which negatively impacts the main characters. Each of the three primary characters is an aesthete and meets some form of terrible personal doom. Basil Hallward’s aestheticism is manifested in his dedication to his artistic creations. He searches in the outside world for the perfect manifestation of his own soul, when he finds this object, he can create masterpieces by painting it (Bloom 109). He refuses to display the portrait of Dorian Gray with the explanation that, “I have put too much of myself into it” (Wilde 106). He further demonstrates the extent to which he holds this philosophy by later stating that, “only the artist is truly reveled” (109). Lord Henry Wotton criticizes Basil Hallward that, “An artist should create beautiful things but should put nothing of his own life into them” (Wilde 25). Ironically, the purpose of Basil Hallward’s existence is that he is an aesthete striving to become one with his art (Eriksen 105). It is this very work of art which Basil refuses to display that provides Dorian Gray with the idea that there are no consequences to his actions. Dorian has this belief in mind when he murders Basil. Here we see that the artist is killed for his excessive love of physical beauty; the same art that he wished to merge with is the cause of his mortal downfall (Juan 64).