“The character of Dorian Gray is a symbol of social degeneration that Victorian society so greatly fears.” How far and in what ways do you agree?
The character of Dorian Gray could be seen as a symbol of social degeneration and the apparent Fin De Siècle that Victorian society feared, however he is not the only culprit, Wilde presenting this relapse in social and sexual morality to have already happened; Dorian just being a more blatant representation of this, as opposed to other ‘high society’ characters who are just as promiscuous and scandalous, just on a more discrete level.
This further showing that Wilde was trying to expose the return to a less civilized time had already occurred and Victorian’s were living in fear of the unavoidable present. Victorian society became obsessed by the growing ‘under class’ and how their barbaric and promiscuous ways would lead to this Fin de Siècle and degeneration, Wilde challenging this by presenting Dorian, as well as Lord Henry, as dark and immoral, compared to the pure and innocent ‘under class’ Sybil Vane.
Dorian commits his “immoral” acts in the “Darkest” London, the “Hell-like” East end, which highlights the true lack of juxtaposition between the “swell dandies” and the “drunkards and prostitutes”, despite the heavy contrast in language used; “dandies” having effeminate, positive connotations, compared to the rough, brawly, masculine nouns used to describe the underclass in a demeaning tone. This ironic contradiction breaks all stereotypes, thus abolishing the conception that Victorian society had created, where they believed crime was purely for the underclass.
As Dorian regresses and his acts become more corrupt, the East End becomes much more of a focal point in the novel. It goes from a snapshot of the Vane family home and a downbeat theatre at the beginning of the novel, to the recurrent scenery of “brothels” “opium dens” and “dark alleyways”, this could suggest that after his encounters with Sybil Vane, Dorian became enticed by the darker depths of London and that, as Victorians had feared, the lower end of society was sucking the upper class in and “poisoning” their souls into committing these progressively more immoral acts and that eventually their decadent values would lead to full social degeneration .
Alternatively however, it is more likely that Wilde was suggesting that the upper class have just as equally dark desires as the lower and it is the person committing the act that should be judged, not the social class they belong to, Dorian is merely pictured in the East End to highlight how instead of tainting the reputation of the high class, these aristocrats and lords would go there to discretely live out these desires. It could be suggested that Wilde was trying to expose these tendencies and abolish the pedestal upper class had put itself on, perhaps using Dorian’s acts as a mouth piece, as he was accused of committing similar acts. Rita Felski, a critical theorist, supports this to some extent, stating “Thinking of “bourgeois ideology” as synonymous with a repression of pleasure and the body does not much help” suggesting that this repression should not be thought of as a merely middle and upper class ideology, as they act upon these urges just as much as the under classes, as The Picture Of Dorian Gray makes obvious. It is arguable that, although Dorian is a symbol of social degeneration, there are characters that symbolize it more significantly.
Wilde presents the character of Lord Henry as a symbol of social degeneration, presenting him as infatuated by the idea of “a new hedonism” and as a keen aesthete in excess. Lord Henry is the most obvious advocate of decadence, boisterously proclaiming about how to live life the ‘right’ way, often preaching to Dorian ideas like “the only things one never regrets is one’s mistakes”, ‘mistakes’ implying his wrong doings in life, thus suggesting that the wrongful acts, or perhaps immoral acts that he has committed, are the ones he does not regret, further making him an even greater culprit for social degeneration as he accepts no responsibility for his mistakes and instead takes pleasure in them.
Furthermore, it could be inferred that Lord Henry is more to blame for pulling the upper class (in this case represented through Dorian) into a Fin De Siècle state than the underclass is. Within the novel, Lord Henry gives Dorian a “yellow backed book” which in the Victorian era was to represent that the novel was deemed risqué. It is interpreted that the book is a copy of A Rebours (which translates to against nature), by Joris Karl Huysman. This is the book that is also said to have ‘poisoned’ Wilde, so it could be suggested here that Dorian was also ‘poisoned’ by this book, this being the significant influence that lead to Dorian’s immorality and personal degeneration; proving that his acts were under Lord Henry’s influence, him saying himself that “there is no such thing as a good influence”.
The book speaks of ultimate unconfined hedonism and aestheticism, “natural rebellions that wise men still call sins”, the nouns “rebellions” and “sins” highlight the immorality behind the deeds in the novel, but present them as appealing to an easily influence, child like Dorian. It therefore could be suggested that Wilde used Lord Henry to show the negative consequence of influence and how it is not minimal under class that are causing degradation, but rather the upper class, who are obsessed with having excess and committing immoral acts ‘for art’s sake’. Patrick Duggan agrees with this, suggesting that “it is only through a more restrained philosophy that aestheticism and morality may eventually align. Dorian Gray’s ‘double’ could be seen as a symbol of social degeneration, it being a physical representation of every immoral act Dorian has committed; with the “eyes of a devil”, a “hideous face”, so hideous that “the rotting of a corpse in a watery grave was not so fearful”.
“Devil” and “corpse” both connote an underworld or hell, implying that, if this was not only “the face of my soul” and had actually been Dorian’s soul, un-detached, then Dorian would surely be dead and suffering in hell by now, it could be inferred, however, that Dorian’s life is already hell as he has the face of his rotting soul to answer to and must always bear the consequences of his immoral action. It could be suggested that Wilde used the method of ‘The Double’ to show the negative consequence of influence and warn people of the reality of social degeneration; it isn’t just a return to a more promiscuous time, it is instead a progression into something much worse, a ‘hell on earth’, warning that if you detach yourself from your conscience and morals, the life you will be living will be much worse than if you were to die and escape guilt.
To a Victorian reader, this would instil fear, as Victorians were fixated on morality and values, a historical theorist concluding that “Anyone not adhering to the morals dictated was shunned and criticized” This is clearly mirrored in The Picture of Dorian Gray as, by not adhering to the morals, or doing this indiscreetly, Dorian is ostracized and shunned to the East End. In conclusion, although aspects of Dorian Gray – specifically his double, or soul – could be seen as a symbol of social degeneration, Wilde presents the overall theme of Fin De Siècle in a way that suggests Dorian is not the only culprit that can be deemed responsible. The negative consequences of both influence and hedonism through the character of Lord Henry could be seen as a more blatant symbol and in turn demolishes the misconception of the Victorian era that only the underclass succumb to immorality and undesirable pleasure. Overall Wilde uses all these components to expose the truth of social degeneration and in some ways also expose its inevitability; however still urges society to restrain the personal hedonistic and decadent tendencies of the time in order to maintain morality and conscience.
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