Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This famous line clearly explains the varying perspectives that people have when it comes to the idea of beauty. Beauty is subjective as an individual might believe that something or someone is beautiful while another person might have the exact opposite opinion. The subjectivity of beauty could also be seen in the preference of an individual because he or she might have different definition of beauty based upon his or her likes and dislikes.
The different perception of people when it comes to this matter also affects the influence of beauty when it comes to their decisions and actions. As such, it could be said that the concept of beauty could have a positive or negative impact when it comes to the life of an individual. This kind of adage could be exemplified in the book written by Oscar Wilde entitled: The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this novel, Wilde discusses the concept of aestheticism as one of the major themes in this book. He also highlights this idea of beauty as it understood during the Gothic Victorian era. Wilde was able to explore the subjective definition of beauty through the main characters in his story.
Summary of the Novel
The first interaction of the main characters takes place in the stately London residence of Basil Hallward’s aunt, Lady Brandon. Basil Hallward, is famous artist who was instantly drawn to a man named Dorian Gray. Dorian Gray is a cultured and wealthy young man but his most exceptional characteristic is his impeccable beauty that tends to stand out from the rest. When Basil Hallward meets Dorian Gray, he was immediately drawn to him as Dorian Gray was able to capture his artistic imagination. Basil Howard was able to convince Dorian Gray to pose for him that allows him to make several portraits of him. His idolization for his model is clearly seen as he often refers to Dorian Gray as an ancient Greek hero or a mythological figure.
During the beginning of the novel, Basil Hallward is finishing his first portrait of Dorian Gray. In this scene, Lord Henry Wotton is already present and Basil Hallward is telling him the way by which the painting disappoints him as it reveals to much of his personal feelings for the model. On the other hand, Lord Henry disagrees with Basil Hallward’s opinion as he believes that it is the artist’s masterpiece. Lord Henry is well-known for shocking and scandalizing his friends because of his way of thinking of celebrating youth and beauty as well as pursuing selfish pleasures. While Basil Hallward and Lord Henry were having their discussion about the portrait, Dorian Gray arrives at the studio. Basil Hallward reluctantly introduces Dorian Gray to Lord Henry because he was afraid that the latter might influence Dorian of his worldly perspective about life (Wilde).
The fears of Basil indeed have a basis as Lord Henry already talks to Dorian about the transient nature of beauty and youth or what is commonly referred to as a new hedonism. This conversation deeply affects Dorian as he believes that his most valuable characteristic is his youth and beauty, which is fading day by day. As such, Dorian become very dissatisfied with his portrait as he believes that this would just be reminder of his beauty and youthfulness once he has already lost it. In a moment of distress and frustration, he made a pact wherein he would exchange his soul in exchange that his painting would bear the burden of age and infamy that would make him young forever (Wilde).
As the weeks passes by, the influence of Lord Henry to Dorian was further intensified. Dorian becomes a follower of the “new Hedonism that makes him dedicate his life and his purpose towards the pursuit of pleasure. He falls in love with Sibyl Vane, a young actress who has exceptional acting abilities. However, Sibyl started to lose her acting skills as her love for this profession started to fade away when she experience what real love is with Dorian. Due to this, Dorian breaks his engagement with Sibyl as she only loves the actress for her acting skills and because it is gone already his feelings for her also fades away. Upon returning home, Dorian notices that his portrait already changes as his face their was not as beautiful as before. This confirms that the pact that he made indeed came true. He was contemplating his action when it comes to his treatment of Sibyl as well as the event that his portrait would take the burden of all the sinful things that he is going to do. He decided to make amends with Sibyl in order to prevent the situation from getting worse. Unfortunately, he found out that Sibyl committed suicide (Wilde).
Lord Henry was able to convince Dorian that what happened with Sibyl is not his fault and that he should see it as a personified tragedy and just forget about it. Dorian continues with his pursuit of pleasure and this further heightens when Lord Henry gave him a book about the wicked exploits of a nineteenth-century Frenchman. This makes him commit more sin until he is living a life of corruption and untoward behaviors that do not take into consideration social morality. Basil becomes very concern of Dorian’s reputation and when he saw the very hideous portrait of Dorian he asks him to repent. Dorian believes that it was already too late for forgiveness and ended up killing Basil because of anger (Wilde).
Dorian was able to take care of Basil’s body by blackmailing his doctor friend to help him. After the murder, he went to the opium den wherein he meets James Vane, the brother of Sibyl. James promise himself that he would kill Dorian for hurting his sister. However, he did not succeed because he was killed in a crossfire. Dorian wants to change his ways but when he see his portrait he deems that doing so would be a mere hypocrisy. He decided to stab a knife in the chest of his portrait. He was later found dead his room and he looks old and very hideous while his portrait return to its young and beautiful state (Wilde).
Based upon the summary, it could be said that Dorian Gray perceives beauty as the most valuable commodity that could be seen through his physical appearance and youthfulness. It is quite observable even in the beginning of the novel that Dorian gives so much importance to his exceptional beauty because it made other people take notice of him and admired him. This is proven to be true when Basil Hallward asks him to be his model that produces several portraits of him.
Dorian Gray’s obsession for his beauty and youth takes the next level when he met Lord Henry. Lord Henry was able to convince him that in order to live a full and happy life, he should pursue all means of pleasure. He was easily convince by Lord Henry because he already has this desire in him, it only become more evident through the persuasion of the lord. Afterwards, it had not been difficult for Dorian to live a life that is merely base upon seeking pleasure. This is clearly exemplified by Dorian’s decision to become a follower of the new Hedonism. Dorian was also able to show that he indeed value his beauty and youth than anything else.
This is tested during his relationship with Sibyl Vane. He broke up with Sibyl as she lost her exceptional acting abilities, which points out that even in terms of caring for another person his perspective of beauty does not dig deep side from the acting skill of Sibyl. Afterwards, he feels guilty of what he did and was even thinking of repenting but his concept of beauty that is defined by his beauty and youth still reigns supreme. He continue to seek for pleasure and it even gets worse to the point that he forgo his sense of morality. These incidents only show that Dorian views beauty as the most valuable characteristic of an individual that is seen in his or her physical appearance, youth, and skills.
On the Other hand, Basil Hallward’s perspective of beauty is not merely measure on physical attractiveness or youth like Dorian Gray but rather it has more to do on how an individual is influence by something or someone’s beauty. This is proven by Basil’s attitude toward Dorian Gray. Upon the first meeting of these two characters. Basil already feel an unusual drawnness to Dorian because of the latter’s exceptional beauty. However, the aspect that makes Basil idolize Dorian is not merely his beauty but his effect on him. When he saw Dorian his artistic senses developed even more. The beauty of Dorian serves as an inspiration for Basil that makes him make exceptional works of art like the portrait of Dorian.
Nevertheless, the opinion of Basil when it comes to his portrait of Dorian is that of fear and disappointment because he claims that he reveals too much of him. It reveals his feelings of utter admiration for Dorian, which also a cause of fear because he is revealing to those who would see the portraits the personal side of him, which should not be the case as art should be regarded as a mere work that does not connote anything (Wilde xiii). In this sense, Dorian indeed has a huge impact in the work and even the life of Basil. It could even be said that Basil has deeper feelings for Dorian than the mere painter-model relationship. This is quite observable on the by which he refers to Dorian as a Greek god or a mythological figure. Another instance of Basil’s concern for Dorian is when he doing his best to ask him to repent, which he ended up sacrificing his life for.
The difference that Basil Hallward has with Dorian Gray is that beauty tend to inspire him instead of making him sink in sins and immorality. Basil might fear the feelings that Dorian evokes in him but this is only because these emotions are real. Basil was able to be in touch with his artistic senses and his emotional side. The beauty that he saw in Dorian also allows him to care for another person, which is seen on his concern over the welfare of Dorian. As such, it could be said that Basil’s perspective of beauty helps him to recognized a deeper part of him.
Lord Henry Wotton
The perspective of beauty of Lord Henry Wotton tends to have similarities and differences with the views of the two other main characters. Lord Henry Wotton perceives beauty as the pursuit of all kinds of pleasure, which he could see not merely with beauty and youth but also in other ways that are mostly do not adhere with social norms or morality. In this sense, Lord Henry has a similar view of beauty with Dorian as they both believe that it could be found in pleasure seeking but they differ because the latter tends to focus more on his physical attractiveness and youth.
It might seem like Lord Henry’s definition of beauty is very worldly, it could indeed be referred as such but it also serves as a driving force for him to make a unique way of thinking. Lord Henry was able to develop his pursuance of pleasure into a form of thinking that could actually be applied as a way of life. This is seen in the manner by which he explains his beliefs with Dorian. Despite the fact that other people might see that Lord Henry’s perspective of beauty is not a good way of life to live by it is still commendable that he was to enhance such kind of thinking. In this case, Lord Henry and Basil Hallward has a similar view of beauty as it serves as a driving force for them to develop something, arts for Basil and a different ideology for Lord Henry.
Lord Henry’s perspective of beauty could be regarded as superficial by some people. However, Lord Henry’s honesty in indulging with pleasures of life is also a sense of honesty that is way different from the double life that Dorian was living. Lord Henry was very vocal and demonstrative on how he lives his life despite the approval of many people. However, this kind of action is also a criticism to those people who tend to pretend that they are morally upright but are actually living an immoral life behind the publics’ eye.
The discussions above show that the main characters of Wilde’s novel have their respective differences and similarities when it comes to their perspective of beauty. It only proves that beauty is indeed subjective not only in terms on how the people understand and apply it but also on how it influences them.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1999.