Chosen extract: The Picture of Dorian Grey, Chapter 2 from “Suddenly the painter appeared at the door of the studio” to “I would give my soul for that! ” Chapter two of “The Picture of Dorian Grey” is an important chapter as it firmly introduces readers to the title character, Dorian Grey and his cohorts. We learn that he exudes physical attractiveness, being ‘wonderfully handsome1’ with a ‘bright look in the eyes2’, and ‘finely-curved scarlet lips’. The use of language here describes Dorian Grey in an effeminate manner, suggesting that he is unconventional, disassociating the character from the stereotypical Victorian male.
Already, this could imply to the reader that Wilde is displaying signs of the return of the repressed, insofar as his illicit desires towards other men. The novel may serve as a platform for Wilde’s unconscious desires. The supremacy of youth and beauty is a central theme in the novel and, coincidently is the first principle of aestheticism. The aesthetic movement saw the support and emphasis of aesthetic values and it was most prominent in Europe at ‘The Fin De Siecle’. Wilde was an advocate of this philosophy of art and believed that the sole purpose of art is to offer beauty – or ‘art for art’s sake’.
In ‘The Critic as Artist’ (1891) Wilde declares that “the first condition of criticism is that the critic shoukd be able to recognise that the sphere of Art and the sphere of Ethics are absolutely distinct and separate”3. Aestheticism is thought to have been promoted by Theophile Gautier in France, who interpreted the phrase to suggest that there was not any similarity between art and morality. As Lord Henry Wotton suggests, ‘it is better to be beautiful than to be good4’.
Fin de Siecle, British aestheticism was largely linked to Wilde and his social group, as it often carries the inference of decadence, and living an easy lifestyle; it could be argued from a psychoanalytic perspective, that Dorian Grey is a mechanism of reflection for Wilde’s own nature. Terence Dawson suggests that elements of Freudian psychology can be applied to Wilde’s only novel as it appears that The fact that the fiction antedates life suggests that the unconscious perceives more than consciousness5 Also suggested by Dawson,
‘Basil and Lord Henry personify two different aspects of Wilde’s personality. Basil’s fascination with Dorian anticipates Wilde’s fascination with Lord Alfred Douglas6’ The text suggests that Basil and Lord Henry are older than Dorian, insinuating this by language such as ‘All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity. ’ Although Dorian is not ‘ a schoolboy’, he behaves in such a manner that conveys innocence and immaturity, we later learn of Dorian’s irrational fear of growing old and losing his ‘rose-white boyhood’.
He cannot bear the idea of becoming ‘wrinkled and wizened’ and with Lord Henry’s manipulative character, he is able to begin to mould Dorian into someone unable to follow their own moral code and be aware of their conscience. It would appear that his longing to stay forever young is ‘a call to to courage, as in age “we degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we are too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to7”8’ Wilde was a supporter of the aesthetic movement and chose to incorporate the values into his novel, revolutionary in Victorian England.
First published in 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, it was criticised as scandalous and immoral. Even though publishers censored a huge number of words, British critics still found it outrageous and believed that Wilde should be imprisoned on moral grounds. Wilde adjusted the novel in 1981, adding six new chapters and a preface, but argued fiercely that his art held an intrinsic value. Because it is beautiful, it has worth, and this piece of art serves no other purpose than to be beautiful; it was not written for moral or political reasons.
Wilde believed that ‘the self is multiple, One testament to the multiplicity of Oscar Wilde can be found in critical opinion of his aesthetics9’. The Picture of Dorian Grey has branches of the Gothic within it as it contains a strong Faustian theme. Faust is the protagonist of a classic German legend, similar to Oscar Wilde’s title character. Although Faust is a highly successful academic, he is unhappy with his life and he too makes a pact with the Devil.
Like Dorian Grey, Faust exchanges his soul for knowledge, power and pleasure. Wilde has adapted this idea for the character of Dorian Grey (as it was made known through popular culture at the time of Wilde’s writing) and continues it throughout the book, attributing other characters of the legend to the characters in Wilde’s novel. The gothic aspects are prevalent insofar as the presence of the transgressive character, Dorian Grey and the boundaries he crosses in terms of the aesthetic way of thinking. Wilde also introduces
the fantastic world of decadence and indulgence that thwart Dorian Grey into becoming utilitarian in his thinking. Wilde creates Dorian to represent the archetypal of male youth, to look at he is perfect, but as he is impressionable, which he expresses in his juvenile behaviour, he adopts the Benthamite philosophy, that mankind is governed by two sovereign motives, pleasure and pain. Lord Henry is thus able to shape Dorian into someone solely motivated in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.