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The main theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the relationship between beauty and morality. Oscar Wilde plays on the Renaissance idea of the correspondence between the physical and spiritual realms: beautiful people are moral people; ugly people are immoral people. His twist on this theme is in his use of the magical contrivance of the portrait. The portrait of Dorian Gray bears all the ugliness and age of sin while Dorian himself remains young and beautiful no matter what he does. The portrait even holds Dorian’s guilty conscience, at least until he kills Basil Hallward.
The minor theme of the novel is the idea of the amorality of art. If something is beautiful, it is not confined to the realm of morality and immorality. It exists on its own merits. This idea is expressed by Lord Henry in its decadent aspect and by Basil Hallward in its idealistic aspect. Dorian Gray plays it out in his life.
The mood of the novel is a counterbalance between the witty, ironical world view of Lord Henry and the earnest and straightforward world view of Basil Hallward. Dorian Gray goes back and forth between these two poles. The novel does too. At times, it is the world of urbane wit making light of the moral earnestness of philanthropists. At times, it is the melodramatic world of lurid opium dens and tortured suicides.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in 1854 in Dublin. His father was Sir William Wilde, a distinguished surgeon specializing in ophthalmology. His father was an eccentric, who was known for his uncleanness and for his sexual promiscuity. His mother, Lady Wilde, ran a literary salon in Dublin. She had published a volume of poems in her youth and went under the name of Speranza.
When he was ten years old, Oscar Wilde was enrolled in Portora Royal School, an Irish version of a British private school. After graduating, he went to Trinity College in Dublin. He won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1874. Oscar Wilde developed his parents’ talent for ostentation. He dressed flamboyantly and spoke in the tone of wry wit and irony about everything usually held in reverence.
During his college years, he was greatly influenced by John Ruskin and Walter Pater. John Ruskin urged the young men of Oxford to recognize the dignity of labor among other things. Walter Pater, the founder of the schools of aestheticism and decadence in England, wrote an enormously influential book called Renaissance. Oscar Wilde wrote of it that "it is the very flower of decadence; the last trumpet should have sounded the moment it was written."
When Wilde finished college in 1878 with high honors, he took up residence in London. He became the leader of the school of aestheticism, the "art for art’s sake" movement. He claimed for this school of art all the French Symbolistes Baudelaire and the French writer Flaubert, as well as British poets and writing going back to Dante Gabrielle Rosetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, and even Keats. Wilde was also a strong classicist. He preferred Greek over medieval culture.
Wilde became extremely well known during his life time. He became an integral member of the British aristocratic society. The newspaper press reported the goings on of the aristocracy with great interest. He traveled to the United States and lectured there for a year.
In 1883, he returned to London and married and had two sons. Wilde enjoyed married life for a time, but he was more attracted to men than to women. In 1891, he became lovers with Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, was generally thought to be insane. He became obsessed with saving his son from Wilde’s influence. He threatened Wilde at every turn. Wilde made the fateful mistake of suing Queensbury for criminal libel. The trial acquitted Queensbury and Wilde was arrested for being a homosexual. He was tried twice. The first time the jury acquitted him and the second time he was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labor. While in prison, he wrote the book De Profundis, a long letter to explain his life and to condemn Lord Alfred Douglas for abandoning him. He also wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898). Wilde’s trial brought out all the homophobia (anti-gay feeling) that had long been building up in England and America. Even the aesthetic movement in art suffered a setback as a result of the backlash against Oscar Wilde.
When Wilde was released from prison, he lived in France under an assumed name. He had been divorced and declared a bankrupt. Friends supported him financially for the remaining two years of his life.
Wilde entered and expanded the Aesthetic movement in art, also called the "art for art’s sake" movement. He drew on the writings of Walter Pater, as well as those of the Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris. He expounded the notion that life was to be lived for beauty and pleasure, not for duty. Art should not be confined to the page or the canvas. It should be lived. It should be worn. It should structure all of life. Wilde was received with great pleasure and enthusiasm by the aristocracy of London. He was caricatured in the popular presses which served the middle class, but the caricature meant as well that his was a household name in London.
In 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray was published. It was received with great interest. Its Preface became a sort of manifesto of the aesthetes and decadents of the 1890s. Wilde continued in the next few years to write essays expanding the ideas of this Preface. He followed Dorian Gray with the book The Soul of Man Under Socialism there developing the ideas of John Ruskin and others. Wilde’s greatest successes came with his dramatic writing. In 1892, he wrote and put on Lady Windermere’s Fan, in 1893, he produced An Ideal Husband, and in 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest. The latter is Wilde’s masterpiece. It was and is still seen as one of the best comedies ever written.
The Aesthetic movement is summed up in Wilde’s Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray and in his essay The Critic as Artist. He develops Walter Pater’s aestheticism. He proclaims the preeminence of art over life. He scorns the idea that art should imitate life, represent it fairly and accurately. Instead, he argued that life should imitate art. While Oscar Wilde propounded the idea that art and morality are totally separate, his works, including Dorian Gray betray a different philosophy of life. He seems to recognize the problems of the pursuit of pleasure at the expense of moral responsibility.
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