First published as pop-culture in Lippincott's Magazine, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray sparked immediate controversy with its Victorian critics (Introduction xvi-xviii). The Victorian Era, named so for the reign of British Queen Victoria, was tantamount to exacting moral principles – media, households and government were consumed by pious platitudes. During this time, anything suggestive of sex – literal or allegorical – was stringently suppressed; women were to be covered up to the chin, out to the hands, and down to the ankles, likewise, piano and table legs were covered to the floor. Victorian literature possessed an ability to inculcate a sense of religious and social responsibility in its reader; the conventional Victorian novel most commonly embodied a “social reality” (“The Victorian Age”) – accepted social tenets of a community – and the manner of search and discovery the characters use to find and establish their places within the set “reality” (“The Victorian Age”). Wilde, and his aesthete contemporaries, challenged the mainstream didactic literature of their time with an, as Walter Pater put it, “art for [art's] sake” (276) attitude. Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is a whelming campaign against the Victorian tenor; through vivid scenery and cunning language, Wilde argues not only the ability of art to consist of purely aesthetic qualities but the inability for art to consist of anything other than beauty.
First published in response to the negative criticism surrounding the Lippincott's Magazine 1890 publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde established a sequence of epigrams illustrating his manifest aestheticism (in footnotes 3). Later used as the Preface of the 1891 publication, the epigrams extol beauty and spurn his critics belief that literature carries moral responsibility, thus showcasing Wilde's sardonic wit. Ironically, Dorian accuses Lord Henry of “cutting life to pieces with [his] epigrams” (Wilde 98) as an excuse for the young man's reluctance to open the gentlemen's letter. Wilde's use of epigrams, first as a summation of aestheticism and later as a device for delaying the inevitable, is a clever artistic coup. However, Wilde's cunning scheme comes fully into fruition through his placement of epigrams throughout the novel. Distinguishing the difference between Victorian mores and the philosophical tenets of aestheticism, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” (quoted in Victorian Reactions 265), Wilde challenged those who believe otherwise,
“it feels instinctively that manners are of more importance than morals” (140).
The novel begins with a vivid scene that seduces the reader's senses, “the rich odour of roses...the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a labunum...shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk” (Wilde 5). In one sentence, Wild takes his reader out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary allowing his audience to,...