How Art Relates to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel about a young,
handsome, and vain man who has his portrait painted, and impulsively wishes
that he could forever remain just as handsome as he is in the painting -- that the
painting would age instead of him. He gets his wish in a most eerie way; as, with
passing years, he becomes increasingly dissolute and evil, while the changes
that one would expect to appear on his face are reflected in the portrait instead.
What this book is about, clearly, is feelings and appearances becoming real. This
motif is echoed and re-echoed throughout the book. Early in the novel, Sir Henry
Wotten -- a cynical hedonist -- gives Dorian a book about people who tried to
experience everything, both good and evil, and Dorian decides to try it; in other
words, he models his life after a work of art. The fact that Dorian's one female
love is an actress -- a person who wears masks and pretends to be someone she
is not -- reinforces this motif. When she reveals herself to be real, his repugnance
for her is so overwhelming that it reaches out like an evil spirit and kills her;
Dorian therefore murdered Sybil as surely as he would murder Basil later on.
We tell small children that their feelings are not actions and therefore have
no repercussions of their own, but deep in our psyches we know this is not so.
The reason tribal cultures wear ceremonial masks is to embody their sacred spirit
they make the spirit real by simulating his appearance. Similarly, Lord Henry
observes of Dorian that "Ordinary people waited till life disclosed to them its
secrets, but to the few, to the elect, the mysteries of life were revealed before the
veil was drawn away. Sometimes this was the effect of art, and chiefly of the art
of literature, which dealt immediately with the passions and the intellect. But now
and then a complex personality took the place and assumed the office of art, was
indeed, in its way, a real work of art, life having its elaborate masterpieces, just
as poetry has, or sculpture, or painting" (Wilde, 72). Dorian, Lord Henry is
arguing, actually is a plastic, organic work of art, in a continual state of progress.
Yet if Dorian is a work of art, the painting is real life. It is clear that the only
character in the book who is consistently honest and straightforward is the
painting, which reflects the changes that Dorian's own face should reflect as his
personality becomes more and more evil. Here Wilde may be reflecting his own