The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde remains an enigma in literary circles. Is it a scathing commentary about the philistinism of the Victorian time period? Is it a morality tale against allowing the influence of others to overcome one’s own individualism? Is it a criticism of a society that values youth and beauty over morality and substance? All of these have been the focus of scholarly inquiry in the century since the novel’s release. However, its most fascinating line of examination involves the author himself. The Picture of Dorian Gray is of particular interest as a an autobiographical portrait of the author in three alter egos, and provided eerie foreshadowing of Wilde’s own life even as the author argued that art did not mirror life.
Wilde is quoted as saying in regard to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.” (Wilde, Letters 352) Later, Wilde is said to have elaborated that “Hallward represents suffering and a sacrificed artist; Lord Henry symbolizes a mature philosopher and wit; Dorian is equivalent to a youthful aesthete-about-town…” (Stayley 320) It is interesting to examine these statements in light of the characters in the story, and if they are autobiographical, what that says about Wilde’s real life.
Basil Hallward is how Wilde viewed himself. The character is a talented but common artist, conventional in his morality, and a person of caring, nature. He falls in love with the beautiful, vapid, vain Dorian Gray, and is instantly overcome by his feelings, calling them “idolatry” (Wilde, Reader 16). He insists that he can never show the portrait he has painted of Dorian, because, “I have put too much of myself into it.” (Wilde, Reader 6) He is the voice of reason in the story, objecting to Lord Henry’s influence over the naïve Dorian, and later to Dorian’s increasingly disreputable lifestyle. He is the only main character that cares about others, and ultimately it is that, and his feelings for Dorian in particular, that lead to Basil’s murder. While Wilde was known for his wit and blasé attitude when it came to conventional mores and traditional modes of behavior, if he truly believed himself to be like Basil Hallward, he was sketching himself a more boring person with a larger investment in the opinion of those around him than his public persona or expressed philosophy portrayed. If Basil was his fictional double, then he was also an artist driven (and destroyed) by love.
Lord Henry Wotton is the figure that Wilde believed represented his public role, and whether he owned it or not, to some degree he did project himself into it. Lord Henry is an outspoken advocate of hedonism and aestheticism – concern for self, experience, and beauty above all else. He also steers Dorian Gray off the road of respectability (of self and society), purposefully manipulating him as an experiment, just to see what would...