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Vanity, Evil, Immortality in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde

Introduction

The Picture of Dorian Gray is arguably Oscar Wilde’s most well-known and most debated work. Set in Victorian England, the story revolves around Dorian Gray and his slow descent into a life of hedonism, decadence, and immorality. However, unlike any other self-indulgent character, Gray is freed from the effects of his lifestyle on his face and body by his portrait. Throughout the novel, Wilde develops the theme of vanity, how it affects the human mind and behavior, and how the pursuit of one’s desires can lead to evil and hideous acts. Through his portrait, Dorian becomes virtually immortal, but this immortality only locks him in his empty and meaningless existence by freeing him from any consequences. Overall, in his book, Oscar Wilde masterfully examines the interconnectedness of vanity, evil, and the desire to become immortal.

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Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Society

Oscar Wilde is one of the most celebrated authors of the 19th century. Born in Dublin in 1854, Wilde spent most of his life in London and experienced all the benefits and pitfalls of Victorian high society (“Oscar Wilde Biography”). Introduced to it by his friend, painter Frank Miles, Wilde quickly became a part of it and further secured his position by marrying a wealthy English woman, Constance Lloyd (“Oscar Wilde Biography”). The promising author had a pristine reputation as he worked on his literary pieces and was devoted to his wife and children. This facade was shattered when it transpired that Wilde had an affair with a man (“Oscar Wilde Biography”). Thus, people learned that the writer led a double life, and if his public life was spotless, his personal life went against strict moral standards of the time. Although Wilde was not the only man in Victorian London with a secret life, his persecution for it shows how vital the perfect image was for the members of high society.

The strict moral conduct rules of Victorian England had a significant impact on Wilde and his works. According to Kidd, in London, a man’s public image was of considerable importance as his reputation was based solely on how other members of society viewed him (83). Many prominent men in Victorian times had a pristine public image while indulging in activities that would be deemed immoral (Kidd 84). It can be argued that this desire to support a perfect reputation stems from vanity and egotism, as well as the necessity to fit in the society and benefit from it. It is well reflected in Wilde’s novel with the protagonist preserving his beauty and benefiting from his looks while leading a morally questionable lifestyle. The character of Dorian Gray is an accurate reflection of many affluent men in Victorian society with their reputations staying spotless when their personal life was full of self-indulgence and libertinism.

The Plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray

The plot of the story revolves around its titular character, Dorian Gray, who is led astray by Lord Henry’s belief in leading a hedonistic lifestyle. Throughout the novel, the protagonist transforms from a naive young man into an immoral and corrupt one who strives for nothing more than to enact his every desire and preserve his beauty. Gray experiences true love early in his life, as he falls for beautiful and talented actress Sibyl Vane, but their romance is short-lived after he cruelly rejects her after she performs poorly on stage (Wilde 86). After Sibyl kills herself, Dorian spends the next 18 years of his life catering to his every desire, no matter how depraved or immoral, and exploring the effects his lifestyle has on his portrait. When the hero shows the picture to his friend and author of the portrait, Basil, the latter finds it shocking and abhorrent, and Gray kills him in a sudden bout of anger (Wilde 151). In his last honorable act, Dorian Gray attempts to destroy the portrait and, ultimately, kills himself, freeing his soul from the cursed picture.

Analysis of the Main Themes: Vanity, Evil, and Immortality

Vanity is a recurring theme in Wilde’s novel, with Dorian Gray being a prime example of it. At the beginning of the story, Dorian is shown as a somewhat naive and good-hearted young man. However, he is depicted like that through the eyes of Basil Hallward, a painter enamored with him and the author of his fateful portrait. It can be argued that the protagonist is not as innocent and naive as he is described and that the smitten painter idealizes his muse. Even Basil notices that the object of his desires can be thoughtless and treats the artist’s feelings “as a bit of decoration to charm his vanity” (Wilde 14). Dorian is prone to being vain and self-centered due to his good looks and how people who admire his beauty treat him. Olsson disagrees stating that the fact that Basil loves Dorian must indicate the latter’s kindness and morality (11). Nevertheless, at the beginning of the story, Dorian Gray’s true character and morality, or lack of it cannot be extensively deduced from the narrative, as he is shown from others’ perspectives.

It can be argued that from the very beginning of the book, the protagonist leads a double life as his reputation is pristine, but the readers know nothing about his private life. Dorian Gray is a vain character, as he enjoys the effect his beauty has on others, including Basil and Lord Henry. However, this enjoyment is also a result of the way others treat him. Dorian is a handsome young man with impeccable manners, and other characters in the book often praise the way he looks, rarely addressing his personality. Basil believes that Dorian is kindhearted and moral, but the artist is infatuated with him. These characteristics are an idealistic view of Dorian rather than Gray’s true personality. Dorian’s vanity is fostered in him by others, as the hero allows himself to be influenced by their view of him and begins to believe in the image of himself created by others. In Victorian London, “image is everything,” and the perfect image of Dorian others see gradually takes over his personality (Kidd 83). Thus, Dorian Gray can be viewed as a victim of his beauty and charm.

Nevertheless, Dorian is not blameless in his transformation from a naive, if slightly vain young man, into a debauched and immoral one. He tries to please people whose opinions matter to him and those he wants to emulate and impress. Gray visibly hurts Basil’s feelings when the painter wants Lord Henry to leave (Wilde 19). The protagonist does not consider his friend’s feelings and prefers to spend time with his new acquaintance. It is also vanity that leads to the end of his relationship with Sibyl Vane. When Lord Henry learns of the relationship, he notes that women are “a decorative sex” and that Sibyl is just another exquisite thing (Wilde 47). Dorian comes to a similar conclusion when Sibyl is unable to perform well in front of his friends. The hero is embarrassed by her poor acting and claims she killed his love (Wilde 85). This act of cruelty and indifference towards the woman he claimed to love is the first step in his descent into an immoral, hedonistic lifestyle. This cruelty is also the first sign of depravity reflected in the portrait.

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It is also Dorian Gray’s vanity that sparks the desire for immortality in him. Although aging is a natural process, the notion of losing his good looks shocks Dorian. The young man is afraid of growing “old, and horrible, and dreadful” and is prepared to sell his soul to remain young while the portrait ages (Wilde 27). The character is not afraid of death as he does not plead to stay immortal but dreads losing his beauty. This desire of the protagonist to remain young to preserve his good looks is another indication of his vanity, and the fulfillment of that desire is what allows him to experience acts deemed immoral by Victorian society. Dorian’s vanity and lack of consequences for his action that would hurt the only thing he comes to care about, his beauty, is the combination that encourages his debauchery.

Dorian’s vanity and pursuit of sensuality and immorality while preserving a pristine facade reflects Victorian society. Throughout the novel, the author employs mimesis, a literary device that can be defined as a “representation of reality” (Lawtoo 214). As a character, Dorian is the pinnacle of the concept of leading a double life. His beauty and charm represent Victorians’ public lives, whereas his deformed portrait and the acts the hero commits in private represent their private lives. Basil and Lord Henry are also a reflection of that society. The painter represses his love and desire for Dorian, whereas his friend chooses to experience every sensual desire he has while maintaining the public image of a respectable married man (Lawtoo 2017). Furthermore, the novel also reflects the author and his life, with Wilde himself noting that he thinks of himself as Basil, the world sees him as Lord Henry, and he would like to be Dorian (Lawtoo 218). Thus, Wilde mimetically speaks through his main characters reflecting himself and his position in society and the Victorian high society itself.

Conclusion

Oscar Wilde’s only novel discusses how vanity, if nurtured and catered to, and lack of consequences can lead to a descent into a sinful and decadent life and genuinely evil acts. Dorian Gray’s wish for immortality stems from his vanity and adoration of his beauty, and when it is granted, it only pushes him further into an exploration of his depravity. The novel’s main character reflects the standards of Victorian society and the necessity to hide one’s sinful personal life behind a pristine facade of public image. Wilde manages to represent himself mimetically in his characters and reflect upon his position in society and the necessity to hide certain aspects of himself from others. Overall, Wilde masterfully examines the connection between vanity and desire for immortality and how vanity can lead to evil deeds.

Works Cited

“Oscar Wilde Biography.Biography, 2019, web.

Kidd, Chelsea E. “The Uselessness of Art: Critique and Contradiction in the Picture of Dorian Gray.” Papers & Publications: Interdisciplinary Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 6, no. 16, 2018.

Lawtoo, Nidesh. “The Excess of Mimesis: Reframing the Picture of Dorian Gray.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, vol. 18, no. 2, 2020, pp. 213-238. EBSCOhost, Web.

Olsson, Linda. The Unacceptance of a Sinful Protagonist’s Moral Standards: The Cause and Effect of Censoring Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, 2015, pp. 1–17, Web.

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Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Penguin Books, 2010.

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