Art vs Morality

The picture of Dorian Gray is a high quality story which can be analyzed through literary and cultural lenses. It is the only novel by Oscar Wilde which was first published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine on 20 June 1890. The novel reflects the part of writer’s paradox role in his life. Interestingly, several times it was revised and altered and some new chapters were added as well by writer himself. The main characters are: Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry “Harry” Wotton. Besides these Sibyl Vane, James Vane, Alan Campbell, Lord Fermor, Victoria, Lady Henry Wotton also played a significant role throughout the novel. The preface was not first included in the first publication, but was put in later by the writer as a direct reaction to the accusations of immorality and indecency by critics. In the preface, Wilde states that art and morality, or aesthetics and ethics, are completely separate realms, and that the work of art merely mirrors the spectator. To support this view it is necessary to mention that the judgment of aesthetic value is based on first hand experience of their objects and are not transmissible from one person to another. Michael Tanner, in the first chapter of his book “Art and Morality”, addresses that sincerity differs between the two dominions also (Seligman and Weller 2008). With ethics, we may not like to do what our morals say we ought to do, but sincerity in response to works of art demands an honest report to our first-hand experience (Shafer-Landau and Cuneo, 2007). Aesthetic properties are apparent, but ethical qualities are usually inferred.

Foundation of aestheticism and Oscar Wilde

The philosophical basis of aestheticism was first originated in the eighteenth century by Immanuel Kant. Art exists for its own sake and for its own essence of beauty. An artist should not be concerned about morality or pleasure that a work might bring to audience. J.W. Von Goethe in Germany and Samuel Taylor & Thomas Carlyle in England supported the concept of aestheticism. However, Oscar Wilde was not inventor of Aestheticism; rather he began to promote that movement near the end of nineteenth century. The humanistic aesthetics within Wilde’s mind was more concerned with the individual as well as the self, than other popular movements like capitalism or industrialism. Most importantly, art is not meant to instruct and should not distress itself with moral or social guidance. He supported his view of freedom from restraints and boundary of society which can be understood by analyzing his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Furthermore, Wilde states that an artist’s life is more valuable than any work he produced; his life is meant to be the most important body of work. The main theme of this novel corroborates all these thoughts of Wilde and that is well placed as well.

Mirror of Wilde in Novel

In the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, the role of Lord Henry and Dorian Gray can be compared to the Devil and Adam from the Old Testament. Lord Henry plays the role of Devil and Dorian Gray the role of Adam. The author has made Basil’s life changed drastically. The belief of Wilde is that an artist should not portray himself in his work, so when the character Basil does this, it is he who creates his downfall. Here one question arises “Does not that contradict the novel Wilde himself produced”. Writer introduced Basil to Dorian when he begins to notice Dorian staring at him. Basil "suddenly became conscious that someone was looking at [him]. [He] turned halfway around and saw Dorian Gray for the first time"(Wilde 24). Basil immediately notices him; however Basil is afraid to talk to him. His reason for this is that he does "not want any external influence in [his] life" (Wilde24). This is sort of paradox where his own internal influences contradicts him. Wilde does such many times throughout the story. He liked using paradox and that is the reason Lord Henry, the character similar to Wilde, is quoted as being called “Price Paradox.”

Paradox ending of the story

Basil realized that he did not conceal himself in the painting and therefore feels that it is not worth anything. Basil is right in realizing this because Lord Henry is the person who influences Dorian to destroy himself. Without informing Basil, Lord Henry meets Dorian. This was the beginning of the end of both Dorian and Basil, because his influence pollutes Dorian. In fact, the whole story about Dorian’s pale efforts at goodness is to be said pathetic. However, Dorian reached to set toy knight upright which reflects his desire to reform, but that was not sufficient and too late. The finishing, when he stabbed the painting in an endeavor to demolish it, is very much like Poe's "William Wilson," which also finishes with the protagonist trying to murder his Doppelganger, which causes his own death.


Through the role of Basil, it is clear that a thematic framework is totally different from the concerns of art and life. This can be compared to the Christian scheme of sin, which is about repentance and possibility of redemption. When Dorian feels the desire for change in life, he moves into different sphere. It is important to understand that worshiping the art and beauty may have its place, but it also proves that it is an inadequate guide through the troubled maze of real human experience. All these are known just because of the picture of Dorian Gray.

Order now

Related essays