Themes in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’





Themes in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

Oscar Wilde’s novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is one of the most intriguing books of all time. Dorian Gray, the main character in the story, is a handsome young man who wishes that he could retain his good looks forever. Dorian’s desires reflect those of many human beings. People treasure youth and beauty above all else, and many wish they would never age or lose their beauty. Dorian wanted to engage in hedonism, selfishness, and all kinds of earthly pleasures, but he did not want the effects of these pursuits to show on his body. The human body shows signs of deterioration when misused, for example, excessive consumption of drugs or alcohol will result in disease, and alterations to the physical body. The main question that readers ask themselves when reading the novel is whether, given a choice, they would have chosen Dorian’s path. Dorian’s portrait absorbed all the effects of his crazy lifestyle, allowing him to remain young and good-looking. Dorian remained thus youthful while his peers aged, earning him their admiration. The main themes in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ are the purpose of art, the superficiality of society, the effects of negative consequences, and the emphasis on youth and beauty.

When the novel opens, Dorian Gray is in London getting his picture painted by an artist, Basil Hallward. Dorian is in London, in the home of his aunt, Lady Brandon. Basil is intrigued by Dorian’s beauty and youth and insists on painting him. However, Basil feels that his portrait betrays too much emotion on how he feels about Dorian. Basil speaks to his friend Lord Henry Wotton about his concerns, but Lord Henry tells the portrait is a masterpiece. Lord Henry supports the pursuit of pleasure in life, and Basil worries that he will be a negative influence on Dorian (Wilde 7). Dorian finds the two of them in the studio, and Basil is forced to introduce them. They become fast friends, with Lord Henry making an impression on the gullible Dorian. Lord Henry’s ideas about the transience of youth and beauty affect Dorian, who says that he wishes he could remain young forever. Lord Henry wants to own Dorian’s portrait, but Dorian insists on keeping it. Dorian wishes that the portrait could absorb all the aging and loss of beauty so that he could remain young and good-looking. His wishes soon came true.

Dorian Gray became an avid follower of Lord Henry’s beliefs in new hedonism and pursued all earthly pleasures. He falls in love with an actress named Sybil, who is enamored by his good looks. The actress named Sybil then decides not to act anymore because of her love for Dorian. However, Dorian only loved her because of her acting skills and decides to break off their engagement. Sybil’s brother, James Vane, warns her that Dorian would bring her trouble, but she refused to listen. Dorian goes home after his encounter with Sybil and sees that the portrait has taken on a sneering expression, following his wishes that it should absorb the effects of his actions. He regretted his behavior towards Sybil and decided to make up with her the next day. However, before he can do that, Lord Henry informs him that Sybil killed herself.

Lord Henry tells Dorian to view Sybil’s death as a form of tragic art. He later gifts Dorian a book that defines his very thoughts and actions. As the years went by, Dorian’s reputation suffered. Dorian remained young and good-looking as the portrait aged in his stead. Basil confronts Dorian about his reputation, but Dorian kills him in a fit of rage. James also confronts Dorian about Sybil’s death. Dorian then feels guilty about his actions and tries to destroy the painting. By stabbing the painting, Dorian killed himself, and the next day he was discovered dead. His body was transformed into an old, ugly man while the painting reverted to the handsome young man Dorian had once been.

The first theme evident in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is the superficiality of society. Most people like to dwell on the superficial characteristics of others rather than on important human virtues. In the case of Dorian, the society knew about his hedonistic exploits, and they disapproved. However, because of his looks, they were willing to overlook all his faults. They did not care what he had done; they only focused on his outward appearance (Drumova 4). Such an idea is quite dangerous because it encourages people to disregard harmful and toxic behavior and focus on petty things such as looks. What matters most in a human being is their character, and a person should be judged based on their actions rather than physical appearance. An example of this superficiality in the novel can be seen in the words of Lady Narborough, “you are made to be good—you look so good.” (Wilde 153) Everyone with whom Lord Henry and Dorian interacted with valued good looks above ethics. Although these people knew how Dorian’s actions ruined lives, such as Sybil’s, they overlooked all of this because of Dorian’s good looks.

The purpose of art is another central theme in Wilde’s novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.’ The most important piece of art in the story is the portrait of Dorian. At the beginning of the novel. Basil paints the portrait of Dorian in all his beauty and youth. However, for Dorian, the picture becomes a reminder that he will one day lose his good looks and grow old (Gültekin 51). This relationship between Dorian and his likeness reflects the relationship between an individual and the world. Dorian explains, “The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.” (Wilde 24) He felt that in having others look at the picture, they would see his soul. True to his words, Dorian’s portrait later becomes a reflection of himself. He kept the picture hidden away at the abandoned room in the house so that no one would see how it transformed over time. At the beginning of the novel, Wilde reflects on the purpose of the art, coming to the conclusion that “all art is useless.” (Wilde 1) However, as the story progresses, readers can see that art occupies an integral part of many characters’ lives. The first is Basil, who worries that his painting of Dorian would absorb his soul. Basil believed that art should be taken too deeply as it exerts power over people. This proved to be true in Dorian’s case, where his whole life came to be defined by the portrait.

The supremacy of beauty and youth is another theme evident in the novel. Dorian is an excellent example of this. Basil is intrigued by Dorian chiefly because he is young and good-looking. Dorian also prized his beauty above anything else, and he was terrified at the thought of growing old. This is the main reason why he was so concerned with his self-portrait. He would give up anything so that he could remain as beautiful and young. “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young……If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that-for that-I would give everything!” (Wilde 37) When speaking to Lord Henry about Dorian’s portrait, Basil explained that his work might show too much emotion about the subject. Lord Henry was quite taken by Dorian precisely because of his beauty and youth. Lord Henry praised these qualities as the most important for a person (Clifton 287). One surprising opinion from Lord Henry is that beauty and intellect do not go together. He says, “But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face.” (Wilde 77) This line of reasoning where youth and beauty are prized above all else encourages vanity and encourages people to become superficial. Intelligence is a virtue that all people should strive to attain. Intellect and beauty should not be mutually exclusive.

The friendship between Lord Henry and Dorian brings out the theme of the negative effects of influence. When Dorian first met Lord Henry, Basil was quite reluctant to introduce the two because he feared that the latter would influence Dorian with his ideas. Sure enough, Dorian’s life was soon completely influenced by Lord Henry’s influence. Lord Henry believed in hedonism and the pursuit of self-interest at all costs (Stern 751). He also greatly admired Dorian’s youth and beauty, and this was enough for Dorian to follow Lord Henry’s opinions. When Sybil died, Lord Henry urged Dorian to think of her death as an artistic tragedy. Dorian soon convinced himself out of his grief and guilt for the part he played in Sybil’s untimely death. Lord Henry encouraged Dorian to give in to his every desire. He said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.” (Wilde 113) Lord Henry also gifted Dorian a book about the exploits of a nineteenth-century Frenchman. This book influenced every aspect of Dorian’s life, and he sank deeper and deeper into a life of pleasure and sin. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Lord Henry exerts the most significant influence on Dorian. One wonders whether Dorian might have taken a different path had it not been for their friendship.

The theme of love in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is a complex one, and it is mostly destructive. Dorian loved himself more than anything, and that is why he treasured his looks. He never wanted to grow old or ugly, and he wished that the portrait would absorb such undesirable occurrences. Dorian’s self-obsessed love proved to be dangerous as he disregarded the feelings and opinions of all those around him as he sought his pleasure. When he met Sybil, he questioned his love for her. He loved her mainly for her acting abilities (Shea 132). He was quite curious as to what attracted him to her, and he sought to explore the new feelings. Sybil was obsessed with Dorian, whom she referred to as Prince Charming. Even when warned by her brother and Wisdom about the danger of their relationship, she would listen to none of them. Dorian and Sybil’s love eventually leads to death. The two felt differently about each other. Sybil made up her mind to stop acting because of her love for Dorian. On learning this, Dorian no longer felt the same way as he did before. He told her, “I loved you because you were marvelous, because you had genius and intellect because you realized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. You have thrown it all away. You are shallow and stupid.” (Wilde 142) The readers could imagine the effect that these harsh words had on the gullible Sybil. She killed herself when Dorian broke off their engagement. When Sybil died, Dorian brushed it off under the advice of Lord Henry. The ease with which Dorian shook off the whole incident makes one wonder whether he really loved Sybil.

In conclusion, Oscar Wilde’s book, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ proves to be quite a captivating read. The author weaves together a tale that reflects the wishes of many individuals and also brings to question the extremes that people would go to satisfy their desires. Society considers youth and beauty to be essential qualities of a person, which leads Dorian to pursue a destructive path in life. Through Dorian’s story, some of the most prominent themes in the book include the purpose of art, beauty and youth, love, and the negative consequences of influence. Dorian lived a life of sin and pleasure, but in the end, he succumbed to guilt. The portrait that helped him escape the reality of age eventually led to his death. One lesson from the books is that aging and death are inevitable, and people should lead a life of moderation to be more fulfilled.

Works Cited

Clifton, Glenn. “Aging and Periodicity in The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Ambassadors: An Aesthetic Adulthood.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 59.3 (2016): 283-302.

Drumova, Viktoria. The picture of Dorian Gray: eternal themes of morality, beauty and false values through centuries. Diss. Tartu Ülikooli Narva Kolledž, 2015.

Gültekin, Lerzan. “Art versus Morality: Oscar Wilde’s Aestheticism in The Picture of Dorian Gray.” One Day, Oscar Wilde (2016): 49-62.

Naratri, Aisya Rizka. Psychological Conflict of Dorian Gray in the Novel Entitled the Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Diss. Diponegoro University, 2016.

Shea, C. Michael. “Fallen Nature and Infinite Desire: A Study of Love, Artifice, and Transcendence in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Á rebours and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 17.1 (2013): 115-139.

Stern, Simon. “Wilde’s Obscenity Effect: Influence and Immorality in The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The Review of English Studies 68.286 (2017): 756-772.

Wilde, Oscar. The picture of dorian gray. OUP Oxford, 2006.