Oscar Wilde has always been known as an eccentric sort of thinker. His contributions to literary theory and criticism fit the bill—he made it his purpose to defy convention and question society.
Anyone who has read The Picture of Dorian Gray likely has some idea of Wilde’s philosophy on Art and Beauty. The long monologues and pretentious conversations between characters make it somewhat difficult to ignore. But how is this reflected—or not reflected—in his essays and other work?
The preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray is, obviously, the most directly connected to the themes of the novel itself. In this preface, Wilde seeks to defend the artist and Art for its own sake. He says:
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. . . . Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Art and writing were, in Wilde’s view, beautiful and honest, without bias; people, on the other hand, sought to ascribe moral meanings and standards while simultaneously living duplicitous lives.
These themes are undoubtedly reflected in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The unabashed honesty of Art, which Wilde so emphatically praises, is presented in an entirely literal sense. The portrait in the story is the only thing capable of unmasking the duplicity of Dorian’s life. Ironically, however, it is due to this honesty that the portrait lacks Beauty—the Beauty is instead present in the real Dorian Gray, and the portrait reflects all the ugliness of the world.
This is not, from the beginning, the case; at the start of the novel, both the portrait and Dorian himself are aesthetically pleasing. It is only through the eventual split in Dorian’s personality—the duplicity of the beautiful face he presents to the world juxtaposed with the dark soul hidden beneath, a duplicity which Wilde is himself critical of—that Dorian comes to possess Art’s Beauty but none of its honesty, and the Artwork possesses its ascribed honesty at the cost of its aesthetic appeal. Beauty and honesty are never again unified within the story. They remain divided, although ultimately their roles are switched, when Dorian attempts to destroy his portrait and dies as a result.
This conclusion forces one to question whether Wilde’s claim that it is a fault to find ugly meanings in beautiful things was made in earnest. After all, would not there be an ugly meaning behind all that is beautiful in The Picture of Dorian Gray?
In the final scene, the picture remains behind, forever preserving the superficial Beauty of an ugly and duplicitous man. Did Wilde mean for us to think that this Beauty should be appreciated for its own sake, or is there another issue he seeks to address?
Returning to the preface, Wilde devotes several lines to analyzing the complaints surrounding Art and how self-centered these complaints tend to be. He uses Caliban of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest as a metaphor for society—half human, half monster.
The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in the glass.
In other words, society tends to prefer that Art and writing not be too honest—if they see themselves reflected in a work, they take offense because they do not like what they see. Conversely, people also dislike that which they cannot identify themselves in, because it loses all relatability. In short, someone will always take issue with what they interpret to be the message of the artist.
Of course, it cannot be denied that The Picture of Dorian Gray was intended to serve as a larger cultural and societal commentary. Although his work in theory extends beyond the ideas reflected in the novel, it is informative to put the novel and the criticism into conversation with one another where possible. In doing so, I feel that one gains a better contextualized understanding of Wilde’s theory, which in turn allows for more thorough analysis of his philosophy and work.