In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the centrality and importance of beauty is evident. The author uses varied text, direct and implied, to expose the aesthetics of beauty, commonly reminiscent in the Victorian era. The perverse reference to beauty and aesthetics can be visualized from the lush descriptions of the environment, the character’s interaction, as well as the appreciation they articulate for beautiful objects, people and experiences. The objectification of beauty by the author reflects the value system in the Victorian era where objects and perceptions were viewed as aesthetics of beauty (Ossa “The Picture of Dorian Gray”). As a feature of aesthetics, the author seeks to explore, analyze and honor beauty in its abstract and concrete forms. As a result, the author’s depiction of beauty and its essence is crucial in the development of conflict between characters, and the enhancement of plot.
The author opens the novel with a description of beauty. This beauty is symbolic, in that it offers insights into what the characters love, and how this love for beauty guides their interaction and the unfolding plot. For instance, the beautiful nature of Lord Henry’s studio is vividly described: “the rich odor of roses, the heavy scent of lilac, and the sweet smell of the pink-flowering thorn” (Wilde 1) are all indicative of beauty. By offering a prelude to beauty, the author hints that characters’ interaction and the unfolding plot will be based on the beauty and its significance to the characters’ lives. The depiction of beauty also mirrors the appeal of individuals towards beauty in the Victorian period. Therefore, the influence of beauty over characters’ lives is unquestionable.
Beauty guides the symbolic interactions of the characters. In the novel, interactions are based on the superficial appeal of the person. Characters tend to socialize with other characters that they find attractive or appealing. For instance, Basil’s first interaction with Dorian Gray fosters an emotional connection between them (Wilde 10). Dorian is described as an extremely beautiful man, whose looks attracted both men and women. His appearance is what motivates Basil to paint his (Dorian’s) portrait. Furthermore, because of his looks, Lord Henry becomes very fond of Dorian, depicting aspects of homo-eroticism between them, as Buzzwell Greg observes in his article of The Picture of Dorian Gray: art, ethics and the artist. As a result of the physical appeal required to form a relationship, facially beautiful persons were adored (as was the case with Dorian), while the “ugly ones” rarely entered into a relationship. This was a case of the Victorian era, where facial beauty was used to judge persons as good or evil.
A person’s actions were judged on account of their beauty. Since the author depicts a society incessantly obsessed with beauty, physical appeal was very necessary in passing judgement. For instance, Dorian became cruel and treated Sibyl Vane unjustly, following their disagreements after engagement (Wilde 106), yet to the public, he was a jewel, so pure in heart. This superficial judgement was common in the Victorian period (Buzwell “The Picture of Dorian Gray”). Furthermore, Dorian is guilty in the murder of his wife, as evidenced by the haunting white handkerchief from James Vane, Sibyl Vane’s brother. According to Buzwell, Dorian is able to pursue his self-centered activities knowing that his unblemished looks and respectable appearance will shield him from actions of depravity. This reinforces the notion that beautiful people hardly commit crimes. As a result of his public image and constant escape from retribution, Dorian was able to mess himself up, meeting his demise as the book ends.
The character’s in Wilde’s novel delight in the beautiful and intoxicating indulgence of the senses. The opening page of the novel, for instance, describes the heady pleasures to be extracted from scents of the roses and lilac (Wilde 1). The scenic environment of the studio creates an atmosphere of indulgence in which the characters enjoy their conversations. Dorian is indulged on the portrait that Basil creates for him, allowing him to marvel at his youthful looks (Wilde Ch. 4). Through the portrait, he realizes his true beauty and wishes not to get old. His sensual connection to the portrait is reminiscent of his sense of beauty towards himself. This intoxication with beauty is responsible for the many hedonic acts that Dorian commits.
Beauty is also a tool of self-destruction. In the novel, Wilde speaks very highly of Dorian’s beauty, a characteristic attribute of his youthfulness and social acceptability. Basil recognizes Dorian’s beauty from their first encounter and decides to paint his (Dorian’s) portrait as a reflection of this beauty (Wilde 10). Lord Henry also informs Dorian of the preciousness of his own beauty and innocence as perceived by the public. The realization of his true beauty and youthfulness, as reflected in the portrait drives Dorian into a life of hideous crime, while his youthfulness remains untainted. The pleasure-seeking nature of his soul motivates him into unjust practices such as mistreating Sibyl Vane and killing her afterwards (Wilde 125). Dorian knew that the public cherished him as a good and pure soul because of his looks. However, when he looks at the portrait and realizes its hideous appeal, he destroys it on account of his hideous actions. Therefore, Dorian’s fall from grace signifies the fall of society’s objectification of beauty as a measure of innocence.
In conclusion, beauty is one of the key themes in most of the Gothic works. These literary works espouse the society’s obsession with beauty, often blinding their decisions and judgments. The nature of beauty in such societies is as superficial one, often influencing socialization and interaction. In Oscar Wilde’s novel, the centrality of beauty and its importance in plot development is vividly explored, affecting characters’ interaction and their eventual fates. As a result, the author’s depiction of beauty and its essence is crucial to the development of conflict between characters, and the enhancement of plot.
Buzwell, Greg. “The Picture of Dorian Gray: Art, Ethics and the Artist.” Discovering Literature:
Romantics and the Victorians. No Date. Web. October 30, 2015.
Ossa, M.P. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Why does Oscar Wilde Depict
Homosexuality/Overall Sexuality in an Ambiguous Way? June 16, 2012. Web. October 30, 2015.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Dover Publications. 1993. Print