The Theme Of Aestheticism In The Picture Of Dorian Gray By Oscar Wilde

In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde responds to criticism of his controversial novel by emphasizing his beliefs in evaluating artistic beauty in the absence of moralistic meaning. “Arts for Arts sake” henceforth became the definitive mantra of aesthetic practices and a defense against accusations of imparting immoral influences into art in rebellion against society. Aestheticism, however, is problematic in practice because it restricts who is allowed to observe beauty within art, who is allowed to ignore moral judgement in order to focus solely on the appraisal of art, and inescapably stands in conflict with societal norms that bring about social discontinuity. When applied to a novel that depicts moral and immoral practices and expresses mockery of oppressive Victorian societal standards, it then becomes an ironic defense that falls apart at the seams at a close contextual examination of the work itself. In my research, I will examine why this rationale in defense of the novel serves to defy the purpose of aestheticism and show how the movement is faulty, both in theory and in practice.

The fundamental practice of aestheticism, which is to say the lone outside signifer that one was an aesthete to the knowledge of the public, was through the style of dandyism - an open expression of defiance against the norms of a society through fashion that contradicted gender norms and prioritization of beauty. However, this archetype is impossible to define singularly because it is dependent on the society that the dandy belongs to and wants to revolt against - “Dandism is the consequence of a certain condition of society that pre-exists the appearance of the Dandy and determines the rules of his game”. For the Victorian dandy, this condition was the enforcement of masculine gender roles and suppression of individual expression - “in the mid-nineteenth century a huge emphasis began to be placed in the education of young men upon athleticism, stoicism, sexual purity and moral courage”. Expression as a dandy is rooted in anarchism, rebelling against social norms and representing a style that is cased in the objection of society, but by that same measure it cannot exist without a society by which to define itself against, creating an ironic figure who is dependent upon what they despise - “Indeed the Dandy, like the ironist, could not exist at all without a public whose standards of taste, hierarchies of value and conventions of discord he could predict”. Thus, the core issue of dandyism is that it professes to not follow the rules of an environment, yet it must coexist in order to function inside of it. The dandy cannot profess to truly be an anarchist because to be such is to claim something, and the dandy does not claim himself to be a part of anything - “The Dandy consciously defies and eludes the convenient labels of definition that modern society uses systematically to categorize its members into objects and functional roles”. To be an aesthete is to engage in the irony of being what is essentially a paradoxical figure in their denial of social order and yet proud adoption of social fashions that draw it’s attention in the public arena - “The Dandy is a man who, by virtue of his own sense of superior taste, stands outside and slightly above the rest of society. He looks down on the world at whose edge he stands in”. Precisely, the issue of the dandy, and thus the aesthete, is that they self exclude themselves from a world that they belong to whilst simultaneously defining themselves from within.

This relates to the characterization of Lord Henry Wotton who’s clever witticisms and expressions of worldly knowledge dominate the monologues of the novel. But Henry is as much a hypocrite as he is an intellectual, consistently contradicting his phrases with his actions. Though he preaches upon hedonistic beliefs, not once does Henry act upon his desires and visibly engage in debauchery. His life is in fact anything but sullied - he participates in social gatherings, is an established public figure and lives a traditional lifestyle for a privileged Victorian male. An example of Henry posing an idea and not following through with it himself is when he instructs Dorian to avoid marriage at the cost of his happiness - 'Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.' Yet Henry himself has married, and he expresses lament of missing his wife when she leaves him - “Poor Victoria! I was very fond of her. The house is rather lonely without her.” Henry objects to social standards in belief, but not in application. Basil Hayward points out his hypocrisy - “I believe that you are really a very good husband, but that you are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. You are an extraordinary fellow. You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose.” Henry also expresses contradiction when he instructs Dorian to give into temptation - “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, with desire for what it's monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”, yet at no point does Henry allow himself to succumb to temptation. The only anarchisms that Henry acts are through Dorian, who he influences to live as the embodiment of his own ambitions. His words then to Dorian are harmful in that he receives a mere impression of what it means to be an aesthete who then tries to model his life after the rejection of the established. He is essentially a test subject by which Henry can observe the results of his desires of given life, to which ends miserably. Just as problematic of Lord Henry’s ideology is in his acknowledgement of the divide between the weak and the strong, entirely determined upon their status of wealth - “Yes, we are overcharged for everything nowadays. I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.' The “beautiful things” are objects captured through the lense of aestheticism, and it is the privilege of the rich to view what is deemed beautiful because only they are allowed access to do so without scrutiny. Henry here displays the elitism available to the dandies that precludes the commoner. Basil Hayward, by comparison to Henry and Dorian, is of a lower social status of which he meekly acknowledges himself - “Your rank and wealth, Harry; my brains, such as they are, — my fame, whatever it may be worth; Dorian Gray’s good looks, — we will all suffer for what the gods have given us, suffer terribly.’ It is by no coincidence that Hayward is pitted in contrast to Henry in his strict adherence to morality - “The foundation of Basil’s actions is his belief in a moral order, in which men and women are punished for their evil deeds and rewarded for their good... Unlike Henry, who believes that Dorian sins without consequence to himself, Basil thinks that sins ‘cannot be concealed’ ” Basil is cast as the moral voice of the novel as a function of not having the privilege to rise above morality and still thrive within society. Hayward is excluded from practicing in aestheticism or as a dandy, then, and is ultimately killed for being out of place in the narrative in relation to the domineering aesthete Henry who influences the passions of Dorian Gray.

The dandies exhibition of beauty through feminine dress and objects created a figure that is neither definitively masculine nor feminine and subject of social uproar - “In fact, Aesthetic fashion was the focus of late-Victorian attention because it so clearly displayed the anxieties, stresses, and formulations of the movement”. However, this too became problematic because men adopted feminine styles of dress and artististry without the hardships faced by women themselves. If the Dandy wants to adopt characteristics without any of the negatives, then they are marginalizing the group who is associated with the appropriate culture and do not receive the same level of respectability. The dandy became a source of ire by some Victorian women who would not receive the same level of respectability purely because of gender - “it claimed authority over traditionally female realms by valuing objects according to the degree of esoteric information a trained reader could extract from them... This situation could create great tension, for the male aesthetes were trying to differentiate themselves from women while writing on traditionally feminine subjects for a largely female audience. In their anxiety to construct themselves as professional connoisseurs and to show their mastery over a superior realm of decoration, the male aesthetes often slipped into real contempt for women”. In their fashionization of feminine styles of dress and artistry while simultaneously distancing themselves from feminine modes of treatment, the dandies largely served to create a culture of misogyny towards women, such as exhibited in the arts and crafts movement of the 1860s - “urged it’s followers to dispose of women’s existing crafts (heterogeneous rubbish) in order to replace them with pedigreed objects purchased in specialty stores.’” Only Oscar Wilde among the dandies offered an alternative to gender appropriation by including women into his celebration of aestheticism - “Wilde constructed himself as a grateful and appreciative inheritor of women’s culture. Wilde’s edited a magazine called Woman’s World, in which he publically displayed his fascination with lace, decoration and fashion”. Wilde is notable in that he tries to include the excluded into his practices of aestheticism. However, Henry Wotton is not Oscar Wilde, far from it in fact. Henry is extremely misogynistic - true to his contemporaries that practice aestheticism, and is content with standing within the prism of irony rather than standing outside of it unlike Wilde. Henry represents the predominant behaviors of dandyism and the negatives of aestheticism when applied blankly, with no foundation and no attempt to act one the movement. Wilde acted upon his aesthetic beliefs through his literary efforts and Woman’s World publications, Thusly, he stands in stark opposition to the most prominent female character of the novel, Sybil Vane, and influences Dorian to reject her as well, leading to her death.

Henry’s response to learning of the suicide of Sybil is to suggest to Dorian that she did him a favor in dying poetically, comparing her to deceased female literary figures - “Sibyl Vane represented to you all the heroines of romance — that she was Desdemona one night, and Ophelia the other; that if she died as Juliet, she came to life as Imogen.”, and to actresses upon the stage “But women never know when the curtain has fallen. They always want a sixth act, and as soon as the interest of the play is entirely over they propose to continue it. If they were allowed to have their way, every comedy would have a tragic ending, and every tragedy would culminate in a farce. They are charmingly artificial, but they have no sense of art. You are more fortunate than I am. I assure you, Dorian, that not one of the women I have known would have done for me what Sibyl Vane did for you.” The relevance of this is that Henry is only able to see Sybil, or that of any woman, in the vein of his contribution to artwork. He is unable to see Sybil as a human, Sybil Vane is important to the narrative primarily to show the influence by which Henry has upon Dorian who grows disinterested with Sybil the moment she professes to stop acting, for the sake of becoming committed to Dorian.

Paradox is pronounced throughout the narrative of The Picture of Dorian Gray where sin becomes intermingled with pleasure. This is a reflection on Wilde’s The Critic As Artist which he extols that pleasure is synonymous with sin - “Sin, in other words, is a chameleon agency which enables man to liberate his personality by transforming acts or passions that are normally considered vile or ignoble into elements of a richer and more variegated experience. By rejecting the current notions of morality, Wilde concludes, sin becomes paradoxically one with the ‘higher ethics’. Wilde translates these higher ethics as aesthetics because they alone ‘make life lovely and wonderful, fill it with new forms, and give it progress, variety and change”. The preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray is most often cited as the definitive definition of aestheticism, but Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” offers by far the most comprehensive. In the form of a long winded dialogue between fictional characters, Wilde communicates his own ideas about aestheticism being a prism by which to view the flawed world through an imaginative, artistic lense. He considers aestheticism a “spirited protest” against life and an attempt to capture the beauty in what is otherwise deemed as ugly. He cautions against the author using literature as a platform by which to preach moral platitudes at the consequence of losing the focus of the reader and dangerously imparting their own ethical bias, in no doubt influenced by their society. This essay is relevant because it speaks to the exact opposite of Lord Henry Wotton’s approach to aestheticism - he uses his platform to preach and inflict change upon to Dorian Gray to the extent that his attempts to charm are pushed back by the influenced - “‘Stop!’ murmured Dorian Gray, ‘stop! you bewilder me. I don’t know what to say. There is some answer to you, but I cannot find it. Don’t speak. Let me think, or, rather, let me try not to think.’ It is inherent to aestheticism to not be morally preachy and to instead allow the art to be standalone and speak for itself according to the interpretation of the spectator and where their imaginative power takes them, and yet Henry is vindictive and resolute in his preachings, contributing to the self ruination of his greatest admirer.

The Picture of Dorian Gray reveals the inconsistency of practicing aestheticism through the characterization of a dandy who contradicts his self proclaimed purpose, the restriction of who is allowed to practice the movement as well as who is sacrificed as a result. Wilde himself proving to be an example of how the movement can be used positively for the betterment of women, provides a counterexample by which to compare the faults of Henry Wotton and opens the interpretation for Wilde intentionally creating a character novel depicts the worst uses of aestheticism when used to exclude the activity of others from a community and perform elitist habits that act to exclude all and invite none. 

09 March 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now