Contemporary World Literature
1st Partial Essay
Beauty and homosexuality as main themes in Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Grey”
Oscar Wilde was an exceptional man, thus his work has to be exceptional as well. He lived in a time in which being homosexual was little less than a death penalty-worthy crime, and also that works relatedto this condition, or even considered immoral by old standards, were subject to trial and even by a society which both celebrated secretly and punished all those people that dare to contrary the established rules.
Despite the fact that him and his work were judged unfairly, Wilde stood up and faced the shame and stress caused by watching others discredit the very soul of his words and the literarythat he managed to pull out after so much effort.
An effort mainly destroyed by the Marques of Queensberry (father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, an aspiring but rather untalented poet), when trying to legally sue the Marques for the defamation of his own person, the system turned against him as he was sentenced of “gross indecency” and “sodomy”, later sentenced to two years of hard labor(miraculously surviving).
After his release, Wilde left England and divided his time between France and Italy, living in poverty. He never published under his own name again. Wilde died in Paris on November 30, 1900, having converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed.
Now, speaking of the novel itself, when first published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, it was decried as immoral. Inrevising the text the following year, Wilde included a preface, which serves as a useful explanation of his philosophy of art. The purpose of art, according to this series of epigrams, is to have no purpose. In order to understand this claim fully, one needs to consider the moral climate of Wilde’s time and the Victorian sensibility regarding art and morality.
The Victorians believed that artcould be used as a tool for social education and moral enlightenment, as illustrated in works by writers such as Charles Dickens and George Gissing. The aestheticism movement, of which Wilde was a major proponent, sought to free art from this responsibility. The aestheticists were motivated as much by a contempt for bourgeois morality—a sensibility embodied in Dorian Gray by Lord Henry, whose everyword seems designed to shock the ethical certainties of the burgeoning middle class—as they were by the belief that art need not possess any other purpose than being beautiful.
If this philosophy informed Wilde’s life, we must then consider whether his only novel bears it out. The two works of art that dominate the novel—Basil’s painting and the mysterious yellow book that Lord Henry givesDorian—are presented in the vein more of Victorian sensibilities than of aesthetic ones. That is, both the portrait and the French novel serve a purpose: the first acts as a type of mysterious mirror that shows Dorian the physical dissipation his own body has been spared, while the second acts as something of a road map, leading the young man farther along the path toward infamy.
While we know nothing ofthe circumstances of the yellow book’s composition, Basil’s state of mind while painting Dorian’s portrait is clear. Later in the novel, he advocates that all art be “unconscious, ideal, and remote.” His portrait of Dorian, however, is anything but. Thus, Basil’s initial refusal to exhibit the work results from his belief that it betrays his idolization of his subject.
Of course, one mightconsider that these breaches of aesthetic philosophy mold The Picture of Dorian Gray into something of a cautionary tale: these are the prices that must be paid for insisting that art reveals the artist or a moral lesson. But this warning is, in itself, a moral lesson, which perhaps betrays the impossibility of Wilde’s project. If, as Dorian observes late in the novel, the imagination orders the...