Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel about a young, handsome, and vain man who has his portrait painted, and impulsively wishes that he could forever remain just as handsome as he is in the painting — that the painting would age instead of him. He gets his wish in a most eerie way; as, with passing years, he becomes increasingly dissolute and evil, while the changes that one would expect to appear on his face are reflected in the portrait instead. What this book is about, clearly, is feelings and appearances becoming real. This motif is echoed and re-echoed throughout the book.
Early in the novel, Sir Henry Wotten — a cynical hedonist — gives Dorian a book about people who tried to experience everything, both good and evil, and Dorian decides to try it; in other words, he models his life after a work of art. The fact that Dorian’s one female love is an actress — a person who wears masks and pretends to be someone she is not — reinforces this motif. When she reveals herself to be real, his repugnance for her is so overwhelming that it reaches out like an evil spirit and kills her; Dorian therefore murdered Sybil as surely as he would murder Basil later on.
We tell small children that their feelings are not actions and therefore have no repercussions of their own, but deep in our psyches we know this is not so. The reason tribal cultures wear ceremonial masks is to embody their sacred spirit they make the spirit real by simulating his appearance. Similarly, Lord Henry observes of Dorian that “Ordinary people waited till life disclosed to them its secrets, but to the few, to the elect, the mysteries of life were revealed before the veil was drawn away.
Sometimes this was the effect of art, and chiefly of the art of literature, which dealt immediately with the passions and the intellect. But now and then a complex personality took the place and assumed the office of art, was indeed, in its way, a real work of art, life having its elaborate masterpieces, just as poetry has, or sculpture, or painting” (Wilde, 72). Dorian, Lord Henry is arguing, actually is a plastic, organic work of art, in a continual state of progress. Yet if Dorian is a work of art, the painting is real life.
It is clear that the only character in the book who is consistently honest and straightforward is the painting, which reflects the changes that Dorian’s own face should reflect as his ersonality becomes more and more evil. Here Wilde may be reflecting his own interest in a turn-of-the-century movement in art and literature known as Decadence — a movement which disavowed the existence of wholesomeness and purity in the world, and perceived only evil and corruption. Seen in this sense, The Picture of Dorian Gray becomes a psychological study of a nature and of an art movement — which was dominated by a passion for sin.
The persona Oscar Wilde presented to the world closely replicated that of Lord Henry, the cynical aesthete who leads Dorian into his life of sin to begin ith; yet Lord Henry is more lacking in an interest in morality than he is in deliberately transgressing its bounds. Dorian, on the other hand, seems interested in pushing the envelope as far as he can. He knows when he is evil, and often it frightens him when he is alone; he keeps the painting that shows the true depth of his sinfulness hidden, and when he takes it out never fails to be sickened.
There is no question that as much as Oscar Wilde enjoys formulating witty philosophical arguments that morality doesn’t matter, it very much does, and his ending proves that. After Dorian Gray has committed nearly every sin and ruelty known to man without acquiring so much as a wrinkle or a gray hair, he finally faces up to the horror of what he has become. Alone in his room, he contemplates in the portrait the face that should be his own, and decides to end it all by plunging a knife into the painted figure’s heart.
When his body is found, of course, the knife is in his own heart, and the portrait is as lovely as it was the day it was painted. Oscar Wilde’s real point in this novel may very well be that what is not real is all our philosophizing about art, morality, joy, and love. We can justify nearly any action we take on some grounds. As we weave this intricate web of lies, we recreate ourselves in some image completely alien to the way we really are; we make our motives pure, our actions blameless.
Our imperfect memories even hone our recalled speeches to make them more eloquent than the words we actually used. This ability to recast the past in order to placate others and ourselves is much more common than the ability to paint or sketch or write, but it equally art nonetheless. The Picture of Dorian Gray is generally viewed as being a tale about the relationship of artifice to morality; but it is just as much about the relationship of real life to art.