Homo****** love is an underlying theme of the novel, although it is never stated directly. Both Lord Henry and Basil Hallward are deeply attracted to Dorian Gray on account of his great physical beauty. Basil insists that his love for Dorian is "noble and intellectual," and there is no reason to doubt him. But he also speaks about Dorian in terms that a man would normally speak about a lover and about falling in love, "I worshipped you," he says to Dorian. "I grew jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you" (chapter 9). Basil sublimates any ****** dimension to his feelings about Dorian by pouring them into his art.
Lord Henry prefers the company of Dorian to that of his wife, and he consistently expresses misogynist views. He worships youthful male beauty as embodied in Dorian, and he encourages Dorian to give full rein all his secret desires. When he says the following to Dorian, he may well be suggesting that Dorian has a previously unacknowledged sexual attraction to men: "You have had passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror, day-dreams and sleeping dreams whose mere memory might stain your cheek with shame-" The language here, and the use of the word "shame," suggests that Dorian's "sins," although they are never explicitly described, may be of a sexual nature. One has to remember that in the Victorian age, attitudes to homosexuality are very different from what they are today.
This is the theme that Wilde was alluding to when he wrote of the "note of Doom that like a purple thread runs through the cold cloth of Dorian Gray" in a letter to his young lover, Bosie, following his ruinous court appearances. He calls the theme of homosexuality a "note of doom" because ****** and homosexuality in general were severly punishable offenses in Victorian England, and it was under such charges that Wilde was brought to trial.
In the novel, there are strong homosexual undertones in the relationships between the three central characters (Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil Hallward), as well as between Dorian and several of the young men whose lives he is said to have "ruined", most notably Alan Campbell. In his revision of the novel for its official release, after it appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, Wilde removed all of the most blatant references to homosexuality.
Lord Henry's philosophy of life, which is adopted by Dorian, is that the senses should be indulged to the full. In the fleeting sense experience lies the intensity of life, and all life is simply a series of these intense moments. This is not intended as a mindless indulgence for the sake of it, but is a conscious quest for beauty.
Dorian thus learns to cultivate all kinds of sense experience, passions and sensations in the pursuit of beauty. He studies exotic perfumes, he collects musical instruments and precious stones. He once went to a costume ball wearing an outfit covered with 560 pearls. Neither Henry nor Dorian believe in any restrictions on desire, because desire is life itself, whereas self-denial in the name of morality is exactly that-a denial of life. Henry's belief is that self-development, not self-restraint, is the purpose of life. He describes this philosophy as a new Hedonism.
It is a refined understanding and appreciation of life that amounts to a form of spirituality. And so Henry's friend and disciple Dorian believes that in indulging the senses he is freeing them to be what are intended to be, a channel for the experience of beauty. In chapter 11, he states his belief that the senses have never been properly understood before: "they had remained savage and animal merely because the world had sought to starve them into submission or to kill them by pain, instead of aiming at making them elements of a new spirituality, of which a fine instinct for beauty was to be the dominant characteristic"
Supremacy of Beauty and Youth
The trouble starts when Henry warns Dorian that his extraordinary beauty and youth will fade, and tells him to make the most of it. Dorian’s beauty is such that people are astonished by it and all of his advantages seem to come from it, even if he has got an interesting personality and wealth. With Henry’s words ringing in his ears, Dorian immediately views Basil’s portrait of him in a new light. Rather than immortalize him, the picture suddenly seems to mock him for not being immortal—the picture won't change, but Dorian himself will. Dorian then becomes aware of time, and aware of his own beauty as a thing that will fade. Before Dorian's realization, when his beauty seemed to him simply a part of him, he was only vaguely aware of it. But once he realizes that it is not something he can hold on to, that it will be taken from him by time, he wants desperately to keep it. In this way, mortality doesn't just destroy beauty and youth, it makes them things to treasure and obsess over because eventually they will be destroyed.
Supremacy of Beauty and Youth
Throughout the novel, beauty and death are linked. Dorian loves Sybil because he gets to watch her die onstage in all her passion and then, miraculously, be alive backstage. Her art makes her immortal each and every night. Sybil's actual death by suicide is tragic, but it also gives her a kind of eternal beauty because she was never allowed to age. Dorian, meanwhile, is similarly saved from aging by the supernatural transformation of his portrait, but while his appearance is now beyond mortality this freedom seems to drive Dorian to try to experience every kind of excess, to not care about consequences, to destroy lovers and friends through his influence and callousness. In this way that novel suggests that while mortality will always destroy beauty and youth, that beauty and youth in fact need to be destroyed—that immortal youth beauty, such as is preserved in art, is in fact monstrous in the real world. And, in fact, as Dorian's soul shrivels and he begins to seek and admire ugliness, his own beautiful face comes to seem to him just a hateful reminder of the innocence he has lost.
Supremacy of Beauty and Youth
Beauty is skin-deep in Dorian’s circle of friends. He is welcomed and adored because of his beautiful appearance and even when his sins ruin lives, he always has a certain power because of his attractiveness. Dorian is at his peak when he is unaware of his own beauty, but when conscious of it, his life becomes about surface and appearance. His taste for fashion grows; he loves tapestries and jewels, very flat, decorative objects.
The novel of course revolves around the portrait of Dorian but this is just one of the damaging surfaces that Wilde depicts. Characters’ identities and fates are entirely decided by their outward appearance. The owner of Sybil Vane’s theater is reduced to a collection of Jewish features and hideous mannerisms, as is his theater reduced to its shabby decor, and in turn it is all redeemed by the beautiful face of Sybil, who herself is putting on a costume. Veils of societal roles and costumes are worn by everybody in the novel and are made more fatal by the way the characters describe and stereotype each other, never letting each other escape from their narrow identities and appearances. ToLord Henry, even knowing Dorian’s sinful behavior, he remains the beautiful boy that he met in Basil’s studio because appearance always wins out.
Supremacy of Beauty and Youth
The Value of Beauty and Youth
Lord Henry claims to value beauty and youth above all else. It is this belief, when imparted to Dorian, that drives the protagonist to make the wish that ultimately damns him. When Dorian realizes that he will keep his youthful appearance regardless of whatever immoral actions he indulges in, he considers himself free of the moral constraints faced by ordinary men. He values his physical appearance more than the state of his soul, which is openly displayed by the ever-increasing degradation of the portrait. This superficial faith in the ultimate value of youth and beauty is therefore the driving mechanism behind the protagonist's damnation. In this way, The Picture of Dorian Gray may be read as a moralistic tale warning against the dangers of valuing one's appearance too highly, and of neglecting one's conscience.
It is important to bear in mind that the beauty that Dorian incessantly pursues is a beauty defined by a purely artistic sensibility, as opposed to a humanitarian one. When faced with the news of his fiance's suicide, Dorian views the event as satisfyingly melodramatic. His obsession with aesthetic beauty prevents Dorian from attending to the pangs of his own conscience.
Supremacy of Beauty and Youth
Vanity as Original Sin
Dorian's physical beauty is his most cherished attribute, and vanity is, as a consequence, his most crippling vice. Once a sense of the preciousness of his own beauty has been instilled in him by Lord Henry, all of Dorian's actions, from his wish for undying youth at the beginning of the novel to his desperate attempt to destroy the portrait at the end, are motivated by vanity. Even his attempts at altruism are driven by a desire to improve the appearance of his soul. Throughout the novel, vanity haunts Dorian, seeming to damn his actions before he even commits them; vanity is his original sin. Dorian's fall from grace, then, is the consequence of his decision to embrace vanity - and indeed, all new and pleasurable feelings - as a virtue, at the behest of Lord Henry, his corrupter. In the preface to the novel, Wilde invites us to ponder the inescapability of vanity in our own relationship to art when he states that "it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors." If we see ourselves in art, and find art to be beautiful, then it follows that we, like Dorian, are in fact admiring our own beauty.
Supremacy of Beauty and Youth
The first principle of aestheticism, the philosophy of art by which Oscar Wilde lived, is that art serves no other purpose than to offer beauty. Throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray, beauty reigns. It is a means to revitalize the wearied senses, as indicated by the effect that Basil’s painting has on the cynical Lord Henry. It is also a means of escaping the brutalities of the world: Dorian distances himself, not to mention his consciousness, from the horrors of his actions by devoting himself to the study of beautiful things—music, jewels, rare tapestries. In a society that prizes beauty so highly, youth and physical attractiveness become valuable commodities. Lord Henry reminds Dorian of as much upon their first meeting, when he laments that Dorian will soon enough lose his most precious attributes. In Chapter Seventeen, the Duchess of Monmouth suggests to Lord Henry that he places too much value on these things; indeed, Dorian’s eventual demise confirms her suspicions. For although beauty and youth remain of utmost importance at the end of the novel—the portrait is, after all, returned to its original form—the novel suggests that the price one must pay for them is exceedingly high. Indeed, Dorian gives nothing less than his soul.
Influence and Corruption
Dorian begins the novel as an innocent youth. Under Lord Henry's influence he becomes corrupt, and eventually begins corrupting other youths himself. One of the major philosophical questions raised by this novel is that of where to locate the responsibility for a person's misdeeds. If one engages in a moralistic reading, The Picture of Dorian Gray can be seen as a lesson in taking responsibility for one's actions. Dorian often points to Lord Henry as the source of his corruption. However, when contemplating the plights of others, Dorian lays the blame at their own feet rather than considering the role that he might have played in their downfall.
The power of one to affect another is a theme that pervades The Picture of Dorian Gray. At first, Basil is influenced by his sitter Dorian. On a personal level, he is confused and changed by his romantic feelings, but Dorian’s influence is more far-reaching, actually seeming to change his ability for painting, change the painting itself in an almost supernatural way. Influence here describes an almost chemical change that one can assign to feelings and the perception of a painting. The same curse befalls Sybil Vane, when she is so influenced by Dorian, and by love, that she is transformed and can no longer act. In fact the whole course of events can be viewed as a series of domino-like influences. When the narrator recounts the series of bad relationships, where Dorian has led an innocent friend astray, the influences spread through the country, knowing no bounds.
Influence is also shown in the novel as a persuasive power. It is a less magical effect, of attractive ideas and styles worming their way into others’ vocabulary. Lord Henry’s philosophies and paradoxes have a hypnotic power on some people, and cause Dorianto seek knowledge and believe in these theories enough that he lives by them. Henry’s suggestion that the soul and the senses can mutually cure each other for example arises in Dorian’s mind and, out of context, misguides him into thinking that opium could soothe his soul.
The painting and the yellow book have a profound effect on Dorian, influencing him to predominantly immoral behavior over the course of nearly two decades. Reflecting on Dorian’s power over Basil and deciding that he would like to seduce Dorian in much the same way, Lord Henry points out that there is “something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence.” Falling under the sway of such influence is, perhaps, unavoidable, but the novel ultimately censures the sacrifice of one’s self to another. Basil’s idolatry of Dorian leads to his murder, and Dorian’s devotion to Lord Henry’s hedonism and the yellow book precipitate his own downfall. It is little wonder, in a novel that prizes individualism—the uncompromised expression of self—that the sacrifice of one’s self, whether it be to another person or to a work of art, leads to one’s destruction.
The character of Dorian Gray and the story of his profound degeneration provide a case study examining the viability of purely aesthetic lives. Dorian lives according to what Lord Henry professes without hesitation, and what Lord Henry inspires Dorian, through persuasive rhetoric, is an attitude indifferent to consequence and altogether amoral. As Wilde writes, Dorian’s newfound position is “never to accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience. Its aim, indeed was to be experience itself, and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they may be” (Wilde 125). Under Lord Henry’s mentorship, Dorian, once the epitome of wide-eyed youth, behaves with no regard for the ramifications of his actions, diligently pursuing instant gratification without thought of its implications, whether they be “sweet or bitter.”
However, the idea of sexual affection between men proved too integral to the characters and their interactions to be entirely expunged from the novel. This theme has prompted many critics to read the novel as the story of a man's struggle with his socially unacceptable proclivities. Indeed, some feel that Wilde was working out his own conflicted feelings on the subject through the novel.
The homoerotic bonds between men play a large role in structuring the novel. Basil’s painting depends upon his adoration of Dorian’s beauty; similarly, Lord Henry is overcome with the desire to seduce Dorian and mold him into the realization of a type. This camaraderie between men fits into Wilde’s larger aesthetic values, for it returns him to antiquity, where an appreciation of youth and beauty was not only fundamental to culture but was also expressed as a physical relationship between men. As a homosexual living in an intolerant society, Wilde asserted this philosophy partially in an attempt to justify his own lifestyle. For Wilde, homosexuality was not a sordid vice but rather a sign of refined culture. As he claimed rather romantically during his trial for “gross indecency” between men, the affection between an older and younger man places one in the tradition of Plato, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare.