Aesthetic Principles in Oscar Wilde’s
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Aestheticism has its roots in the Romantic period and the Pre-Raphaelites and spread in Western Europe and America during the late 19th century. It involves a devotion to art and it denotes the importance of beauty compared with other values, as morality and material utility. As Robert Vincent Johnson notes, “aestheticism is not one single phenomenon, but a group of related phenomena, all reflecting a conviction that the enjoyment of beauty can by itself give value and meaning to life” (10). Aestheticism attempts to separate art from life in order to reduce moral implications. Instead of letting attitudes towards life influence the work of art, art is valued for the immediate aesthetic pleasure it entails (Johnson 13-14). However, Aestheticism threatened the Victorian respectability and morality by emphasizing sensuous pleasure and a life ideal of beauty.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is one of the most famous figures linked to literary Aestheticism. He was generally viewed as a controversial symbol for Aestheticism, mainly because of his appearance. Wilde got introduced to the aesthetic principles by his college teachers, Walter Pater and John Ruskin. He kept Pater’s words of philosophy with him everywhere and named them his “Golden book,” because to him they were life changing. Ruskin inspired Wilde to teach others about his aesthetic interests (Pearson 35).
Wilde is famous for writing poems, plays, short stories, criticism and one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, written during his late career (first published in 1890 and revised in 1891), which concerns the issue of devotion to art. The story’s main characters are three men seeking beauty in life; Lord Henry, a wise teacher of aesthetic principles, Basil Hallward, an artist, and Dorian Gray, a model learning about aesthetic values. The novel mainly concerns a discussion among these three men, who are fascinated by each other’s beauty and opinions. The story was highly debated regarding whether it is morally repulsive, due to the focus it places on fascination between men, or a work of Aestheticism.
The ambiguity in the interpretation of the novel prompted my interest in exploring the role Aestheticism might have played in it. There are several critical works about Wilde, mainly biographies about his life, focusing on the fame he received for his personality and the way his life ended tragically in prison and misery. He is moreover often mentioned in texts about Aestheticism, since he is one of the most famous symbols of The Movement, but most of these works concord his