Art for Art’s Sake: Decadence in The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Alessia Guarangna

Art for Art’s Sake: Decadence in The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Alessia Guarangna

About Alessia Guarangna:  Hello! I am currently in my fourth semester of the Health Science program. During my second semester, Shalon Noble’s class introduced me to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. The novel revolves around Dorian Grey, a young Victorian man who becomes consumed by his desire for pleasure and beauty and slowly descends into a life of moral depravity. I really enjoyed dissecting the themes present in this captivating novel, and the author’s work still inspires me to this day. It reignited my long-lost passion for reading and allowed me to truly appreciate the artistry of language. 


The late 19th century saw the rise of the Decadent Movement, an artistic philosophy that championed the extravagance and the creativity of art. In an era where literature and art were traditionally held to an ethical standard, the Decadents argued that art serves an aesthetic rather than didactic purpose. They believed that works of art should not be laden with morals or deeper meanings, but should instead be created for the sake of beauty alone. Oscar Wilde, an aesthete, wrote in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written” (Wilde 41). His philosophy translates into this novel, which follows the life of the wealthy and physically beautiful aristocrat Dorian Gray. His pursuit of beauty and luxury at the expense of morality is what makes him a decadent character.

Dorian’s decadent behavior is first apparent during his fleeting romance with Sibyl Vane, where his affections for the actress are solely based on the artistic quality of her performance. When the naive Dorian is first kindled with a fascination for life and its pleasures by his friend Lord Henry, he meets Sibyl in a theatre during one his curious ventures. He is completely smitten by her beauty and acting skills, so much so that he proposes to her shortly after their encounter. When he reveals his relationship to Lord Henry, Dorian describes his lover strictly in  terms of the characters she plays: “Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered their secret in my ear. I have had the arms of Rosalind around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth” (113). Dorian believes the ability of beauty to evoke sensuous gratification is what makes it the primary pursuit of life. Sibyl is viewed by Dorian as a both artist and art: her creation and embodiment of beauty through theatrics and appearances enraptures him. He confuses his emotional response to beauty for love, for his feelings towards Sibyl shift drastically once she becomes incapable of reaching his standards. Sibyl performs terribly on stage following her engagement, claiming she cannot bring herself to feign emotions after experiencing true love. Although she expresses her profound devotion to him, Dorian feels betrayed and conveys to his fiancée that she killed his love for her. The deeper meaning behind the ugliness of her performance is insignificant to him, as it does not provide any aesthetic pleasure. Now that beauty could no longer be achieved by the artwork that was Sibyl, she becomes shallow in his eyes. Dorian cruelly breaks up with Sibyl, later leading the young actress, who is utterly devastated, to take her own life. Soon after, Dorian notices that the portrait his friend Basil Hallward painted of him developed “lines of cruelty round the mouth” (126), reflecting his misdeed. Dorian’s relationship with Sibyl Vane therefore nourishes his emerging decadent character and begins his moral decline.

Dorian decides to use the supernatural ability of his portrait as a scapegoat for his immoral actions, thus turning the extremely good-looking aristocrat into an amoral work of art himself. After his cruel treatment of Sibyl, Dorian realizes that the consequences of his wrongdoings appear as physical flaws on his portrait. Before learning about Sibyl’s death, he resolved to use his portrait as a moral compass to guide him away from sin and preserve his painted image’s youth. However, after Lord Henry comes bearing the bad news, his mind changes, and he instead decides to use it as a way of pursuing his desires free of morality’s shackles: “Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins – he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame […] What did it matter what happened to the coloured image on the canvas? He would be safe” (140-141). Lord Henry’s perspective on Sibyl’s death makes Dorian realize that hideousness can be outshone by aesthetic appeal. Because of their ability to stir true emotions, Lord Henry tells Dorian that the characters the actress embodied were more real than she was and leads him to consider her death as a “wonderful ending to a play” (135). The aestheticization of Sibyl’s suicide convinces Dorian of his pursuit of beauty above all else. He decides to apply this philosophy not only to his surroundings but to himself as well. Dorian is relieved of all ethical constraints now that his immoral actions only mar his painted self. No amount of corruption would be able to blemish the art that is his physical beauty. The same way the Decadents argued that beauty should be the primary critique of artworks, only beauty would matter to Dorian when judging himself. This newfound liberty allows him to truly attain and pursue beauty of any kind. Due to the power of his portrait and his extraordinarily good looks, Dorian begins his decadent journey as a walking, soulless work of art.

Dorian lives his decadent lifestyle to the fullest extent, striving to create a masterpiece of his life by indulging in countless pleasures. The extravagant and hedonistic main character from the book Lord Henry gifted him greatly inspires Dorian to lead a life devoted to attaining all kinds of beauty. He is fully at the mercy of art and seeks to turn life into his beautiful body of work: “Life itself was the first, the greatest, of the arts, and for it all other arts seemed to be but a preparation […] He sought to elaborate some new scheme of life that would […] find in the spiritualizing of the senses its highest form of realization” (163-164).  As an artist creating his masterpiece, Dorian embellishes his life with aesthetic pursuits despite the decline of his reputation. He becomes infatuated with jewelry, perfumes, and decorations while also becoming fascinated with religion and philosophy for their aesthetic appeal. He abandons his passions as quickly as he espouses new ones and his nonconformity mystifies his peers. Regardless of the indignation that comes with such extravagance, Dorian views life entirely through decadent lenses. He values only the sensuous experience of beauty, ignoring any depth beyond it that life has to offer. He becomes more detached from the world around him as art becomes his sole reality. Dorian’s unrestrained pursuit of beauty, therefore, turns his life into his ultimate artwork.

Dorian’s rejection of morality to seek beauty and luxury makes him the personification of Decadence. He becomes a soulless work of art dedicated to transforming his life into an intricate tapestry woven with experiences he underwent in the name of beauty.

  Work Cited


Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Broadview Press, 1998.

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