Dorian (Morally) Gray: Self-Determinism and The Influence of Art
By Madison Melanson
for Introduction to College English with Prof. Shalon Noble
In the preface to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde explicitly states that “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written” and “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors” (Wilde 41-42). This preface is essentially the Decadence manifesto, and it is quite clear that Wilde subscribes to the theory that art should not be held morally accountable, and should simply exist as art. However, one might argue that the inclusion of the yellow book (which is said to be Á Rebours by JK Huysmans) defeats Wilde’s attempt to divest art of morality (in accordance with the tenets of Aestheticism) considering how it appears to reveal the corrupting influence of potentially immoral art. I would suggest instead that it serves to alleviate moral responsibility from the artwork; after all, a book can’t make you wicked, but if you are predisposed to wickedness, it may reflect your own influence back unto you.
Dorian Gray is seduced by Lord Henry Wotton’s philosophies long before he encounters the book, which just goes to show that he is not the beacon of boyish purity that Basil Howard believes him to be, and that the real culprit in Dorian’s moral degradation is his corruptible nature. Not only is Dorian easily influenced, he is also vain, self-centered, and prone to temper tantrums. Admittedly, this character profile does seem rather on-brand for a nineteenth-century English aristocrat, but Dorian manages to take these attributes to the extreme. Despite his cherubic charm and naivety, we catch glimpses of the man Dorian will become quite early on in the novel, particularly in his interaction with Sybil Vane after her final performance: “You have killed my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect… Without your art you are nothing” (124). Needless to say, Sybil is heartbroken over Dorian’s cruel words, but rather than regaining some sense of compassion, Dorian simply looks on contemptuously whilst she weeps at his feet. The truth of the matter is that Dorian denies Sybil’s personhood entirely, and sees her not as a human being but as a work of art. The aestheticization of Sybil Vane is proof that Dorian Gray is a deeply flawed individual prior to coming in contact with the yellow book.
The most influential person in Dorian’s life is undoubtedly Lord Henry, who plays him like one of Dorian’s exotic instruments. Henry is not only interested in Dorian for his beauty (though that does help!), but also because he recognizes that Dorian has it within him to be corrupted. Lord Henry finds great amusement in performing social experiments on his friends, and Dorian piques his interest. The spectacle of Dorian’s relationship with Sybil intrigues him immediately: “It was clear to him that the experimental method was the only method by which one could arrive at any scientific analysis of the passions; and certainly Dorian Gray was a subject made to his hand . . . His sudden mad love for Sybil Vane was a psychological phenomenon of no small interest” (97). Henry knows quite well that this dalliance will end badly, but he is invested in the drama of it all. The way he views the life of his young friend as an experiment in the name of his own curiosity is not unlike the Á Rebours protagonist’s relationship with the young boy he attempts to corrupt (in order to find out whether or not he could make a murderer, of course). Despite his charisma, I would imagine that the majority of people would find Henry and some of his more extreme philosophies rather off-putting after a while, which is no real bother because Henry would likely find genuinely good people to be dreadfully dull. Those with moral codes that are more fuzzy around the edges are the ones whom Henry truly wants to peer inside, as they are the ones more likely to respond to his persuasions. The fact that Henry is able to manipulate Dorian to such an extent further proves that the boy is of dubious morality to begin with.
Dorian’s eagerness to blame the yellow book for his downfall is in keeping with his moral dissociation, and shows that deep down Dorian is aware that he is the architect of his own destruction. He is incapable of taking responsibility for his actions and is compelled to deflect the blame onto the book, with which he suggests Lord Henry “poisoned” him: “Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to anyone. It does harm” (246). However, we, as the reader, understand that it wasn’t the book that did harm; rather, it was the book that inspired Dorian to do the harmful things that he was always capable of. Shockingly, Lord Henry momentarily becomes the voice of reason: “You and I are what we are, and will be what we will be. As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action… The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame” (246). Henry informs Dorian that he would be as he is with or without the book, because art has no real influence upon the intrinsic nature of a person, and that what we see in art is simply a projection of what already lies within ourselves. Therefore, it is impossible to thrust moral responsibility onto artwork.
The presence of the yellow book initially seems to weaken Wilde’s argument about the inherent innocence of art, as it serves as Dorian’s holy scripture during his hedonistic rampage. However, the yellow book only serves to convey the extent to which one can project themselves onto an artwork. This is very fitting, considering how Dorian essentially trades places with his portrait, becoming a work of art himself. As such, one might even be tempted to forgive him for his actions, as he is incapable of moral reasoning due to his superficiality (art is neither moral nor immoral). One must recognize that books are entirely innocent; they are just an arrangement of letters on a page. The meaning, whether vile or virtuous, is entirely in the hands of the reader.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Broadview, 1998.