The Conflict Between Aestheticism and Morality in Oscar Wilde

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The Conflict Between Aestheticism and Morality in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde prefaces his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, with a reflection on art, the artist, and the utility of both. After careful scrutiny, he concludes: “All art is quite useless” (Wilde 4). In this one sentence, Wilde encapsulates the complete principles of the Aesthetic Movement popular in Victorian England. That is to say, real art takes no part in molding the social or moral identities of society, nor should it. Art should be beautiful and pleasure its observer, but to imply further-reaching influence would be a mistake. The explosion of aesthetic philosophy in fin-de-siècle English society, as exemplified by Oscar Wilde, was not confined to merely art, however. Rather, the proponents of this philosophy extended it to life itself. Here, aestheticism advocated whatever behavior was likely to maximize the beauty and happiness in one’s life, in the tradition of hedonism. To the aesthete, the ideal life mimics art; it is beautiful, but quite useless beyond its beauty, concerned only with the individual living it. Influences on others, if existent, are trivial at best. Many have read The Picture of Dorian Gray as a novelized sponsor for just this sort of aesthetic lifestyle. However, this story of the rise and fall of Dorian Gray might instead represent an allegory about morality meant to critique, rather than endorse, the obeying of one’s impulses as thoughtlessly and dutifully as aestheticism dictates.

In the novel, Lord Henry Wotton trumpets the aesthetic philosophy with an elegance and bravado that persuade Dorian to trust in the principles he espouses; the reader is often similarly captivated. It would be a mistake, however, to interpret the novel as a patent recommendation of aestheticism. To the aesthete, there is no distinction between moral and immoral acts, only between those that increase or decrease one’s happiness; yet, Dorian Gray refutes this idea, presenting a strong case for the inherent immorality of purely aesthetic lives. Dorian Gray personifies the aesthetic lifestyle in action, pursuing personal gratification with abandon. Yet, while he enjoys these indulgences, his behavior ultimately kills him and others, and he dies unhappier than ever. Rather than an advocate for pure aestheticism, then, Dorian Gray is a cautionary tale in which Wilde illustrates the dangers of the aesthetic philosophy when not practiced with prudence. Aestheticism, argues Wilde, too often aligns itself with immorality, resulting in a precarious philosophy that must be practiced deliberately.

Dorian Gray is often read as an explicit proclamation of the worthiness of living life in accordance with aesthetic values. This is due in part to the flourishing Aesthetic Movement of Victorian England at the time of the novel’s publication, as well as Oscar Wilde’s association with the movement itself (Becker 660). The Aesthetic Movement, which coincided with the Industrial Revolution at the end of the nineteenth century, emphasized the artistic aspect of a man’s work in producing a variety of goods, from furniture to machines to literature (Becker 660). Oscar Wilde, however, proposed that the principles of the Aesthetic Movement extend beyond the production of mere commodities. In Joseph Pearce’s biography, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, Pearce recalls Wilde’s own perspective on the popular movement. Speaking of aestheticism, Wilde is quoted:

“It is indeed to become a part of the people’s life . . . I mean a man who works with his hands; and not with his hands merely, but with his head and his heart. The evil that machinery is doing is not merely in the consequence of its work but in the fact that it makes men themselves machines also. Whereas, we wish them to be artists, that is to say men”. (qtd. in Pearce 144)

In his exposition of aestheticism, Wilde applies the philosophy in a more...
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