The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is the story of moral corruption by the means of aestheticism. In the novel, the well meaning artist Basil Hallward presets young Dorian Gray with a portrait of himself. After conversing with cynical Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian makes a wish which dreadfully affects his life forever. "If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that" (Wilde 109). As it turns out, the devil that Dorian sells his soul to is Lord Henry Wotton, who exists not only as something external to Dorian, but also as a voice within him (Bloom 107). Dorian continues to lead a life of sensuality which he learns about in a book given to him by Lord Henry. Dorian's unethical devotion to pleasure becomes his way of life.
The novel underscores its disapproval of aestheticism which negatively impacts the main characters. Each of the three primary characters is an aesthete and meets some form of terrible personal doom. Basil Hallward's aestheticism is manifested in his dedication to his artistic creations. He searches in the outside world for the perfect manifestation of his own soul, when he finds this object, he can create masterpieces by painting it (Bloom 109). He refuses to display the portrait of Dorian Gray with the explanation that, "I have put too much of myself into it" (Wilde 106). He further demonstrates the extent to which he holds this philosophy by later stating that, "only the artist is truly reveled" (109).
Lord Henry Wotton criticizes Basil Hallward that, "An artist should create beautiful things but should put nothing of his own life into them" (Wilde 25). Ironically, the purpose of Basil Hallward's existence is that he is an aesthete striving to become one with his art (Eriksen 105). It is this very work of art which Basil refuses to display that provides Dorian Gray with the idea that there are no consequences to his actions. Dorian has this belief in mind when he murders Basil. Here we see that the artist is killed for his excessive love of physical beauty; the same art that he wished to merge with is the cause of his mortal downfall (Juan 64).
Lord Henry Wotton, the most influential man in Dorian's life, is an aesthete of the mind. Basil is an artist who uses a brush while Wotton is an artist who uses words:
There is no good, no evil, no morality and immorality;there
are modes of being. To live is to experiment aesthetically in
living to experiment all sensations, to know all emotions, and
to think all thoughts, in order that the self's every capacity
may be imaginatively realized (West 5811).
Lord Henry believes that, "it is better to be beautiful than to be good" (Wilde 215). Although he attests that aestheticism is a mode of thought, he does not act on his beliefs. Basil Hallward accuses him saying, "You never say a moral thing and you never do a wrong thing" (5). However, Lord Henry does take the immoral action of influencing Dorian.
Although Lord Henry states that, "all influence is immoral" (Wilde 18), he nonetheless drastically changes Dorian Gray. As Dorian acts on the beliefs of Lord Henry, the portrait's beauty becomes corrupted. "Lord Henry presents Dorian with the tenants of his New Hedonism, whose basis is self-development leading to the perfect realization of one's nature" (Eriksen 97). If Lord Henry's aesthetic ideas have validity ,Dorian Gray's portrait should not become ugly, but rather more beautiful. Since the picture becomes loathsome, it is evident that Lord Henry's beliefs are untrue (West 5811). Dorian becomes so disgusted with the horrible portrait that he slashes the canvas, and the knife pierces his own heart. Because Lord Henry is responsible for influencing Dorian Gray, he is partly the cause of the death of...