Themes, Motifs and Symbols in Oscar Wilde’s the Picture of Dorian Gray

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Themes, motifs and symbols in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

The only published novel by Oscar Wilde, which appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, was seen as immoral and scandalous, so the editors of the magazine censored about five hundred words without Wilde’s knowledge. Even with that, the novel was not received very well. Disappointed with this, Wilde revised his novel, added a preface, where he explains his philosophy of art, and six new chapters.

Since Wilde was devoted to aestheticism, he believed that art had no purpose, nor moral nor political, because art is beautiful and therefore has worth. His attitude was revolutionary, since Victorian England believed that art could be used for social education and moral enlightenment. Aestheticism fought to free art from this belief. The aestheticists were motivated as much by a contempt for bourgeois morality, a sensibility embodied in Dorian Gray by Lord Henry, whose every word seems designed to shock the ethical certainties of the burgeoning middle class, as they were by the belief that art does not need to possess any other purpose than being beautiful.

There are two works of art that dominate the novel. Basil’s painting and the mysterious yellow book that Lord Henry gives Dorian. They are not presented in aesthetic but in Victorian sensibilities, which means that both the portrait and the French novel have a purpose. The portrait is a kind of a mysterious mirror which shows Dorian the physical aging his body will not go through, while the French novel is a kind of a map which leads Dorian further towards infamy. Readers know nothing about the composition of the French novel, but they can see Basil’s state of mind while painting the picture. He states that all art is “unconscious, ideal, and remote” but his portrait of Dorian is everything but unconscious, ideal and remote. The first principle of aestheticism is that art serves no other purpose than to offer beauty, and...
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