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For although beauty and youth remain of utmost importance at the end of the novel—the portrait is, after all, returned to its original form—the novel suggests that the price one must pay for them is exceedingly high. It is no surprise that a society that prizes beauty above all else is a society founded on a love of surfaces.What matters most to Dorian, Lord Henry, and the polite company they keep is not whether a man is good at heart but rather whether he is handsome.When The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, it was decried as immoral.
Both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Death in Venice wage testimonial to art and emphasis the fact that art is non something that all people can absorb.
Their aestheticism was a reaction against the philistinism of the shooting in-between category considered to be composed of anti-intellectuals, people ignorant of art who responded to it in an unprocessed mode.
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 need not possess any other purpose than being beautiful.
If this philosophy informed Wilde’s life, we must then consider whether his only novel bears it out.
The purpose of art, according to this series of epigrams, is to have no purpose.
In order to understand this claim fully, one needs to consider the moral climate of Wilde’s time and the Victorian sensibility regarding art and morality.Lord Henry reminds Dorian of as much upon their first meeting, when he laments that Dorian will soon enough lose his most precious attributes.In Chapter Seventeen, the Duchess of Monmouth suggests to Lord Henry that he places too much value on these things; indeed, Dorian’s eventual demise confirms her suspicions.Wilde may have succeeded in freeing his art from the confines of Victorian morality, but he has replaced it with a doctrine that is, in its own way, just as restrictive.The first principle of aestheticism, the philosophy of art by which Oscar Wilde lived, is that art serves no other purpose than to offer beauty.While we know nothing of the circumstances of the yellow book’s composition, Basil’s state of mind while painting Dorian’s portrait is clear.Later in the novel, he advocates that all art be “unconscious, ideal, and remote.” His portrait of Dorian, however, is anything but.The two works of art that dominate the novel—Basil’s painting and the mysterious yellow book that Lord Henry gives Dorian—are presented in the vein more of Victorian sensibilities than of aesthetic ones.That is, both the portrait and the French novel serve a purpose: the first acts as a type of mysterious mirror that shows Dorian the physical dissipation his own body has been spared, while the second acts as something of a road map, leading the young man farther along the path toward infamy.Basil’s idolatry of Dorian leads to his murder, and Dorian’s devotion to Lord Henry’s hedonism and the yellow book precipitate his own downfall.It is little wonder, in a novel that prizes individualism—the uncompromised expression of self—that the sacrifice of one’s self, whether it be to another person or to a work of art, leads to one’s destruction.