By Mayurakshi Dev
Through the course of Oscar Wilde’s novel, Dorian Gray’s portrayal as a self-satisfying hedonist is established through the character’s persistent obsession with the idea of the self and the immoral. Gray indulges in moral corruptions, experiments with all the vices and leads a life of debauchery and decadence. The character’s repeated forays into the life of sin introduces him to all aspects of human vices. Gray’s love for his body, sensuality and the material beauties are exemplified in the story by showcasing his continued trysts with sinful experiments: some highlight the obvious intimacy between Gray and his idea of his ideal self, the rest accentuate the intimacy present between Gray and the life of sin. The strong intimacy that Gray creates between himself and his idea of the ideal self is made prominent at the very beginning of the novel through his unnatural attraction towards his own portrait (painted by Basil Hallward), indicating to his self-obsessed personality; his subsequent demands for the eternal preservation of his own youth at the expense of his soul also point to his desire for an ideal self or body.
Gray’s intimacy with the life of sin also is a central theme in the novel. His continued experiments with immoral activities, including murder, bring about the establishment of a close relationship between him and a world of corruption. Dorian Gray’s sinful becomes an intimate relationship with sin owing to his deliberate forays into the many vices under the influence of his friend Lord Wotton.
Intimacy in The Picture of Dorian Gray thus explores intimacy through the character of Dorian Gray; intimacy with the construct of an ideal self, and intimacy with the world of sin occur parallel in the novel and in the person of Dorian Gray. This paper will attempt to examine these two mores of intimacies of the character of Dorian Gray in light of Victorian sensibilities and moralities and contemporary ideas of Aestheticism – against the backdrop of degenerating human relationships and intimacies in the novel.
Contemporary critics and readers condemned The Picture of Dorian Gray for its ‘vulgarity’, its ‘studied insincerity’, for being a piece of ‘obtrusively cheap scholarship’ and for being ‘unnatural.’ Wilde’s novel, in its frank and unapologetic championing of a self-indulgent lifestyle, was understood by its readers to be a rejection of Victorian-Christian sensibilities. Through the character of Dorian Gray, Wilde brings to light the relationship between a self-absorbed hedonist and the life of sensual indulgences; he highlights the intimate connections between Dorian Gray’s perceived notion of the ideal self and a life of unbridled debauchery.
Gray’s developing intimacies with the sensual, material world remains the novel’s central narrative. Much of the story centres on Gray’s unnatural attraction for his body and his desperate desire for the preservation of youth and beauty. This indicates his obsessive love for the ‘ideal self’, which he creates and protects at the expense of his soul. The iconic, almost Faustian, barter made by Dorian Gray – where his temporal human body assumes the imperishable qualities of his portrait — is a confirmation of Lord Henry Wotton’s observation on ‘new Hedonism’ when he says, ‘… the aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here to do …’.Gray’s obsession rests with the body and the ideal self, where the ideal self retains beauty and sensual glamour. His desire for eternal beauty stems from the peculiar desire to conserve in his person the beauty of youth, his narcissism thus becoming a practice in self-indulgence as well as an effort to experience the sensual. The perfect beauty of his own body symbolises and thereby aids him in accessing material beauty. Intimacy with the self, for Gray, therefore becomes intimacy with his construction of the ideal self.
Gray’s obsessive investment with beauty and youth arises from his friend Lord Wotton’s observations on life. Lord Wotton’s ideas, interestingly, echo the Paterian sensibility which sanctioned and celebrated the cultivation of the self as an egoistic isolate. Walter Pater’s construction of the ‘amorphous, unstable’ individual ego that experiences life as momentary transitory sensory impressions finds expression in Lord Wotton’s philosophy (which remains a close reflection on Pater’s ‘Conclusion’ to Studies in the Renaissance): ‘Every one of those impressions is the impression of an individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world’.
Pater’s influence on Wilde becomes evident when one realises the similarity between Lord Wotton’s philosophy and the aestheticist orientation. Consider the espousal of the life of infidelity made by Lord Henry:
The people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custorm or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect – imply a confession of failure…
This comment, alongside the overwhelming emphasis on momentary sensual experiences, resonates with Pater’s suggestions, ‘[one must] get as many pulsations as possible into the given time …’ and ‘our failure is to form habits’.
Such an ideology may be seen as the basis for Dorian Gray’s continued trysts with sin and debauchery throughout the novel. The narrative finds Gray indulging in increasingly depraved atrocities, including murder, without any accompanying remorse. Gray’s repeated forays into immoral behaviour and even cruelty, however, remain acts of self-indulgence; this is made possible through his identification of life with pure aesthetic sensations. Gray’s intimacy with the world of sin at once brings him closer to the realisation of life in terms of purely sensual impressions and also highlights his deviation from the general Victorian moral conventions. Joseph Carroll’s essay ‘Aestheticism, Homoeroticism, and Christian Guilt in The Picture of Dorian Gray’ brings to light the ways in which the Victorian population, aware of Darwinian concepts of life and the self, viewed morality:
A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them … Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection: past impressions and images are incessantly passing through his mind with distinctness. […] A man who possessed no trace of such feeling would be an unnatural monster […] Conscience looks backwards and judges past actions, inducing that kind of dissatisfaction, which if weak we call regret, and if severe remorse.
This consciousness of regret and remorse formed the cornerstone of Victorian-Christian morality; and this consciousness of guilt and anguish is dismissed by both Lord Wotton and Gray as not worth preserving. The obvious homoerotic overtones in the narrative that undermined contemporary familial, conjugal and gender binaries further aggravated the Victorian bourgeois identity.
By identifying life’s experience as singular sensual impressions, Wilde makes Gray interact with and perceive sin in a singularly intimate manner. Gray undermines the ‘continuous’ process of the human consciousness by refusing guilt and remorse, and partially celebrates Pater’s expression ‘not the fruit of experience, but the experience itself is the end’. His intimacy with the life of sin and depravity, much like his intimacy with the ideal self, is a result of his desire for the sensual and material. His abrupt loss of interest in Sybil, his secret life of immorality and his keen interest in the infamous French decadent novel borrowed from his friend, all show his intimate and necessarily dependent relationship with a life of sin as one based purely on gratification.
Gray’s construction of intimacy thus remains subject to his ideas of sensual experience and bodily beauty. His concept of the ideal self enables him to refuse the Victorian moral identity and also exempts him from being an active participant in guilt regarding his sins. The slow deformation of Basil’s portrait may be taken to be a result of Gray’s refusal to acknowledge a life of continuous moral identity, which forms the cornerstone of Victorian sensibilities. Wilde’s rejection of contemporary Victorian identities through (what may be considered) Wotton’s reductionist Pater philosophy is at once an espousal of the aestheticist orientation and also a possible demonstration of the consequences of rejecting contemporary ethics.
Wilde’s novel emphasises the simultaneous growth of Gray’s intimacy with his bodily sensual love and his attachment to the world of sin – every lapse of judgement caused by his uninhibited lifestyle finding expression in his portrait. Material gratification leading to a confused and heightened sense of self-love, and an aggravated desire for sin in order to experience sensual pleasure thus forms an intimate and simultaneous relationship in Gray’s person and Basil’s portrait. The construction of intimacies in The Picture of Dorian Gray problematizes the prevalent concepts of Victorian morality and also shows the growing relationship between sensual gratification and a life of sin through the protagonist. The various mores of intimacies explored and hinted at develop the idea of the demise of Victorian sensibilities and charts the consequences of such a demise as well.
Regenia Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986), p.156.
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2001), p. 19.
Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, ed. Donald Hall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 187–88.
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 48.
Pater, The Renaissance.
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, ed. John Tyler Bonner and Robert M. May (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 88–91.
Pater, The Renaissance.
Mayurakshi Dev is a student of English Literature, currently completing her post-graduation degree from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her research interests include Gender Studies, South-East Asian Feminism, Indian Writing in English and 19th century literature.