In his only novel, Oscar Wilde explores the themes of humanity, morality and corruption. This book garnered a lot of controversy at the time of published, due partly to Wilde’s discussion and criticism of the superficial English society, which he called “the native land of the hypocrite”. Furthermore, Wilde questions morality, using a metaphorical figure of Satan, and raises discussion of the moral implications of mentorship and corruption. Also, Wilde elaborates on the relationship between art and humanity and aestheticism, utilizing descriptions the environment to highlight inner thoughts and emotions.
Wilde did not paint a very appealing picture of the English society in the 1800s. Through Dorian Gray’s character, the society appears obsessed with superficial beauty and glamour. The importance of youth is so profound and entrenched, placing appearance above everything else. Lord Henry’s persuasive argument of the importance of beauty over thought reflects Wilde’s own opinion towards society at the time, “youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth.” This obsession is highlighted through Gray’s obsession with his own looks, and with his lover Sibyl. Once the outer appearances are slowly stripped down, Gray is left with no substance, thought, only cruelty. Sibyl Vane is the symbol and metaphor of objectification of beauty, whose real feelings and thoughts are disregarded and her presence only serves as pleasure for men as they choose to. There are themes of feminism weaved into Wilde’s criticism of the English society, as appearance of a woman is a lot more important than her personality, “as long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied.” Oscar Wilde recognizes that this obsession is evil, as once Gray was convinced of his own beauty, his road to corruption began. The relationship between aestheticism and morality is therefore a complicated one.
The author also raises difficult questions about moral influence. Lord Henry, who acts as a satanic figure to Dorian Gray, proposes ideas that are controversial, but hard to dismiss. One of them, as Henry says, “There is no such thing as a good influence […] all influence is immoral – immoral from the scientific point of view.” Here, Wilde revisits the philosophical debate of existentialism and humanism, argues that it is ethically wrong to cast any influence on another human being. Therefore, our societies, which are based on hierarchy and mentorship, are fundamentally immoral. Later, when Dorian Gray himself becomes negative influences to other English men, he projects the same characteristics of Lord Henry that makes him satanic. This may be obviously evil, but Hallward, who tried to show Gray beauty and morality, also should be guilty of corrupting him: “you met me and flattered me, and taught me to be vain with my good looks.” If Hallward and Lord Henry both push Dorian Gray to corruption, while one has “good” intentions and the other so clearly wrong, then influences are immoral no matter their substance. Wilde leaves this topic open to his readers to reflect on.
The centrepiece of Wilde’s novel is Dorian Gray’s picture, a piece of art that reflects Gray’s humanity. Art and humanity are therefore tied closely together, and art is a mirror of the deteriorating soul. Beauty, however, is not related to humanity nor art, and is left out of the dynamic equation. Dorian Gray remained beautiful, but his soul did not, and neither did his picture. A complex relationship is developed here, because in the preface, Wilde starts with this sounding statement: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” Tying with the discussion between aestheticism and morality, art brings a perspective that is separate from philosophy. There is something human and emotional that is a fundamental part of art, and as Hallward laments, “I felt, Dorian, that I had told too much, that I had put too much of myself in it.” This picture of Dorian Gray does not just reflect Gray’s soul, but also a part of Hallward, who had always only hoped the best for Gray. Beauty, morality, art and humanity are important themes of this novel.
Wilde’s description of the surrounding environmental also acts as reflections of Gray’s inner thoughts and soul. The beauty of the opening scene is described perfectly, “the studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” This scene draws readers in with its fragrances and feeling of angelic purity, a perfect complement to Dorian Gray’s inner and outer beauty at the time. As Gray sinks deeper into debauchery, the scene also changes drastically, “dumb shadows crawl into the corners of the room, and crouch there. Outside, there is the stirring of birds among the leaves, or the sound of men going forth to their work, or the sigh and sob of the wind coming down from the hills.” Gray’s thoughts are heavy with guilt and paranoia, and in the dark nights, he thinks about the life he had chosen. Pages and pages of exquisite description of both Gray’s outside world and inner thoughts brings the character and his thoughts to life. Wilde had turned philosophical discussion into art.