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A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Author(s): Houston A. Baker, Jr.

Source: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Dec., 1969), pp. 349-355
Published by: University of California Press
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Accessed: 27-01-2017 19:10 UTC

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Nineteenth-Century Fiction

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350 Nineteenth-Century Fiction

has sold his soul to a Mephistophelian Lord Henry Wotton.1 To

accept such an interpretation without qualifications, however, is
to ignore the complexity of the novel, for the central message of
the work is no mere repetition of Goethe's moral code, nor can the
influences at work be limited to a single drama of damnation and
salvation.2 The Picture of Dorian Gray has been seen as everything
from an attack on late-Victorian hypocrisy3 to a story of the domina-
tion of an older man by a beautiful youth;4 this broad range of
interpretation seems ample proof that the novel is not so indis-
putably clear and simple as some would make it out to be.
Simplistic (or far-fetched) interpretations of Wilde's novel can
only emerge when we set the work in a vacuum. For when it is
considered within the context of Wilde's essays and the philosophi-
cal conception of life that arises from the essays, The Picture of
Dorian Gray can be seen as a novel with a serious purpose and a
sound message to the artist. The novel, in fact, can be seen as a
tragedy of the artist, a work in which Wilde calls to account the
overly self-conscious artist who projects his own personality too
severely on the public. This is not to say that we should read Wilde's
essays into the novel, but simply that we should read and interpret
the novel within the framework of Wilde's major ideas. Wilde's
chief concern was always with art, the artist, the critic, or the effect
of art and criticism on society at large, and this can be seen by a
brief look at the ideas presented in several of his most important
In "The Critic as Artist," Gilbert says: "I am a dreamer. For a
dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his
'Ted R. Spivey sets forth this rather traditional view in "Damnation and Salva-
tion in The Picture of Dorian Gray," BUSE, IV (1960), 162-170. And, in The Victo-
rian Temper (New York, 1951), Jerome Buckley says of the novel: "As a reworking of
the familiar Faust theme, its allegory was fashioned to explore the terrors of evil that
the soul yielding to the temptations of hedonistic desire must ultimately experience"
(pp. 234-235).
2 The influences on Wilde's novel include Huysmans' A Rebours, Balzac's La
Peau de Chagrin, Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, and Disraeli's Vivian Grey. For
a discussion of the influences, see Edouard Roditi's Oscar Wilde (Norfolk, Conn.,
1947), pp. 113-124.
In commenting on the attacks launched on The Picture of Dorian Gray by
contemporary reviewers, Vyvyan Holland says: "But the real reason for the attack
was that it [Wilde's novel] did so much to expose the hypocrisy of Victorian English-
men who, living in one of the most vicious cities in the world, kept priding them-
selves, sanctimoniously, upon their virtue" (Oscar Wilde [London, 1960], p. 70).
4Frances Winwar (Oscar Wilde and the Yellow 'Nineties [New York, 1940]) sees
the novel as a reworking of the Charmides story. Dorian Gray, who acts the role of
Charmides, dominates Basil Hallward (p. 164).

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Notes 351

punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world." 5
To a certain extent, the statement characterizes Wilde, for he was
not only a dreamer, but an optimistic dreamer. His view of the
role that the artist and the critic could play in molding society was
extremely sanguine, and his view of the utopian results of the
establishment of a socialistic state was an optimistic one.6 In the
case of the artist, the critic, and society, however, Wilde saw that
careful thought and a highly idealistic philosophical position were
prerequisites to development. The contemplative life of the critic,
the rigorous imaginative-intellectual work of the artist, a high de-
gree of self-culture and careful thought in society-all were neces-
sary if the world was to become a better place. Idealism-the pri-
macy of the objective, ordering mind-is thus essential in Wilde's
Weltanschauung, for idealism leads to self-realization on the part
of the individual.7 In turn, the self-realization of the individual
makes for a better society in general, for Wilde believed that the
progress of society was dependent upon the progress of the indi-

IOscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist," Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, ed. F.
B. Foreman (London, 1968), p. 1058. All citations from the essays refer to this edition.
8In "The Decay of Lying" (Complete Works, pp. 970-992) Wilde sets forth his
view of the role of the artist. The function of the artist is to create an "imaginative
reality" as Balzac did (p. 976); imaginative reality will act as a standard for society.
Life, according to Wilde, imitates art, and thus the greatest art has an influence on
the shape and state of society (pp. 982-985). The "Romantic" artist, therefore, since
his art is always ahead of his age (pp. 991-992), can play a large part in directing the
future course of a society. And, in "The Critic as Artist" (Complete Works, pp.
1009-59), Wilde sees the critic as an equally important force in the molding of
society. Wilde says that the critic represents "the flawless type" (p. 1053) who creates
"the intellectual atmosphere of the age" and who makes us cosmopolitan and aware
of the point at which we have arrived (pp. 1056-57). The critic is a self-cultured
man who insures the progress of society. Finally, Wilde's optimism can be seen in
"The Soul of Man Under Socialism," (Complete Works, pp. 1079-1104), for here he
says that socialism will insure a freedom from drudgery, the increase of individualism,
and the growth of more unique forms of art.
7Wilde's idealism, his belief in the validity of the mind's vision, can be seen in
both "The Decay of Lying" and "The Critic as Artist." For in "The Critic as
Artist" he champions the "contemplative life" as the most virtuous, since this life,
which is characterized by the dominance of the objective, ordering mind, leads to the
development of the self-cultured man (pp. 1043-44). And in "The Decay of
Lying" we are told that art is of value not because it seeks to imitate and reproduce
life, but because the artist's imaginative intellect acts as a filter to screen out the
insignificant and present a meaningful work of art. Finally, in "The Critic as
Artist" Wilde says that only careful thought, not romantic philanthropy, can lead
to a solution of the problems of society (pp. 1042-43). The mind, or the imagina-
tive intellect, thus holds pre-eminence in Wilde's philosophical conception of life.
8 In "The Critic as Artist," Wilde says: "For the development of the race depends
on the development of the individual, and where self-culture has ceased to be the

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352 Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Since Wilde held the self-realization of the individual in such

high esteem, it is not surprising that we find him condemning the
overly self-conscious artist in The Picture of Dorian Gray. For self-
realization to Wilde was far removed from an easy emotionalism
and an excessive self-consciousness.9 The coming to perfect whole-
ness of the soul of man meant an objective mind, the study of the
best that had been thought and said in the world, and a rigorous
cultivation of the products of the imaginative intellect. True, the
artist, in Wilde's view, must have a strong personality,'0 but he
cannot simply thrust upon the world his own raw emotions in the
work of art. What we want is an "imaginative reality," which can
act as an ideal for the higher development of society.
Basil Hallward, the artist in The Picture of Dorian Gray, started
on the proper path toward self-realization, but in painting the
portrait of Dorian Gray he has gone astray. For as he tells Lord
Henry Wotton at the opening of the novel-"I have put too much
of myself in it." 1 Hallward has an ideal conception of the role of
the artist, and he realizes from the outset of the novel that he has
not lived up to his conception. What the artist must do is present
an "abstract sense of beauty" to the world, and Hallward has failed
to do so in his portrait of Dorian Gray (29). The artist has put into
the picture his own idolatry and worship of the physical embodi-
ment of his ideal; he vows, therefore, never to exhibit the portrait.
The artist's good resolutions, however, come too late; the harm
has already been done. For Hallward's concession to his own
egocentric desires has, in effect, corrupted the ideal. Dorian tells
the artist, "You only taught me to be vain" (22). And later in the
novel he says to Hallward:

You met me, flattered me, and taught me to be vain of my good looks.
One day you introduced me to a friend of yours, who explained the

ideal, the intellectual standard is instantly lowered and, often, ultimately lost" (p.
9 Ultimately, Wilde came to consider the life of self-realization, or "self-develop-
ment," as the truly artistic life, for in De Profundis he says: "For the artistic life
is simple self-development" (p. 922). And he went on to show that Christ's life, in its
"imaginative sympathy," its extreme idealism and individualism, and its avoidance of
romantic reform, represented the perfect example of the artistic life of self-realization.
Obviously, then, self-realization to Wilde was not a simple end to be achieved
through self-consciousness and emotionalism.
10 Wilde sets forth this view when he discusses Thomas Griffiths Wainewright in
"Pen, Pencil and Poison," Complete Works, pp. 993-1008.
1 (Signet Classics ed.; New York, 1962), p. 20; all citations in my text are to this

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Notes 353

wonder of youth, and you finished a portrait of me that revealed to me

the wonder of beauty. (169)

Hallward's excessive self-consciousness, his selfish desires, and his

jealous zeal in keeping Dorian from others have corrupted the sim-
ple, natural, and affectionate model who sat for the portrait (127).
As long as Hallward painted Dorian as Paris or Adonis, he per-
formed the true function of the artist, for he then presented
"imaginative reality." Of his work during this period, the artist
says, "And it had been what art should be-unconscious, ideal, and
remote" (128). But when Hallward decided to paint the fatal por-
trait, his work became self-conscious, real, and overly personal.
The ideal is thus corrupted; Dorian is flattered into vanity and
made vulnerable to the advances of Lord Henry Wotton. Instead of
the physical embodiment of a high artistic ideal, Dorian becomes,
as Lord Henry wishes, the "visible symbol" of the new hedonism
(38). It is important to realize, however, that Dorian is first of all
an artistic ideal, and the corruption that he undergoes in his
hedonistic pursuit of pleasure is the corruption of an artistic ideal.
The fact that Dorian's corruption shows only on Hallward's canvas
emphasizes this point. Hallward's initial self-consciousness and mis-
handling of the ideal have doleful consequences, and it is significant
that the artist himself introduces Dorian to Lord Henry. The chain
of events seems to be: self-consciousness of the artist, corruption of
the ideal, and a hedonistic pursuit of exquisite sensation. Basil
Hallward sets the entire sequence in motion.
The fatalistic element in the novel is strong; it reminds one of
lines from "The Ballad of Reading Gaol":

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,

By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.12

Hallward is essentially a firm, moral individual, but he has been

led away from the true function of the artist by his slavish worship
of Dorian's physical charms. The artist comments on the fatal at-
traction that he felt for Dorian upon first seeing him:

Something seemed to tell me that I was on the verge of a terrible crisis

in my life. I had a strange feeling that fate had in store for me exquisite
12 Complete Works, p. 844.

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354 Nineteenth-Century Fiction

joys and exquisite sorrows. I grew afraid and turned to quit the room.
It was not conscience that made me do so: it was a sort of cowardice.

The artist's meeting with Dorian was, indeed, a critical test of his
artistic beliefs, and it was a test that he failed. For Hallward loses
his ideal through idolatry; he kills the thing he loves with a "flatter-
ing word." The artist realizes his own failings, for he tells Dorian,
"No man comes across two ideal things. Few come across one"
(129-130). Fate has crossed the path of a serious, high-minded, and
moral artist, and, as a result, he has lost the one "ideal thing"-he
has failed at the crisis point in his life.
Hallward's failure, however, does not prevent him from exercis-
ing a moral influence, and Dorian comments on the good advice
that Hallward has to give. Moreover, when Dorian is responsible
for the death of Sibyl Vane, it is Hallward who attempts to impress
upon him the gravity of his offense. Finally, it is Hallward who as-
sumes the role of the "Good Angel" in Wilde's somewhat Faustian
novel, for when the artist sees how hideous the portrait has become,
he begs Dorian to repent in words similar to those of Marlowe's
Good Angel-"It is never too late" (170). Thus, when he plunges
the knife into Hallward, Dorian, in effect, exorcizes the one sound
and moral influence on his life. Dorian's later resolution to repent,
as he himself realizes, proceeds from vanity, curiosity, and hypoc-
risy (233). The only hope for art is the destruction of the cor-
rupted ideal, and when Dorian attempts to destroy Hallward's
canvas, the knife enters his own heart. The destruction of the cor-
rupt ideal means that Hallward's canvas can regain its original

When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid
portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all of his exquisite
youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress,
with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome
of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they
recognized who it was. (234)

The false ideal destroyed, the artistic product can regain its purity.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a tragedy of the artist. Fate plays
an important role, and the hamartia of an essentially high and
noble individual has dire consequences. Art, like Oedipus' Thebes,
can regain its purity only when the corrupting influence has been

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Notes 355

destroyed. Self-consciousness, worship of sheer physical beauty, and

a selfish desire to keep the ideal to himself lead Basil Hallward
astray and corrupt the state of his art. The artist's tragedy, how-
ever, could perhaps have been avoided if he had not been all
For in "The Critic as Artist" Wilde calls for a merging of
conscience and instinct,13 and, in a sense, Lord Henry Wotton
represents instinct in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Basil Hall-
ward represents conscience. Lord Henry utters some of Wilde's
favorite doctrines in regard to the vulgarity of society and the
necessity of beauty in the life of the individual. If Hallward had
possessed a degree of Lord Henry's instinct and individualism, he
might have met the crisis of his life successfully. As Dorian says to
the artist: "Of course, I am very fond of Harry. But I know that
you are better than he is. You are not stronger-you are too much
afraid of life-but you are better" (124). And we remember that
Hallward himself says it was cowardice that made him wish to flee
from the crisis of his life. Excessive conscience has made the artist
afraid of life. Hallward's conscience, merged with Lord Henry's
instinct, might have produced quite other results. As the novel
stands, however, it is a tragedy of the artist-conscience untempered
by the strength of hedonistic instinct and hedonism untempered by
conscience. The artistic ideal represented by Dorian Gray moves
rapidly toward the sensual corruption of hedonism, and only the
destruction of the false ideal can return art to its pure state.'4
Yale University

13 Complete Works, p. 1041.

14 In consideration of the "portrait element" in Wilde's novel, it seems impossible
to agree with Graham Hough's evaluation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In The
Last Romantics (London, 1949), pp. 194-202, Hough compares Wilde's novel to
Huysmans' A Rebours, and insists that Wilde's work is an unsuccessful imitation of
Huysmans'. By the addition of the "portrait element," however, Wilde's concerns are
far broader than Huysmans', and we are presented with a tragedy of the artist and
not a history of the dandy.

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