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The Clash Between Romanticism and Moral Elitism In The Picture of Dorian Gray


by Lily Green

To a member of the deeply religious and socially conservative Victorian elite, sin was something to be avoided at all costs. A lifestyle of pleasure, indulgence, and decadence was preached against at crowded churches, scorned by many social classes, and anyone who resorted to such a way of living was seen as a hell-bound degenerate. Indeed, a sense of moral elitism was exceedingly pervasive in Victorian England, where being perceived as good in the eyes of both fellow citizens and God was the ultimate goal. This trend of increased morality coincided with the Romantic Era, which ushered in a new way of thinking and perceiving the world; a way that embraced passion, mysticism, and exploration. The sister philosophy to romanticism was aestheticism, a movement that supported the notion of “ars gratia artis”, or art for art’s sake. Aestheticism, an offshoot of Marxism, guided many art movements and thrived alongside romanticism in the European literary scene. Of course, while much of romanticism exhibited a benevolent influence on much of society, it had the potential to bring out the worst in someone. The benign interest in the mystical could turn into an infatuation with darkness, passion could easily become obsession, exploration could lead to sin, and so on. With that in mind, it is easy to see how these two aspects of Victorian life seem to be incredibly distinct, and clear differences exist between them. A focus on morality does not yield much room for discovery of passion and revelation in the various forms of the sublime, both natural and unnatural, that grace the world.

Such a dichotomy is explored in Oscar Wilde’s psychological thriller The Picture of Dorian Gray, which describes the various exploits of the eponymous Dorian Gray, who sells his soul in exchange for eternal youth and beauty. As a result of this, a portrait of him, painted by his close friend Basil Hallward, ages in his place. Dorian’s continuation down a path of sin is reflected on his once beautiful portrait. His face “The quivering, ardent sunlight showed him the lines of cruelty round the mouth as clearly as if he had been looking into a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing” which starkly contrasts to the facade the people see (Wilde 102). Other Victorian elites are disturbed by Dorian’s sinful lifestyle, however, they are impressed by his eternal youth and allow him to stay within their social circles. A sinful life and its consequences are presented in this novel, with Dorian electing to choose a path of sin and immorality over a prescribed path of goodness and morality. However, his choices to live a life of frivolity, passion, and impulse, thus succumbing to a sinister, warped version of romanticism. Indeed, much of Wilde’s works explore such social and emotional differences and the “struggle for equilibrium” between two moral concepts (Fritz 2). Thus, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde explores the clash between two prominent facets of Victorian society, a conservative and moral attitude versus embracing the tenets of romanticism and aestheticism.

Immediately, at the start of the novel, Dorian Gray is placed at a crossroads that forces the reader to notice the clash between morality and romanticism. At the novel’s inception, Basil Hallward, a painter, is having a discussion about art and relationships with his friend Lord Henry. The two men could not be more different from each other: Basil is popular amongst the upper class English social circles for his class, taste, and artistic skills. He is quiet, reserved, and takes great pride in his work. Lord Henry is the utter opposite: he is flashy, decadent, and is characterized by his never-abating flow of sardonic remarks. After a brief discourse between the men makes their differences clear, Dorian enters. Basil, who is incredibly attached to Dorian, has just described the profound nature of their relationship with Lord Henry, and explains that he “knew that I had come face to face with someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself” (Wilde 7). Lord Henry, who is intrigued by Basil’s glowing testimony of his young friend, launches into a panegyric about the virtues of being young and beautiful, which frightens Dorian. At this point, Wilde implicitly forces Dorian to choose: he is asked to go dine with Lord Henry, however, Basil wishes for him to stay. Dorian chooses the evening with Lord Henry, and forever alters his life. Before leaving, he curses the painting Basil has done of him. Dorian laments that the painting will forever be young and beautiful, while he will eventually grow old and ugly. Unbeknownst to Dorian, this action causes his soul to be latched onto the painting. The distinction between Basil and Lord Henry serve as parallels to the clash between moral elitism, and coupled aestheticism and romanticism. Where Basil makes do with the life he has, Lord Henry is concerned with beauty, passionate, always living for the possibility of getting more, of moving up, of pursuing a life of vivacity and knowledge. Indeed, Basil abides by the rules of moral elitism, while Lord Henry is the classic Victorian who has managed to combine romanticism and aestheticism. Thus, they each serve as representations for the different ways of Victorian life and thinking. Wilde, by forcing Dorian to commit himself to one friend over the other, is emphasizing the innate clash between the philosophies, and showing that they coexist within a person with great difficulty. At the onset of the novel, Dorian, who is described by Basil as “young and impressionable” (Wilde 15) has already begun to lean towards morality: he has discussed charity work with the wealthy Lady Agatha (a relative of Lord Henry), and is willing to help those in a lower class. However, upon hearing Lord Henry’s sumptuous and passionate ideas, ends up committing himself to a life of immorality. As his friendship with Lord Henry thrives, Dorian undergoes a rapid moral decline, which acknowledges the fact that he was not able to find the balance between aestheticism, romanticism and morality.

It is also necessary to consider the very bargain Dorian makes when noting Wilde’s point that aestheticism, romanticism and moral elitism coexist with great difficulty. Dorian, upon being struck with the realization that he will not be forever young, tethers his soul to a painting in exchange for eternal youth. His everlasting beauty is what allows him to stay in Victorian England’s high social circles and allows him to continue living his favored lifestyle of parties, passion, and frivolity. What he gained from his bargain was a guaranteed place in a circle of aesthetics: they are willing to harbor a sinner and a criminal just because he is beautiful, thus reflecting the notion that much “aestheticism that emerges from a potential for dark doubling and reversal within aestheticism itself” (Riquelme 2003). The fact that Dorian bargained for youth represents him choosing romanticism over morality. Youth is often associated with frivolity and passion, while age is associated with good judgment, calm, positive morality, and social conservatism. The associations attached to youth perfectly overlap with romanticism, whereas values represented through old age align themselves with moral elitism. By choosing eternal youth, Dorian has chosen to live a life guided exclusively by romanticism as opposed to morality, showing that these two ways of living cannot coexist.

Dorian continues down the path of absolute corruption, and any attempt that may have been made to reconcile the tenets of romanticism with those of moral elitism is easily destroyed. This is made even more evident by Dorian’s continually deteriorating relationship with Basil Hallward. When Basil visits Dorian to express his condolences about the death of his fiancee, Sybil Vane, he is shocked to hear Dorian merely repeating insensitive remarks that he was fed by Lord Henry about how Sybil has now become little more than “a wonderful ending to a wonderful play. It has all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I have not been wounded” (Wilde 104). This demonstrates that Dorian has come to view someone who once meant so much to him as nothing more than a piece of art. Valuing beauty was an important facet of romanticism, but Dorian’s callous actions degrade another human being to nothing more than an object, something that is nice to look at, an instance of “human existence without substance” (Fritz 28). His appreciation for beauty has become an obsession, and the lines between romanticism and morality have been irreparably smudged. Basil is clearly shocked and hurt by Dorian’s actions, and exclaims “You talk as if you have no heart, no pity in you. It is all Harry’s influence. I see that” (Wilde 112). Since Basil is the physical manifestation of moral elitism, it is important to note how he reacts and appears to be emotionally wounded by Dorian’s remarks. This parallels the notion that whatever morality is left within Dorian has been damage and warped, and new romantic values are taking their place. The final and grand vacancy of any semblance of morality in Dorian occurs when he runs into Basil eighteen years after the fateful creation of the portrait. Dorian is now thirty eight, and has not had contact with Basil since Sybil’s death. Nasty stories have been spread about Dorian’s ability to corrupt, and Basil, who still cares about him, pleads with him to fix his record. Dorian, who is proud of the fact that his painting is now old, gnarled, and unrecognizable (meaning his soul is corrupt) while his body is still young, refuses. After a discussion about his soul with Basil, he shows him the painting, and murders the horrified painter. This represents Dorian destroying what is left of his tattered moral values. Basil has always served as a moral compass for Dorian, reining him in when he becomes too uncontrollable. By killing Basil, Dorian has not just committed the ultimate crime, he has destroyed the last possible person who could instill morality in him, leaving him fully open to the corruption of Lord Henry’s skewed romantic ideals. Dorian got to the point where he could not socially function with anyone trying to instill morality into his life, thus showing the dichotomy between moral elitism and romanticism.

As Dorian continues to embrace the life Lord Henry has laid out for him, the gaping divide between romanticism and moral elitism as well as their inability to exist harmoniously becomes more and more apparent. After the death of Sybil Vane, Lord Henry gives Dorian a mysterious gift, known only as the “yellow book”. The main character in this novel is a young Frenchman who seeks pleasure through a variety of strange sensory experiences. These experiences are appealing to Dorian, who sees them as “things of which he had never dreamed of [that were] suddenly real” (Wilde 128). Dorian is completely captivated by the notion of this lifestyle, and comes to wonder how he can mimic this Frenchman’s life experience of passion and worship of sublime beauty. Such a lifestyle reflects the aesthetic and romantic movements, which focus on these qualities. Dorian, at this point, succumbs completely to the twisted form of romanticism practiced in this book, which becomes his bible. Dorian is unable to see the distinction between the appreciating beautiful things and pursuing a passion for them obsessively. As he continues reading this book, he also becomes continually unfazed by his sneering, bloody, and wizened portrait. His obsession with beauty and his desire for “eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joy and wilder sins” has allowed him to justify his transgressions, since his physical body shows no signs of corruption (Wilde 109). He believes there is no way that morality could have altered his path, and thus decides to abandon the influence of morality. This shows that when romanticism and morality are forced to coexist, one of them will always win.

The concepts of romanticism and aestheticism have always been difficult to unify with moral elitism, especially in the Victorian Era in which all of these ways of life existed together. A plethora of academics have stated that Wilde used The Picture of Dorian Gray to highlight this dichotomy and prove that “the aesthetic and the ethical seem far less smoothly reconcilable” in the Victorian era and in the context of the Marxist theories that spawned both aestheticism and romanticism (Fritz 3). It is difficult to say if Dorian would have undergone such a drastic transformation had he not met Lord Henry all those years ago, if Basil had carefully guarded him from the outside world and its sinful influences. However, considering the prevalence of both moral elitism and romanticism, it is likely that Dorian would have easily met another man who would have sent him on a similar trajectory. Indeed Dorian Gray tragically declined morally and underwent a fantastic, aesthetic and romantic transformation, which ended up being his downfall.

Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Fritz, Morgan. "Utopian Experimentation and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray." Utopian Studies 24.2 (2013): 283-311. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
Riquelme, John Paul. "Oscar Wilde's Aesthetic Gothic: Walter Pater, Dark Enlightenment, and The Picture of Dorian Gray." MFS Modern Fiction Studies 46.3 (2000): 609-31. Project MUSE [Johns Hopkins UP]. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

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