First released in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray was received by a Victorian audience who believed that art was a tool, used for social education and moral enlightenment. Oscar Wilde, who played a pivotal role in the Aestheticism movement, sought to free art of this responsibility. This is evident in The Picture of Dorian Gray; the key theme of which discusses the purpose of art.
Oscar Wilde addresses the relationship between art and morality, by mixing the serious with the frivolous – something which would have been incredibly disconcerting for his readers at the time of release, and subsequently caused outrage.
In this video, Dr Nick Freeman, a specialist reader in Late Victorian Literature at Loughborough University, discusses the importance of morality and art in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
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There's no such thing as a moral or an immoral book, books are well written or badly written, that is all. Dorian Gray's provocative preface saw Wilde dismiss the mainstream Victorian belief that art was the hand servant of morality, for Wilde that was not the case, only artistic concerns mattered. Such attitudes are controversial, even dangerous, it was clear that the eighteen nineties were going to be a turbulent decade.
But if Wilde believed that art was independent from reality, where did that leave Dorian Gray and his progress from innocence to cynicism, and secret vice? Let alone his terrible punishment. And what of Lord Henry Wotton? The suave charismatic aristocrat who tells his young friend 'live the wonderful life that is in you, let nothing be lost upon you, be searching always for new sensations'. Lord Henry's credo is at once bewitching and very dangerous, conjuring a world in which the intellect rules the passions and in which emotions are studied rather than felt, as the young actress Sibyl Vane will discover. This is a world in which life counts for far less than art.
Can life be transformed into art as Lord Henry believes or is the erosion and defacement of the portrait proof of their mutual incompatibility? Art, life, morality, ethics - all are serious concerns and yet Wilde habitually makes jokes about them. Mixing mystery and horror, with epigrams he would recycle in his society comedies Lady Windermere’s Fan, and A Woman of No Importance. Wilde's mixture of the serious and the frivolous profoundly disconcerted his original readers, even today, it makes his intentions and achievements difficult to assess.
What sort of a novel is The Picture of Dorian Gray? Is it a gothic horror, is a dark comedy, is a reflection of its authors complex sexual identity, is it a satire on the moralistic conventions of late Victorian fiction. in which as Wilde said elsewhere, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, or is it a piece of self-promotion by someone who's been a celebrity for a decade but had yet to reap the full financial rewards of his fame, after all in his student days Wilde had told his friends somehow or other I'll be famous and if I'm not famous, I'll be notorious