What of Art?: Reading Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

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In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian indulges in a flirtation with three (3) women: (1) Sybil Vane, an actress whose spirit he murders by rejecting her; (2) Hetty Merton, a village girl whose life he effectively ruins by giving her a taste of the cultured pleasures of the upper classes and then snatching it away; and (3) Gladys, the married Duchess of Monmouth. The Duchess is a quick-witted woman who when asked by Lord Henry if she was “very much in love with him [Dorian]” (Wilde 376) replies, “I wish I knew” (Wilde 376). This effectively makes her the only woman in Dorian’s life who doesn’t immediately fall in love with him. The Duchess of Monmouth is also the same woman who when asked during a conversation by Lord Henry “What of Art?” (Wilde 357) replied, “It is a malady” (Wilde 357). Art, is a malady. A “malady”, as defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary, is “a disease, or a problem in the way something works” (Cambridge). Reading Dorian’s various romantic and platonic affairs in conjunction with the Duchess’ unsure response about her feelings for him, I posit that in the novel Dorian himself is Art, and he is a potential malady for every person who engages with him. I further also question in this paper, through an interpretive reading of Oscar Wilde’s preface to the novel, if all art is a malady. 

Dorian is first introduced to the reader as “a young man of extraordinary personal beauty” (Wilde 9-10) who is the subject of artist Basil Hallward’s in-progress portrait. Basil is impassioned in his admiration of Dorian and informs both Lord Henry and the reader how everyone who comes into contact with him is utterly enamoured. I read Dorian here as a charming young man who has just begun to find his footing in the world. However, when the portrait is finished and Dorian passionately states “how sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young…If it were only the other way!…I would give my soul for that” (Wilde 52-53) I argue that in this moment Dorian unknowingly strikes a deal with the Devil in which his soul is bartered for eternal youth. This is the moment in the novel which I read as the transformation of Dorian into Art itself. A reversal takes place here between the object (the picture) and the person (Dorian): the object is personified and made human, while the person is objectified and made material. By selling his soul to the Devil, which represents to me his morality and goodness, Dorian effectively becomes a blank canvas who in the following years is painted into the very symbol of hedonism itself: gorgeous on the outside, but rotting on the inside. The loss of his humane conscience removes the self-restraint which would have restricted him when he was being excessive, and over the years, multiple influences act unchecked upon him — the artist — to shape himself into the perfect art piece; the most principal of them being Lord Henry and the yellow book he had sent him. 

Dorian’s transformation into a perfectly dazzling and magnetic art piece serves to continuously pull different spectators into his orbit; and like the recipients of a malady, they all succumb to his charms. For the innocent actress Sibyl Vane, Dorian is Prince Charming: a perfect love who will become even more perfect once they marry each other. His presence and his promises serve to charm her reality; and consequently, she stops living her life through her imagination. Before she met Dorian, “acting was the one reality of her [my] life” (Wilde 162); I read this as her imagination being the reality of her life, i.e., because her life wasn’t charming enough before she had met Dorian, she used to satisfy herself by living multiple different lives through her acting. In that sense, she was a true artist. However, meeting Dorian transformed her from an artist into a spectator: instead of producing her own scenes on the stage, she was perfectly satisfied by simply looking at Dorian and finding in him the sum of all the lives she had lived through her craft. He stirred her imagination; but even more significantly, he promised her that he would translate all of her dreams into reality. But once Sybil had allowed her reality to overtake her imagination, she lost the vitality and passion she used to bring to the stage and consequently, Dorian felt disappointed and told her that “you have killed my love” (Wilde 164). And so, he left her. His leaving marks an extremely significant moment in Sybil’s life: to her, Dorian was perfect (and consequently, more object than human); and he was supposed to be her Prince Charming and love her and fulfil all her dreams. His ‘leaving’ is the departure of her charmed reality and pushes her to take solace in her imagination and acting again. However, how does one satisfy themselves ever again with mere what-ifs once they’ve tasted the possibility of them being fulfilled? Sybil isn’t able to cope with losing Dorian, an object and a piece of art she had invested so much of her imagination into, and ends up killing herself. Thereby, Art has its first victim. 

The most frightening aspect of Dorian Gray being Art is the fact that he is alive: he is soulless, gorgeous, but alive. Art works as a perfect receptacle for people’s imaginations because it doesn’t possess the ability to use our desires against us. It keeps our secrets and successfully provides us with the experiences we lack and long for in our own life. But, Dorian is alive. Spectators would see his perfectly unmarred form years upon years and begin to unconsciously perceive him as more of an object than a person; however, once someone dares to “go beneath the surface” (Wilde 8) and “read the symbol” (Wilde 8), they would find in him pleasures and indulgences that they lack in their own lives. But, because he is alive, like the spectator he can also evolve according to what the situation demands. That’s terrifying, and that is exactly why he is a malady — a spectator can never move on from a piece of art if the art continues to grow and evolve with them. 

After Sybil’s death, Dorian discovers the peculiar “alive” quality of the portrait and starts upon his path of indulging in unrestrained pleasures. Everything comes easy for him because “even those who had heard the most evil things against him…could not believe anything to his dishonour when they saw him” (Wilde 235-236). Consequently, most people still were sucked into his vortex by his charming physique and personality. The only ones who weren’t either had learned better, or were already satisfied with their lot in life; and hence, saw in Dorian either something vile or something uninteresting. Like Basil put it to Dorian, his friendship was fatal: Alan Campbell committed suicide; a boy in the Guards committed suicide; Sir Henry Ashton had to leave England with a tarnished name; Adrian Singleton met a dreadful end; Lord Kent’s son’s career was destroyed; and the young Duke of Perth was shamed. Dorian defended himself to Basil by saying that he was not the one to “teach the one his vices, and the other his debauchery” (Wilde 276). I agree with this assessment: people do have individual agency and Dorian can’t be blamed for the bad decisions that they made. However, even if these incidents do not implicate Dorian directly, his influence on these young men is undeniable and does act like a malady in their lives.  

A few years later, Dorian falls in love again. “She was quite beautiful, and wonderfully like Sibyl Vane” (Wilde 384): Hetty Merton was a simple village girl who also fell in love with Dorian, and everything he represented to her of the upper class indulgences and fantasies. However, he left her for he was “determined to leave her as flower-like as I had found her” (Wilde 384). But, as Lord Henry very eloquently put it, the damage was already done for “do you think this girl will ever be really contented now with anyone of her own rank? I suppose she will be married some day to a rough carter or a grinning ploughman. Well, the fact of having met you, and loved you, will teach her to despise her husband, and she will be wretched” (Wilde 385). Like Sybil, Hetty had invested her imagination and emotions into Dorian and for the rest of her life, she would judge all her future suitors against Dorian and they would all inevitably fall short. Hence, the malady of Art has another victim. 

One of the most significant victims of Art is Basil. I read Basil’s murder as the disappearance of the artist of the picture of Dorian Gray, and consequently, the disappearance of an artist of Dorian Gray himself. The death of the picture’s artist signifies the final departure of the innocent and charming young man Dorian used to be, and who Basil had still wanted him to be. It also signifies another, if not the very first, victim of the malady. The first time Basil had laid his eyes upon Dorian, “a curious sensation of terror came over him [me]” (Wilde 18). I read this moment as a premonition felt by Basil of what could happen if he dared to engage with Dorian. In fact, Basil had even attempted to escape the party without meeting him. However, fate intervened and they met. 

I posit that the deal Dorian made with the Devil was this: Dorian would have eternal youth, in return for his soul. However, it doesn’t hurt Dorian in any way to indulge soullessly; unless, his conscience is present in his life — always looking at him, and reflecting to him the truth of his soul. I read this as the tripartite model of Dorian’s psyche: the super-ego is present only externally, the id is perfectly indulged, and the ego continues to protect his consciousness by rationalising all his decisions (Basil’s murder was integrated into the consciousness as something “that Dorian [he] had suffered” (Wilde 295)). The final, and arguably the most significant, victim of Dorian as Art therefore is Dorian himself. In the last few scenes in the novel, Dorian admits that the picture “had been like conscience to him” (Wilde 407) and hence, “he would destroy it” (Wilde 407). He stabs the picture with the same knife that had killed Basil and consequently, dies himself. In the end, the portrait regains the exquisite youth while Dorian himself shrivels up and dies. I read this final death as both a long-drawn murder and a suicide: Art ends up consuming even Dorian’s humanity (and effectively murders him); and to such an excessive extent that he attempts to excise his conscience (kill a part of himself) to be able to fully indulge in hedonism. 

Art can consume the spectator. However, if as Wilde writes, “it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors” (Wilde 7), then the fatal nature of art in the novel can be attributed to the characters themselves and should be seen more as a reflection of the people of the time than the art. In this reading, art would not be a malady: it would be the spectators and the milieu of the time who enabled a significant psychological lack and provided space for the social rot to settle in; all art did was “show the world its own shame” (Wilde 399).

Art is not a malady; it is not a cure: it is, as Wilde so eloquently put it, “quite useless” (Wilde 8). 

I argue that art is to the non-believer what God is to the believer: Both serve like lighthouses for a ships on troubled waters. They provide faith. They fulfil a lack in the subject’s psyche, serve as an object through which they can feel powerful, and allow them to believe in something bigger than themselves to successfully make sense of their realities. It is not a coincidence that trauma survivors always turn to either spirituality and/or art during their recovery process to project their desires onto them and deal with their feelings of powerlessness. Art (and God) act like receptacles for people’s imaginations’ to invest themselves into. It is not art that counts; it is what people make of art that really matters. 

The Duchess of Monmouth replies to Lord Henry’s question if she was “very much in love with him [Dorian]” (Wilde 376) with, “I wish I knew” (Wilde 376): I read this desire as the unconscious self-preservation instincts of a brilliant woman who was consciously completely attracted to the utterly charming Dorian Gray; but whose unconscious mind knew something wasn’t right with him. I also read her reply to Lord Henry’s question “What of Art?” (Wilde 357) with “It is a malady” (Wilde 357) as a critique not of art, but rather a very accurate commentary on the social space of Oscar Wilde’s brilliant gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.


“Malady.” Cambridge Dictionary. www.dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/malady.com.  Accessed on 17 August 2020.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Project Gutenberg. 2008.  

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