In the aesthetic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray
, Oscar Wilde proposes a religion of art or beauty. Wilde offers in Dorian an appeal to sensual spirituality as opposed to the ritualistic spirituality associated with God or the Church. Dorian worships the pleasures of the senses and searches for redemption in art. His self-portrait, bearing the burden of sin and age, becomes his confession. For a while the portrait does in a sense absolve him, but after a time, the gift of eternal youth even ceases to quiet his soul and the revelation of his personal secrets within the painting becomes a secret in itself too much to endure. Wilde reveals in his novel a collection of confessions, that of Lord Henry, Basil Hallward, Dorian Gray, and the author himself. He states, “It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution” (Wilde 108; ch.8). Basil is the only one who receives absolution, thereby strengthening the author’s position on the religion of art.
Lord Henry instills in Dorian, belief in experience without contemplation of experience or conscience, fulfillment of desire rather than restraint, involvement in the present and never the past, and above all, art as “supreme spiritual fulfillment” (Barzun qtd. in Beckson 300). Dorian is Lord Henry’s experiment, he is his means of experiencing all of his unrealized pleasures, Dorian is Lord Henry’s confession.
In painting Dorian Gray’s portrait Basil Hallward unveils a darkness deep within his soul, not only to Dorian but to himself as well, “[Ã¢Â?Â¦] without intending it, I have put into it some expression of all this curious artistic idolatry [Ã¢Â?Â¦] There is too much of myself in the thing, Harry-too much of myself!” (12; ch.1) He expresses here the notion that in painting Dorian, he has really painted himself. Hallward, subject to his art first and foremost, unwittingly deifies the beauty and youth in Dorian, falling prey to the decadent Epicurean ideal. The artist reveals to himself his soul, but to Dorian, only the means of his demise.
Wilde expresses throughout the novel a supreme interest in Walter Pater’s views on wholeness of perception. Dorian’s tragic flaw is that he visions himself, as well as the world around him, as a fragment. He separates his external self from his soul. The novel, “[Ã¢Â?Â¦] depicts the hard lesson of a gentleman who finds that a handsome aspect does not constitute a beautiful creature and that the unhealthy soul of a man who cannot regard his entire self does not really prosper” states scholar William Terpening (Terpening, Epicurus and Victorian Aesthetes). Dorian’s fragmented perception begins when he views the finished portrait of himself for the first time and becomes aware of his own beauty. He worships his own image as Narcissus worshipped his reflection and the portrait is left to collect the dust of rotting cynicism, time, and evil. Dorian establishes a life that is a work of art but a soul that has regressed to the basest, simplest of states. His incompleteness is most clearly felt in the character’s fascination with the pomp and ceremony of religion, namely, Roman Catholicism.
“He had a special passion, [Ã¢Â?Â¦] for ecclesiastical vestments, as [Ã¢Â?Â¦] he had for everything connected with the service of the Church. [Ã¢Â?Â¦]” (157; ch.11) Religion is to Dorian a pretty portrayal of a romantic tragedy, and the men of God, or of the Church, merely actors on a stage among beautifully embellished scenery, for which to distract or maintain his attention so as not to experience the pain of life. Wilde continues:
He loved to kneel down on the cold marble pavement, and watch the new priest, in his stiff flowered vestment, slowly and
with white hands moving aside the veil of the tabernacle, or raising aloft the jeweled lantern-shaped monstrance with that
pallid wafer that at times, one would fain think, [Ã¢Â?Â¦] the bread of the angels [Ã¢Â?Â¦] (149; ch.11).
In The Cultured Faun Lionel Johnson, a writer of Wilde’s era, parodies the effeminate idealization of the “religion of art” in Wilde’s Dorian:
Here comes in a tender patronage of Catholicism: white tapers upon the high altar, an ascetic and beautiful young priest,
the great gilt monstrance, the subtle-scented and mystical incenseÃ¢Â?Â¦the splendor of the sacred vestments. We kneel at
some hour, not too early for our convenience, repeating the solemn Latin, drinking in those Gregorian tones with plenty
of modern French sonnets in memory, should the sermon be dull. But to join the Church! Ah, no! Better to dally with the
enchanting mysteries (qtd. in Beckson 302).
Johnson’s parody of Dorian is fairly accurate, though it is probably intended to be a verbal quip against Wilde, rather than Dorian. Johnson focuses on Dorian’s visually pleasing effeminate qualities, which when combined with the beauty of religious ritual, create an object of art. The picture in one’s head of this beautiful lad amidst “the great gilt monstrance, the subtle-scented and mystical incense” is itself almost a painting, romantic and whimsical, and without meaning or content. Gray is fascinated by facades and images, the beauty of religious ceremony, not truth, not meaning. It is clear that Wilde himself is making a parody of Dorian and religion. Dorian’s confession is a symbol; the author uses him and his corrupted soul to save Basil and to emphasize form over content:
[Ã¢Â?Â¦] the portrait that Basil Hallward had painted of him would be a guide to him through life, would be to him what holiness
is to some, and conscience to others, and the fear of God to us all. There were opiates for remorse, drugs that could lull
the moral sense to sleep. But here was a visible symbol of the degradation of sin. Here was an ever-present sign of the
ruin men brought upon their souls (108; ch.8).
Dorian is mesmerized not by the ruin men bring upon their souls but by the divine power of art to portray it so aptly. The portrait is an example of the Victorian’s belief in the “religion of art” as Beckson states in The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia:
The Religion of Art-that is, the use of sacred imagery for aesthetic purposes, the capacity of art ‘to evoke the transcendent’,
the work of art as redemptive, and the role of the artist as priest, saint, and visionary-is the source of our present ideas and
attitudes towards art today (Beckson 300).
The portrait falls short of the previously mentioned statement. The artist as priest is killed by the confessor, and the confessor, in slaying the confession or the portrait, is killed. Dorian himself, is never redeemed. The picture, therefore, maintains more of a symbolic rather than redemptive quality in Dorian’s case. “[Ã¢Â?Â¦] He used to look with wonder at the black confessionals, and long to sit in the dim shadow of one of them and listen to men and women whispering through the worn grating the true story of their lives” (149; ch.11). It is not he who wishes to confess. He wants to listen to the confessions of others, and he does not even really want to do that, he simply likes the romantic fantasy of it. Basil Hallward is the only one who is absolved by the portrait he painted.
It is Wilde’s confession, however, it’s subtlety of language and foreshadowing, that is the most interesting. The author includes roughly thirty-four variations on his own name within the text of the novel: wild, wilder, wildly. This is “[Ã¢Â?Â¦] Wilde’s autobiographical signature, a device also employed in many of his other works”. (Beckson 265) The author states, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be [Ã¢Â?Â¦]”. Wilde is Basil in the sense that he creates, in the novel, the art of his confession, just as Basil does in painting the picture. He is Dorian in the sense that his life and his work are both symbols of the divine power of art. Wilde writes the novel one year before the public scandal of his love affair with dandy, Lord Alfred Douglas. His affair echoes Basil’s worship of young, effeminate Dorian, and like Basil, the confession is produced before the experience is realized.
Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, offers a narrative rich in degradation, isolation, and sin, but there is a moral within it. Wilde does not spare Dorian or the others but he does spare the artist, Basil Hallward is the only character that is offered salvation. Dorian Gray is more of a figure the author uses to increase the merit of the religion of art by creating the most evil, vile scenario for art and the artist to overcome, thereby, good winning over evil.
1.) Beckson, Karl. “Religion of Art.” The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia 1854-1900. New York: AMS Press, 1998.
2.) Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: The Modern Library ed., 1992.
3.) Terpening, William. “Epicurus (342-270 B.C.E.) and Victorian Aesthetes.” The Victorian Web.
http://www.victorianweb.org/decadence/epicurus.html. April 3, 2003.