The Picture of Dorian Gray: Theme Analysis
Homoerotic love is an underlying theme of the novel, although it is never stated directly. Both Lord Henry and Basil Hallward are deeply attracted to Dorian Gray on account of his great physical beauty. Basil insists that his love for Dorian is "noble and intellectual," and there is no reason to doubt him. But he also speaks about Dorian in terms that a man would normally speak about a lover and about falling in love. "I worshipped you," he says to Dorian. "I grew jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you" (chapter 9). Basil sublimates any erotic dimension to his feelings about Dorian by pouring them into his art.
Lord Henry prefers the company of Dorian to that of his wife, and he consistently expresses misogynist views. He worships youthful male beauty as embodied in Dorian, and he encourages Dorian to give full rein all his secret desires. When he says the following to Dorian, he may well be suggesting that Dorian has a previously unacknowledged sexual attraction to men: "You have had passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror, day-dreams and sleeping dreams whose mere memory might stain your cheek with shame-" The language here, and the use of the word "shame," suggests that Dorian's "sins," although they are never explicitly described, may be of a sexual nature. One has to remember that in the Victorian age, attitudes to homosexuality are very different from what they are today.
Art vs. Life
The novel presents a contrast between art and life. Art possesses beauty and form; it is contrasted with the ugliness and shapelessness of real life. Lord Henry encourages Dorian to treat his own life as if it were a work of art. He must experience it fully, as one would a piece of art, but at the same time remain detached from it, in the way that one might appreciate a great painting or a play. This involves a paradox: he must be at once involved and uninvolved, fully participating, not drawing back from anything, but always remaining a spectator. Such is Lord Henry's notion. He is depicted as being a connoisseur of all the arts and surrounds himself with objects of beauty. He maintains the essential detachment that enables him, or at least he claims it does, to avoid the pain of the world. It also means that he does not adopt moral positions on anything, since that would mean taking life more seriously than art. For Lord Henry, the purpose of life is not to exhibit one's moral prejudices but to contemplate beauty.
The contrast between art and life can be seen in the chapters that describe Dorian's walk to the theater where Sibyl Vane performs and on his ride to the opium den. In both instances, the sordidness of these parts of London is described. Dorian feels this keenly, and he takes refuge in the art that Sibyl creates. Her value to him is that she enables him to live out Henry's creed. When she ceases to show an interest in art, Dorian ceases to be interested in her. On the ride to the opium den, Dorian's position has changed. He now embraces the ugliness of life. He has forgotten the creed that Henry taught him. He has exchanged art for life-and that itself is a sin, in Oscar Wilde's credo.
Lord Henry's philosophy of life, which is adopted by Dorian, is that the senses should be indulged to the full. In the fleeting sense experience lies the intensity of life, and all life is simply a series of these intense moments. This is not intended as a mindless indulgence for the sake of it, but is a conscious quest for beauty.
Dorian thus learns to cultivate all kinds of sense experience, passions and sensations in the pursuit of beauty. He studies exotic perfumes, he collects musical instruments and precious stones. He once went to a costume ball wearing an outfit covered with 560 pearls. Neither Henry nor Dorian believe in any restrictions on desire, because desire is life itself, whereas self-denial in the name of morality is exactly that-a denial of life. Henry's belief is that self-development, not self-restraint, is the purpose of life. He describes this philosophy as a new Hedonism. It is a refined understanding and appreciation of life that amounts to a form of spirituality. And so Henry's friend and disciple Dorian believes that in indulging the senses he is freeing them to be what are intended to be, a channel for the experience of beauty. In chapter 11, he states his belief that the senses have never been properly understood before: "they had remained savage and animal merely because the world had sought to starve them into submission or to kill them by pain, instead of aiming at making them elements of a new spirituality, of which a fine instinct for beauty was to be the dominant characteristic"
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