Duplicity and Ethics within “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

It has been widely argued that there is no moral component in art, that the artist has no responsibility to maintain a source of ethics within their art – the foundation for all art, as stated in the Aesthetic Movement, is to simply be art. “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors,” (Wilde, 4), however, it is through this idea itself, the fact that the art is reflective of the spectator, that an artist must be willing to be held accountable for the consequences of their art. Within this, a sense of duality is created as evident through Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and the use of duplicity in character and setting as unintentional subtle “reflections” of the “spectators” of the Victorian era.

Wilde himself is a patron of Aestheticism, an ideology that promotes the assertion that art in all forms is created simply for its beauty – the artist who creates art with a moral agenda is unpardonable, as is the criticism of art for being corruptive or immoral. The principle of “art for art’s sake” is developed throughout Wilde’s novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” as seen in the pursuit of Hedonism and the Hellenic ideal, in which the protagonist, Dorian Gray, seeks to live through beauty and youth without being held accountable for the sins of this pursuit. Under the lens of an Aesthetic, Wilde appears to have fulfilled the ideal of living within beauty and pleasure – life as art – yet, at the time, the novel was condemned for the controversy of doing so. “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances, ” (Wilde, 25), and, as such, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was belittled by the interpretations, the “reflections,” of the text, as opposed to the tragic beauty as intended by Wilde – individuals often judge based on that which does not appear as a result of the “reflections” they see within the art. The idea that Wilde’s novel is morally afflicted, in spite of the fact that it was written without regard to ethics, resulted from the duality present in human nature, and as a result, all art.

The concept of duality is first presented through the protagonist, Dorian Gray. Influenced by Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian becomes suddenly aware of his waning beauty. He is convicted in the belief that his youth and beauty are the most important things in his life, and subsequently trades his soul for eternal youth while the portrait ages. The supremecy of beauty in the remainder of Dorian’s life acts as a guise to the sin committed when living a life only in interest of beauty and art – his soul, the effects of his sin, are exposed through his portrait. In this regard, Dorian is living a double life that appears to go against the Aesthetic idea that art is neither moral nor immoral – the portrait should not “bleed” as it did when Dorian killed Basil, the consequences of sin engraving itself in the strokes of the painting as opposed to appearing on an aging Dorian. While Dorian escapes external and societal consequence due to the fact that he is eternally youthful and beautiful, the impacts of sin cannot escape the mind, or the conscience – “It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the greatest sins of the world take place also.” (Wilde, 21) In this manner the ideas of aestheticism are maintained through duality – moral degredation should be accompanied by physical degredation, though Dorian attempted to conceal the physical aspect within art. However, since art has no moral standings, Dorian is burdened with his beauty through the internal liability of living accordingly – he is reflected through art, and his conscience ultimately is impacted by it.

The fact that Dorian was allowed to live through beauty, committing a life of sin, is in itself is a duality. Victorian England adhered to rigorous moral conduct, and yet his beauty and social status allowed for Dorian to live a corruptive life (“It is only shallow people who judge by appearances”), hence, indicating a sense of duality within Victorian society. In this manner, a sense of morality is derived in the “reflections.” Within the duality of the Victorian Era presented through “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the ethics of society are brought into question – the ability for an individual such as Dorian to literally get away with murder simply because he is beautiful in a society that supposedly shuns sin is reflective of the paradoxical truth of the time period in which Wilde lived. Perhaps it is for this reason that “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was so ill received by the critics of at the time of its publishing – while art is not created with any ethos, it is through the unforgiving “reflection” of the “spectators” within the art that determines its social morality.

Therefore, while the intention of art, as stated by Wilde, is to be “useless,” the duality present in art develops an accountability on behalf the artist to their viewers. It is through said duplicity that art acts an allegory to one’s self, and in this regard can be both, though not intentionally, ethically empowering and aesthetically pleasing.


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6 thoughts on “Duplicity and Ethics within “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

  1. Dear Shyla,

    I LOVED THIS PIECE. It was the perfect balance of analysis with integrating epigrams from the novel and information about both the Aesthetic movement and Wilde’s life as a whole. I know one thing I’m so excited to learn from you is the way you craft sentences together with perfect punctuation and syntax. One of my favourite lines was, “Under the lens of an Aesthetic, Wilde appears to have fulfilled the ideal of living within beauty and pleasure – life as art – yet, at the time, the novel was condemned for the controversy of doing so.” It touches on the theme of idealism while contrasting the views of individuals of the time period, hinting at the idea of social propriety.

    One thing I would offer is to try writing something creative for a blog post to come. You have the logos and rhetorical analysis down, but I’d like to see you push yourself and explore other mediums of writing – whether that be through a short story or poetry. I think it would be really interesting to read something from you that isn’t structured like a critical, but weaves those ideas of meaning and matter throughout the piece. I can’t wait to read more of your work.

    Love Always,

  2. Dear Alysha,

    Thank you so much for your comment! I love the way you structure sentences as well; they are always so poetic! With the new blog coming up next week, I will try to do something creative – you are right, I rarely, if ever, write anything other than an analytical post, so expanding my writing would be good. I had an idea for the blog already so I will try to twist it into a poem.

    Thanks again.



  3. Shyla –

    I got about ten lines into your piece before I had to take a minute to realize “Yep, that’s a Shyla piece if I’ve ever seen one”. Having known you for well over a year now, I can confidently say that a ‘Shyla piece’ is writing on a level that I can only dream to be at some day. You are both convincing and direct in your writing, I felt a very critical approach to this topic. And it worked so well!

    This brings me to my only way that I can see that you could take this further. It’s not even a manner of improving your writing, I hardly believe that I am able to find something that I’d like to see you improve on in the actual writing of this piece. Rather, all I can suggest to you for improvement is the presentation of a piece like this. As an AP student, I loved reading this, but as just a person, it almost felt overwhelming. Perhaps spacing out your work and making it more easy to read is the only way I could see this improving.

    Thank you for always giving me Shyla pieces to enjoy, I adore your writing.

  4. Dear Areeb,

    Thank you so much for your comment. As for the “Shyla piece” aspect, I believe that there is also an “Areeb piece,” which I too would love to write like – you have a way of synthesizing your ideas so that each sentence is meaningful and direct, while clearly relating to what you are saying. I find that sometimes I get lost in the ideas, and lose that synthesis, but you always are succinct. I will work on the presentation of my next blog so it isn’t as overwhelming.

    Thanks again, I can’t wait to read your next blog,

    – Shyla

  5. Dear Shyla

    This was truly a remarkable piece. Your writing and diction are superb and no word comes off as unappreciated or misused. Your ideas were presented in a way that was formulaic and organized enough to be familiar, yet brilliant and fresh enough on their own to be engaging and avoid the pitfall of predictability.

    I honestly thought this was an interesting piece that did highlight aspects of the novel that I’ve always been aware of, but have never quite been able to put my finger on. A scent of sophistication, the source of which has eluded my sight up till now. I thank you for this piece. Your conclusion especially, ‘Therefore, while the intention of art, as stated by Wilde, is to be “useless,” the duality present in art develops an accountability on behalf the artist to their viewers.’ hit me more so then the introduction, and prompted me to reread this blog. I feel like your conclusion sums up your idea’s quite brilliantly.

    It is fascinating to think of the moral dichotomy that art holds with it’s artists and it’s viewers. One cannot say that art has no compass on an artist’s morals, yet create art that quite clearly reflects those same morals. It creates a disconnect between the art and the artist.

    My only piece of improvement that I could possibly offer is that your argument might improve with a little bit more characterization in your writing style. I love your objective style but some more you in the writing would make it a bit more interesting.

    Extremely well done Shyla, I’m honored to be in your family group


  6. Dear Liam,

    Thank you for your comment and suggestion. I do find that I often am analytical in my writing, and while I can change my style, my own voice is lost. I will put more of myself into my writing for the next blog. And I agree – there is a disconnect between the artist their art in terms of their influence on others, and I too have not noticed this until reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

    Thanks again, I look forward to reading more of your blogs!

    – Shyla

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