PROMPT: The Picture of Dorian Gray contains many autobiographical elements. In particular, the three major characters – Dorian Gray, Henry Wotton, and Basil Hallward – all reflect in different ways the character, views, and experiences of the author. Analyze these connections, describing how each major character displays an aspect of Oscar Wilde. Include details from the author’s life as well as from the novel to support your answer.
Sarcastic. Witty. Conflicted. Broken. Human.
No words can truly encapsulate the brilliant Oscar Wilde. Tormented by unspeakable desires, yet attracted to the rigidity of the Christian faith, Wilde found himself at the centre of the human spectrum. His morals restrained him, while his desires tortured him. At the same time, he found spiritual retreat in faith, just as his longings freed him. Conflicted in death, just as he was in life, he is hailed by same-sex activists as a protomartyr and remembered by Catholics (known for their steadfast opposition to homosexual acts) as a death-bed convert. In more ways than one, Wilde was an individual full of contradictions, a living epigram in his own right. Talking about his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde once revealed to a journalist that the three principal characters of his novel were aspects of his own image. In its pages, readers get a glimpse of his life as a walking paradox, one conflicted, but truthful:
In the artist Basil Hallward, readers see who Wilde thought he was.
In the gentleman Lord Henry, readers see who the world thought Wilde was.
In the youth Dorian Gray, readers see who Wilde wanted to become.
Through Basil Hallward, Wilde expressed who he thought he was. Like Basil, Wilde was an artist, using the medium of words to paint both the beauty and the ugliness of the world, especially in the late Victorian society in which he found himself trapped. As artists, their works were infused with passion and emotion, all the while concealing their thirst for freedom from social restraints. Wilde was, after all, an influential leader of the Aestheticism movement towards the end of the nineteenth century. He believed strongly in l’art pour l’art or “art for art’s sake,” and as such, he was not concerned with the morality or political correctness of his work, being concerned simply with art’s own beauty. Basil, viewed as a representative of the aesthetic movement, voices this belief when he says, “An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty” (Wilde 12-13). However, being the contradictory man that he was, Wilde did not hesitate to leave a part of his soul in his novel, just as Basil did in his painting of Dorian Gray when he exclaimed that he “put too much of myself [himself] into it” (Wilde 6). In fact, as an advocate of freedom from the moral limitations of society, Wilde knew how to shock the world with the immoral undertones in his works, especially through the subtle suggestions of the “love that dare not speak its name.” This desire for forbidden love is reflected in the character of Basil Hallward, whose fascination and affection for Dorian grows to the point where he confesses to Lord Henry that Dorian has become “absolutely necessary” to him. It was this same love that led to Wilde’s imprisonment five years after the publication of his first, and only, novel. Despite being known for his imprisonment for homosexuality, Oscar Wilde was also a devout Christian for the majority of his life. Having been raised as an Anglican, he understood the importance of faith, a belief that Basil shared. In the novel, Basil serves as a moral compass in Dorian’s chaotic life; he is the one who believes in the innate goodness of the human individual and encourages Dorian to repent when he discovers his sinful life. Though contradictory, Basil Hallward represents Wilde’s view of himself: an artist abiding by the principles of art for it’s own sake, all the while being interiorly tormented for wanting to remain true to both his desires and his faith.
Lord Henry, on the other hand, represents how the world saw Oscar Wilde; in other words, Lord Henry was Wilde’s façade. In life, Wilde was known for his brilliant wit and love for paradox, his cleverness permeating his works through unforgettable aphorisms and catchy epigrams. In the case of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry serves as the conduit through which Wilde channeled his thoughts. Ever true to his aesthetic ideals, Lord Henry’s rebellious nature reflected Wilde’s own battle against the limitations of Victorian society and its obsession with morality, often quipping remarks that criticized social restraints: “People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self…Courage has gone out of our race…The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us…The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful” (Wilde 18). In this passage spoken by Lord Henry, Wilde quips that immorality is simply what society has defined it to be. He derides the terror of society for overshadowing the ideals of individualism, or the pursuit of one’s self-interests. It was because of his rebellious nature, as well as his wit, that made Wilde famous in social circles. Like Lord Henry, Wilde was both welcomed and despised in the numerous dinner parties he attended. In fact, in one Boston party he went to in 1882, the daughter of the host even expressed her delight in meeting Wilde, saying, “We had Oscar! He burst upon our view one Sunday—tights, yellow handkerchief and all. He is the most gruesome object I ever saw, but he was very amusing. Full of Irish keenness and humor and really interesting.” As suggested in the quote, Wilde was also famous for his flamboyant sense of fashion; he was, after all, a notorious dandy (which made him the source of much gossip and scandal). Lord Henry, an advocate of an aesthetic philosophy, also had the key aspects of a dandy that was reflected in his preoccupation with physical beauty, his self-centered lifestyle, and his desire to mold Dorian into his own masterpiece. In the eyes of the world, Wilde was, like Lord Henry, a rebel to society and a promoter for a “cult of self.” However, his longing for a different life ran even deeper than that which showed on the surface.
Dorian Gray, at least to Oscar Wilde, was who he always wanted to be. In a society of high moral convention and in a gravely judgemental world, Wilde craved for the freedom that Dorian lived. He wanted to carry out his hidden, unmentionable desires in a world without consequences, a life of pleasure unrestrained by society and by religion. In Dorian, Wilde found a channel through which to live the life he wanted. Dorian indulged in scandalous love affairs and frequented opium dens, brothels, and other places found in the darker side of Victorian England, his actions fueled by the pursuit of unprecedented pleasure and strengthened by the freedom from any repercussions. Through these sensual experiences, Dorian explored his surroundings through his senses as a form of escape from the harsh reality around him; likewise, Wilde yearned to find refuge in his fantasies, though the world in which he lived could not provide the security he sought. Underneath his want for forbidden love, Wilde also wanted a life dictated by his faith. While he was not known for his adherence to religion in his life, many of his closest friends were aware of its influence in his works and his desire to understand the mystery of faith. Though raised in the Anglican creed, he was especially attracted to Roman Catholicism, even attending Mass and benediction occasionally throughout his short life. However, his desire to become a full-fledged Catholic was thwarted by those closest to him: his agnostic father did not want Wilde to join the Catholic Church due to his fear that Wilde would not be accepted in the Anglican-majority Oxford University, while his friend and lover, Robert Ross, feared that a conversion to Catholicism would disrupt their relationship. Despite their opposition, Wilde remained intrigued by the Catholic faith, a fascination he shared with Dorian Gray: “It was rumoured of him [Dorian] once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion, and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him. The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of its elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolize” (Wilde 106). In a church famed for its paradoxical richness and rigidity, Wilde desired to reconcile both his principles of aesthetics and ethics by joining the Catholic communion, a goal he eventually accomplished two days before he died. Thus, in the eyes of many a Christian since then, Oscar Wilde seemed to have found salvation on his death bed – unlike the ill-fated Dorian Gray, who chose to succumb to vice and ended his life in a fit of desperation. However, despite his wistful longings to live a life of guilty pleasures as Dorian did, Wilde was still brutally aware of his reality. Dorian’s untimely demise at the end of the novel proves that, even in a world without consequence, the fulfillment Wilde wanted would forever be out of his grasp. Even in his wildest fantasies, he knew that it was impossible to achieve the impossible, a painful fact that even Dorian had to eventually face.
Dorian has long since gone, but Wilde still lives. After all, in his novel, and in all his works, Wilde left a fragment of his soul. Like the souls of many, it is broken, but beautiful. In them, readers see the different aspects of his personality, his hopes, his fears, and his desires. They see him as he truly was, and still is. Though Wilde has been resting in his grave for over a hundred years, his soul still lives. For in the mind of every reader who, in the dead hours of the night, haunts the streets of London’s East End with the young Dorian, Wilde lives. On every page they turn, in every word they read, Wilde breathes. In his works that grace the dust of many a nightstand around the world, his readers discover the reflection of a man, one shattered by the power of his desire and the power of his faith. As Wilde’s 163rd birthday approaches, let the world look to these mirrors for the reflection of one of its greatest heroes. Whether it be into the ice-cold blue eyes of Dorian Gray, in the respectable, yet rebellious, nature of Lord Henry, or in the aching passion of Basil Hallward, let the world continue in its fascination with the enigma that was, and always will be, Oscar Wilde.
7 thoughts on “Haunting East End with a Paradox”
I think it’s quite interesting that three out of four people in our table group chose to write about the similarities of Oscar Wilde and his character/s; it’s also quite cool how we chose to write about the same prompt. Not only that, I truly do believe that upon reading this piece, I really have got to step up my game, this is absolutely brilliant! It’s almost as if this was everything I wanted to write about, however, I end up writing the most boring and repetitive essays when it comes to stuff like this. Sigh. ENOUGH about me, lets talk about this. I want to start from the bottom-up; your ending paragraph are like beautiful collisions of rhetorical questions resulting in the kaleidoscope of sentences (issa complement). Every sentence within the ending were insightful and, for a lack of better terms, “deep”; the elegant use of diction has moved me! Nice one. Next in the body paragraphs, I noticed you have this ability to lead the reader on; you can end a paragraph by summarizing the current AND next paragraph by not giving too much away or rambling on. A perfect instance would be during your second body paragraph when you ended with “However, his longing for a different life ran even deeper than that which showed on the surface”. In addition to your ability to summarize, this piece contained many cleverly worded and insightful phrases such as, “His morals restrained him, while his desires tortured him.” or “Dorian has long since gone, but Wilde still lives. After all, in his novel, and in all his works, Wilde left a fragment of his soul. Like the souls of many, it is broken, but beautiful.”.
I did have a question about your choice of influence in your first (few) line/s. You start by using four adjectives to describe Wilde; “Sarcastic. Witty. Conflicted. Broken. Human.”, but then you proceed to provide a totally contradictory statement about how “No words can truly encapsulate… (Wilde)”. I was just curious as to if there was a method behind this reasoning? Was this purposeful to add to your writing and what effect was is suppose to have?
All in all, nicely done!
Thanks, first of all, for taking the time to read my blog. I know it was pretty long, so thank you for enduring through it! Secondly, after having read your blog post, I really think that your compositions are not as repetitive or boring as you think they might be; in fact, your post allowed me to see this prompt through a different perspective, and I didn’t find it boring or repetitive at all!
I also want to give thanks for your compliments, as well as for your constructive feedback. In regards to your question, I described Wilde using those five words because I wanted to give an initial idea to readers using adjectives that, in a way, could quickly paint a brief portrait of who he was. I followed them with a sentence claiming that no words can truly capture his very essence in order to produce an effect through the sense of incompletion; despite those words summing up who he is, no words can fully capture him in his entirety. Perhaps, it would’ve made more sense if I said “Not one word can…” so thank you for bringing that up.
Once again, thank you for reading my post. It means a lot to me that a brilliant writer, such as yourself, took the time to read what I had to say. Also, don’t worry that we chose the same prompt; thanks to you, I got a wider understanding of who Wilde was and your ideas provided insight in a way even my words did not.
If I had not seen you dragged into the AP LA classroom at this year I do not believe that I would think that you are a first year student. Your writing is immaculate and proves, in my mind, that wisdom truly knows no age. I am left in awe of your interpretation, lack of GUMPS but most of all your diction. Your diction hooked me from the beginning of your blog all the way to the end – hanging on your every word. I was particularly fond of the following phrases: “…a living epigram in his own right…”, “…both welcomed and despised in the numerous dinner parties he attended.”, “…Wilde craved for the freedom that Dorian lived.”, and “Even in his wildest fantasies, he knew that it was impossible to achieve the impossible, a painful fact that even Dorian had to eventually face.”. I did the AP English nod sigh thing (you know, when you’re impressed by someone’s ability to construct a sentence that reads smoother than marble counter tops, yea, that one) every single time! I could find at least a sentence or two in each of your paragraphs that I would gladly have embossed on a pen or something so that it could come around with me. All this to say, I was really fond of your diction – wonderful work!
As far as improvements go I will sheepishly bring up the fact that I was ~mildly~ bothered by the repetition of “quip” in sentences: “…often quipping remarks that criticized social restraints… In this passage spoken by Lord Henry, Wilde quips that immorality is simply what society has defined it to be. ” This was a very minimal disturbance and I really had to search in order to bring this forth. As I stated earlier your work was immaculate, I struggled to find points of improvement.
Once again, wonderful piece! Great work, you really are meant to be here!
the start of*
I would like to express my gratitude to you for taking the time to read my blog post! Thanks for your kind compliments; I really appreciate them. Wisdom truly knows no age, and in my mind, you too are a great example of that! I also really liked your comparison of smooth sentence structure to marble countertops, so thanks, as well, for making me smile (or did I chuckle? I don’t quite remember…)!
Anyway, as for your constructive feedback, I will certainly keep your suggestion in mind, as the repetition of words can become an issue. In fact, while writing my piece, I was thinking about this exact word. I thought they were far enough from each other that it would not be noticeable; obviously, someone did notice, so perhaps I’m not as clever as anybody thinks I am… Joking aside, thank you for bringing that up as that is a very good point.
Thanks, once again, for reading my post. I really appreciate the feedback you have offered me, and I will try my best to keep it in mind as I write future compositions.
I am at a loss for words after reading this post, honestly. I am absolutely blown away by what you are able to do in so little time. I remember you coming to me and asking me what to even do for this blog post as you seemed confused, and now look at you! That is one of the most admirable things about you (in my honest opinion); you have the ability to absorb things and learn so quickly, and put your learning to good use, always. I mean look at this! I only wish to be half as good as you at a critical analysis. I know you think you have a lot to learn from me, but trust me when I say, i have so much to learn from you – please, I beg, let’s sit down and have a conversation sometime about how you do this! I am dying to know!
On the note of critical analysis, I would just like the comment on how well you were able to form your blog to both a personal and critical response. In many ways, you remind me of Claire Beaney. You take risks, and they serve you so well. I LOVED how you altered the format of the critical essay to suit your piece. I remember you bringing this concept up during our river socratic, and as you chose to compare and contrast Wilde to his own characters, particularly through the use of SPECIFIC AND EFFECTIVE evidence from the novel, it is clear to see that this is an idea that you have given much thought to. Also, on the note of specifics, may I just compliment you on your clear understanding of this prompt. Every paragraph had at least one solid passage from the novel that completely backed your argument up. May i just say that if you continue this habit of serious thoughtful consideration when formulating your arguments, you are going to be so set for your finals, and even your diplomas – you can only go up from here! Lastly, i continue to fall in love with the particular diction choices and profound sentence structure every time you write, and this piece was no different. I find that that is something I struggle with greatly, and I honestly feel like by watching and observing you, I am bound to further my vocabulary. There were a few phrases in particular that seriously stuck with me, such as “At the same time, he found spiritual retreat in faith, just as his longings freed him.” and “Wilde was an individual full of contradictions, a living epigram in his own right.” Again, I am in awe of you Jieo. your words are like analytical chocolate.
As for a to work on, the only thing I would possibly offer is perhaps a review of some of the mean and matter in your paragraphs. While your sentences are structured differently and skillfully each time, I found that sometimes the ideas were slightly repetitive, and while the diction choices were elevated, I found myself getting slightly confused at times as I needed a second read through to fully understand. Perhaps this is just my simple mind talking, however I just think it’s important that we stay very focused with our thoughts and how they relate to our main theme statement and thesis in order to make for an effective essay. This is something I personally have to work on myself, as sometimes i get too caught up in my thoughts that I tend to stray from my audience or over complicate my thoughts, so I completely understand. Let’s just make sure we stay focused in our writing, and perhaps leave any rambling to a minimum. I know this is an achievable goal for both of us, ESPECIALLY for you Jieo, you little sponge. 😉
All in all, bravo. This was absolutely brilliant – please tutor me. I completely look forward to your next post love.
With love and ADORATION,
(Your biggest fan. Ever.)
I am very grateful to you for reading my post. I’m certain I couldn’t have done it without your help and for that, I shall be eternally thankful. Much of what I write takes inspiration from what you have taught me, and while I still have a lot of improvements to make, I am a much better writer because of you.
It is an honour to be compared to someone as amazing as Claire Beaney, and while I know I fall short of her brilliance, I shall certainly try my best to take more risks as that is the only way I can move forward. I am glad that you found some of my sentences meaningful; sometimes, I don’t know if I’m speaking nonsense or gibberish, but I do find comfort in knowing that at least one person can find sense in something I don’t even fully understand myself! If I can influence at least one person for the better, then that’s good enough for me!
As for things I can work on, I will certainly try to take more care regarding the mean and matter in my paragraphs. That’s a very good skill to have, as that is really where the essence of the essay comes from. I will also watch for repetitive ideas, as that tends to bore much of the audience, and will try to keep my ideas focused on the theme. Often, my writings tend to be verbose or overly-complicated, so thank you for reminding me to stay clear of that habit.
Once again, thank you for taking the time to read my (very long) post, and I will do my best to keep your words in my heart as I compose future pieces.