Should life be taken seriously? Should art? There is an interplay and argument between life and art in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, as the characters mesh them, choose between them, and retreat from one to the other, leaning into an exploration of what is beautiful, what is good, and landing upon no satisfying answer.
Sibyl Vane’s story shows a character moving between art and her own life, with neither path appearing particularly more attractive than the other. She begins as an artist, a stage actress. Art overwhelmed her; she describes acting as “the one reality of my life. It was only in the theater that I lived…The painted scenes were my world.” She took art so seriously that she thought it real, her entire “world.” But she leaves this art-dominated world. When she stopped acting well, stopped taking her art seriously, “she was transfigured with joy.” She left art and entered into her own life, where she believed that Dorian “had brought [her] something higher.” Here, she dismisses art as “but a reflection,” and puts her newfound on a pedestal. Immediately after switching from art to her own life, Dorian broke her heart, “she crouched on the floor like a wounded thing,” and committed suicide. Her exit from the art-dominated world was brief. She retreated back to art in order to die with all the drama and tragedy of Juliet. One path, art or real life, did not seem particularly better than the other. When she took art seriously she was used by her mother and the producer and did not “understand what love really is,” but when she took life seriously even though she began in an “ecstasy of happiness,” she was quickly broken-hearted. Her suicide was perhaps a final mesh between her life and her art, an artful, dramatic tragedy provoked by the emotions and consequences of real life.
Dorian begins as a naïve man more involved with life than art. In the beginning he doesn’t even “want a live-sized portrait of [himself],” suggesting he is not dominated by art. He spins “round on the music-stool, in a willful, petulant manner,” and then blushes, showing that, like a child, he is immersed in the moments of his life, trying to enjoy himself, and thinking about the people around him in relation to himself. He’s so concerned over having forgotten to go play duets with Lady Agatha that he is “far too frightened to call.” His serious attention to trivial parts of his life suggests that he takes his life more seriously than art.
Of course, Dorian was headed to a life dominated by art; the reader first meets him in a painting. And indeed, after only a few pages of Lord Henry’s influence, Dorian begins down a path that eventually leads to a life of art. His callousness toward Sibyl Vane and ease at forgetting about her tragedy clearly reveals that he stopped taking seriously the reality of life – peoples’ emotions and travails. He drowned himself in layers and layers of art, concocting perfumes, experimenting with music, and exploring new books.
Dorian does not merely move between life and art; he escapes from one to the next. He does not want to grow old, did not want his soul to corrupt. But more importantly, he does not want age and corruption to show. Art allows him to escape from the responsibilities of reality. He need not feel guilt over Sybil, confusion over his relationship with Lord Henry, sadness for the change in his friendship with Basil, or embarrassment over any critical whisperings that may go on around him. He can indulge, and show no sign of indulgence. His portrait bears that weight. Dorian removes the seriousness of life and projects onto the portrait, onto art. He then drowns himself in art, letting his senses indulge so that he might more fully escape from the emotions and consequences of his real life.
Lord Henry combines life and art and takes neither seriously. He uses the lives of others as his medium. He compares influencing Dorian to “playing upon an exquisite violin.” He plays with real lives in order to fashion something he finds interesting, then ponders it and mocks it.
If Lord Henry combines real life and art and takes neither seriously, then perhaps Basil combines them and takes them both seriously. Basil speaks “gravely” when he says, “I see things differently, I think of them differently. I can now recreate life in a way that was hidden from me before…The harmony of soul and body – how much that is! We in our madness have separated the two, and have invented a realism that is vulgar, an ideality that is void.” This painter creates art inspired by life, he meshes them, and it means something to him personally. Of course, this inspiration is derived from Dorian, which is intriguing given Dorian’s story and movement between art and life.
Where the characters place themselves, whether in art or in their own lives or in both, and where they place importance, if they place importance anywhere at all, shifts as the as the novel progresses. I’ve only touched on a few motions and extremes, but the subtleties of these paths, and how one character’s path influences that of another’s perspective on life and art, could fill pages. So far, however, in comparing the different strategies of seriousness, art, and life, no single character seems to have found the optimal combination, and perhaps there is none. – YG