The presence or lack of a moral in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray is a topic of uncertainty. In reading The Picture of Dorian Gray and in hearing conflicting thoughts about morality in the novel, I couldn’t help but create a mental division between two types of morals. One would be morals with direction, consisting of ones intended to lead the receiver of the moral to a particular action or inaction, and the other would be morals without direction, that are intended to demonstrate some element of life that might affect how a person formulates zir* own morals. I read The Picture of Dorian Gray as a novel that does indeed provide a moral, but of the second variety, without direction.
In one of our student presentations in class, the presenter showed us a quote by Oscar Wilde about the moral in The Picture of Dorian Gray. This quote was from a letter by Oscar Wilde to the editor of the St. James’s Gazette. Wilde wrote:
“And the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment. The painter, Basil Hallward, worshipping physical beauty far too much, as most painters do, dies by the hand of one in whose soul he has created a monstrous and absurd vanity. Dorian Gray, having led a life of mere sensation and pleasure, tries to kill conscience, and at that moment kills himself. Lord Henry Wotton seeks to be merely the spectator of life. He finds that those who reject the battle are more deeply wounded than those who take part in it.”
It is unwise to take this, or perhaps any quote by Wilde, as the absolute Truth, especially as, in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde writes, “No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.” However, I arrived to much the same conclusion as the first quote suggests, and so I think it is an interpretation with some support in the novel.
It is abundantly apparent that Basil Hallward reveres Dorian’s physical beauty to excess. When first describing Dorian to Lord Henry, Basil says almost nothing about Dorian as a complex person, though he repeatedly refers to Dorian’s “personality.” Rather, Basil describes how Dorian has become integral to his artistic expression, suggesting that Basil’s interest consists most essentially in Dorian’s physical beauty, since that can be represented in Basil’s art. As Basil is finishing the portrait and once he is done, almost everything that he says to Dorian is flattery of Dorian’s beauty. It is in this scene that Dorian becomes in love with the painting and with his own beauty. Basil is then killed by the person for whom he held this excessive admiration.
Dorian tries to renounce conscience by destroying the portrait after a life of hedonism in which the portrait was the only conscience he had. Dorian’s actions could be interpreted as excess in the amount of sensation and pleasure he sought, culminating in the final excess search for pleasure by destroying the one object in its way. His actions could also be interpreted as progressive renunciation of conscience, culminating in the destruction of the portrait. In either case, Dorian dies, and so experiences some punishment.
Both times that I read this novel I noted strange instances when Harry displays emotion that seem out of place with the image he creates of himself, such as a description of his “nervous fingers” during a conversation with Basil and the fear in Harry’s eye when he hears Dorian give a stifled groan and collapse in the next room. I had not before considered Lord Henry to be more deeply wounded than the others, as Wilde suggests he is. Regardless, Harry’s efforts to renounce an active role in his own life do not generate the carefree happiness one might expect from a character so bent escaping personal suffering.
The cases of these three characters seem, to me, strong demonstration that all excess and renunciation ultimately face their own punishment. However, I don’t see this demonstration as inviting any specific moral view. These characters have very different relationships with excess and renunciation, and all face punishment. Dorian’s actions could equally be interpreted as excess or renunciation and, in a way, so too could any of the characters’ actions. Excess can be a renunciation of the opposite idea, and vice versa. As a result, it’s difficult to extrapolate any directed moral from the story. It seems that no set of behavior is entirely safe. As a result, though I can’t help but be struck by the demonstrations of how characters suffer for their actions in The Picture of Dorian Gray and take this demonstration to be some kind of moral, I don’t think that it is a moral that compels a reader to any specific conclusion. Rather, it leaves us to decide for ourselves where to take our actions from here.
* I use “zir” as a possessive form of the generic, gender-neutral subject pronoun “ze.” This is used in order to be more inclusive than the traditional “she” and “he” pronouns allow, encompassing people who fall outside of gender binary as well as those who identify as women and men.