As is the case with many subjects, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s commentary on visual art is stated paradoxically. In his June 30th, 1883 ‘Lecture to Art Students’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, he stated that “a picture is a beautifully coloured surface, merely, with no more spiritual message or meaning for you than an exquisite fragment of Venetian glass or a blue tile from the wall of Damascus. It is, primarily, a purely decorative thing, a delight to look at” (par. 39). But in ‘The Decay of Lying,’ he writes that “the object of Art is not simple truth but complex beauty” (1079). This designation seems to imply a level of complexity that goes well beyond a coloured glass or wall tiling. This could certainly involve a complexity in a form that a skilled craftsman of Venice or Damascus might create, but complex beauty goes beyond mere decoration. Beneath the surface of the simple truth is a substructure of complex beauty. This construction of a surface of simple truth with a substructure of complex beauty is also found in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1891). Fittingly, Aatos Ojala describes Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s artistic technique with a similar sense of duality in mind, claiming that “like most of Wilde’s Fiction and Drama, Dorian Gray divides itself into two different layers: into a superstratum consisting of witty conversational elements and into a substratum which delves deep into the psychological basis of life” (206). Yet, in a July 2nd, 1890, letter to the editor of the Daily Chronicle, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde writes of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, “my story is an essay on decorative art. It reacts against the crude brutality of plain realism” (par. 8). Whether Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde truly intended his novel to exist as nothing more than an essay on decorative art is rendered moot, because it indeed goes well beyond that simple designation; it is far more complex in its beauty.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde is inevitably intertwined with Aestheticism and the Decadent movement, and in most cases with good reason. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s above comments in his lecture at the Royal Academy of Arts are certainly consistent with the emphasis on the decorative that was in many ways fundamental to Aestheticism and Decadence, as seen in the influence of Japonism in the highly decorative quality of the work of Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, and the likewise decorative influence of cloisonnism in Louis Anquetin. However, in the case of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ — and particularly the actual picture of Dorian Gray that is composed by the painter, Basil Hallward — Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde deviates from this mainly decorative aesthetic. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde has created not only a novel that is far more complex in its beauty, but is also very much a Realist novel — and even by extension, a Naturalist novel — but specifically in terms of the Realism and Naturalism found in visual art. Such a discussion of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ — a text generally accepted as worthy of being designated as a Gothic novel, despite its observable differences from the first strain of Gothic novels that populated the literary market during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century — can also be read as reflective of Gothic fiction as a whole. Gothic fiction itself is often accused of surface simplicity, with its focus on visceral fears and supernatural thrills that can easily be interpreted as mere elements of entertainment and/or escapism. However, beneath this apparently simplistic surface of Gothic fiction is often a more complicated substructure of social critique. This is especially the case in the fin de siècle Gothic novel and its full embrace of Gothicism, while the Realist novel of the decades prior merely used the Gothic as a mode. Again, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ reflects this fin de siècle full embrace of the Gothic, while also expressing qualities of Realism and Naturalism, and as the theme of visual art is central to the novel, these qualities of Realism and Naturalism are likewise expressed in the terms of visual art in the novel.
According to Robert Rosenblum, Realism in visual art entails “the realist impulse to record the facts of a here-and-now world […] the range of subject matter, from miserable city slums to fashionable boulevards, from the regimented activities of schools and sweatshops to the leisurely movements of cafés and wealthy drawing rooms, also expanded to match the complexities of nineteenth-century life” (364). Again echoing the theme of surface simplicity and subsurface complexity, Realism has a tendency to focus on subject matter that is often as mundane as everyday life, but that focus often attempts to depict that subject matter in a manner that evokes a sense of social commentary on the “here-and-now world.” Though not necessarily a theme that is central to the novel, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde does indeed paint a picture of the very range of subject matter quoted from the above passage — save perhaps the schools and sweatshops, while also substituting men’s clubs for cafés. We are not presented with a Dickensian sense of the opium dens and drawing rooms that Dorian Gray frequents, but these scenes act as much more than just the setting of the novel. They provide a complex commentary on the character of Dorian Gray, implying a substructure below the surface of simple beauty that enshrouds him.
Shelton Waldrep observes that, “in order to write a novel — especially one that would make money — Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde had to work within the subgeneric confines of some specific variation on the theme of realism” (103). This passage, though affirming that Realism is at work in the novel, also implies a level of resistance to the use of Realism on the part of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. After all, in ‘The Decay of Lying,’ he writes that “as a method, realism is a complete failure” (1091). But, according to Shelton Waldrep, “Wilde’s critical attitude towards realism was not simply a type of anti-realism or anti-empiricism. Wilde objected to any realism that slavishly copied certain types of pre-ordained subject matter for reasons of mere verisimilitude” (106). So, although Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde might adhere to the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, he was hesitant to use the crutch of le réalisme pour le réalisme. Perhaps, then, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is not only a reaction against the crude brutality of plain realism, but it is also a deviation from the crude brutality and plainness of Realism for Realism’s sake. There is a specific aesthetic method to Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s Realism in the novel which is constructed in a way as to not be doomed to failure: “For Wilde, realism embodied an absolute value for aesthetics, given that only by seeing the world as it really is and appreciating what is beautiful — through the power of one’s ability to make choices — can one ever hope to begin the task of making the world thoroughly aesthetic. One’s life — life itself — is what must be rendered beautiful. Realism — with its attendant focus on the world as it is in all of its detail — is just another name for the total aestheticization of everything.” (Waldrep 104)
In the above passage, Shelton Waldrep argues for a link between Realism and aesthetics, despite Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s apparent derision of Realism in favour of aesthetics. Dorian Gray lives the life of a work of art, as his body maintains the beauty of youth, while it is the painting that suffers from age and moral degradation. Therefore, like the perceived physical beauty of Dorian Gray with his more realistic and problematic nature lurking beneath the surface, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ itself is a novel that simultaneously expresses Aestheticism and Realism in relation to its surface and subsurface, or superstratum and substratum. Dorian Gray is living an aesthetic existence. But such an existence has its implied ramifications.
James Sloan Allen claims that “‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is not about the love of beauty and art for its sake wholly divorced from the moral life. It is about the love of beauty and art as the moral life itself. This means it is about how aesthetics can become ethics […] It makes aesthetics the highest ethics possible for those who believe that beauty is the highest good” (26). So, according to James Sloan Allen, “if we allow aesthetics to become the highest standard of value in human life, we are submitting ourselves to aesthetics instead of making aesthetics serve us” (26). Dorian Gray has sold his soul to aesthetics, but his ethical judgment is actually independent from his aesthetical existence, according to the world of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s Aesthetics. He writes in ‘The Critic as Artist’ that “the sphere of Art and the sphere of Ethics are absolutely distinct and separate” (1145). This is due to the fact that “Aesthetics are higher than ethics” (Wilde, “The Critic as Artist,” 1154). “Aesthetics, in fact, are to Ethics in the sphere of conscious civilisation, what, in the sphere of the external world, sexual is to natural selection. Ethics, like natural selection, make existence possible. Aesthetics, like sexual selection, make life lovely and wonderful, fill it with new forms, and give it progress, and variety and change.” (Wilde, “The Critic as Artist,” 1154)
Even though Dorian Gray manages to transcend Ethics in his Aesthetic existence, Ethics, like natural selection, not only make existence possible, but also determine survival. Like a species of beast that is not equipped to fully adapt to its new environment, Dorian Gray’s retention of Ethics in the world of Aesthetics spells his ultimate doom.
The ethical morality of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ has been questioned since the novel first appeared. In a series of letters to the editor of the St. James’s Gazette, the Daily Chronicle, and The Scots Observer, written from late June until mid-August, 1890, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde actually sought to defend such criticism. Returning to his July 2nd, 1890 letter to the editor of the Daily Chronicle, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde answers the critique that the moral of Dorian Gray is simply “that when a man feels himself becoming ‘too angelic’ he should rush out and make a ‘beast of himself’” (par. 5). Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde responds in admitting that, “I cannot say that I consider that a moral. The real moral of the story is that all excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment” (par. 5). Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde also admits earlier in the same letter, “so far from wishing to emphasise any moral in my story, the real trouble I experienced in writing the story was that of keeping the extremely obvious moral subordinate to the artistic and dramatic effect” (par. 3). Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, it seems, attempted to subvert this rather obvious moral and render it part of the substratum of the novel, but instead, it remains part of the superstratum. It is a wonder that the critics to which Wilde had to answer did not read the novel in the manner of a moral fable, where Dorian Gray “sells” his soul for eternal youth, but in the end is punished for his transgressions. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde writes that, “from an aesthetic point of view, it would be difficult to keep the moral in its proper secondary place; and even now I do not feel quite sure that I have been able to do so. I think the moral too apparent” (par. 4). Perhaps Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde is selling himself short. In his attempts to subvert this rather obvious moral to the substratum of the novel, he has created complications concerning the ethics of the novel.