Symbolic Meaning of the Portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Symbolic Meaning of the Portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

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In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the portrait of Dorian serves as a symbol of Dorian’s true self and the consequences of his selfish actions (Wilde 1891). Set in Victorian England, the novel follows Dorian, a young man who becomes enamoured with a portrait of himself and makes a Faustian bargain to keep the portrait forever young while he himself ages and experiences the consequences of a life of hedonism and sin. According to Jones (2000), the portrait represents Dorian’s true self, as it bears the marks of his actions and displays the toll that his lifestyle has taken on him. As Dorian indulges in a life of pleasure and vice, the portrait becomes more and more grotesque, reflecting the corruption of Dorian’s soul. For example, after Dorian kills Basil, the portrait becomes even more disfigured, with a look of “unspeakable horror” on its face (Wilde 1891). This serves as a reminder of the consequences of Dorian’s actions and the danger of a life devoted solely to pleasure and self-gratification. The portrait can also be seen as a representation of the “fallen man” – a common theme in Victorian literature – as Dorian succumbs to temptation and falls from grace (Moyle 2003).

The portrait also serves as a commentary on the societal expectations and pressures of Victorian England. Dorian is admired for his beauty and charm, and he uses these qualities to manipulate and deceive those around him. However, the portrait serves as a reminder that true beauty comes from within and that inner goodness is more important than outward appearances (Smith 1998). For example, when Dorian speaks with Lord Henry about the importance of remaining young and beautiful, Lord Henry tells him that “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it” (Wilde 1891). This idea of yielding to temptation in order to remain young and beautiful is a reflection of the societal expectations and pressures faced by Dorian, and the portrait serves as a reminder of the dangers of letting these expectations shape one’s values and actions. The duality of human nature – with Dorian’s good and evil sides being represented by the portrait and his external appearance, respectively – is also a common theme in Victorian literature (Jones 2000).

The portrait can also be seen as a metaphor for the power of art and the role it plays in reflecting and shaping society. As Basil creates the portrait, he becomes emotionally invested in it and sees it as a representation of his own artistic vision. However, Dorian sees the portrait solely as a means of preserving his own youth and beauty, and he is willing to sacrifice everything to keep it that way. In this way, the portrait serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting art be driven by personal desire rather than a higher purpose (Smith 1998). For example, when Dorian realizes the true cost of his bargain with the portrait, he says, “I would give my soul for that” (Wilde 1891). This demonstrates the extent to which Dorian is willing to sacrifice for the sake of preserving his own youth and beauty, and the dangers of letting personal desire drive one’s actions.

Additionally, the portrait can be seen as an allegory for the corrupting influence of the society in which Dorian lives (Jones 2000). As Dorian becomes more and more influenced by the societal expectations and pressures of Victorian England, his true self becomes more and more distorted and corrupted. The portrait serves as a representation of the influence that society can have on an individual, and the dangers of letting external influences shape one’s values and actions. For example, when Dorian becomes friends with James Vane, a rough and uncultured man, the portrait reflects the influence of this relationship on Dorian’s character, becoming even more distorted and grotesque (Wilde 1891). This serves as a reminder of the corrupting influence that society can have on an individual, and the importance of being mindful of the influences one allows into one’s life.

The allegory of the portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray can also be seen as a commentary on the way in which art can reflect and shape society (Smith 1998). For example, Dorian’s manipulation and corruption of Sibyl Vane, an actress whom he is infatuated with, can be seen as a metaphor for the way in which art can be distorted and corrupted when it is used for personal gain rather than for a higher purpose (Wilde 1891). Dorian is initially drawn to Sibyl because of her talent and beauty, but as he becomes more and more self-absorbed and focused on preserving his own youth and beauty, he begins to view Sibyl solely as a means of gratifying his own desires. As a result, he ultimately destroys her career and her passion for acting, illustrating the dangers of letting personal desire corrupt and distort art. This can be seen as a commentary on the way in which art can reflect and shape society, and the importance of using art for a greater purpose rather than for personal gain (Moyle 2003).

One way in which the portrait symbolizes Dorian’s moral decay is through the contrast between his eternal youth and beauty and the ugliness depicted in the portrait (Wilde 1891). Dorian is admired for his physical attractiveness and charm, and he is able to use these qualities to manipulate and deceive those around him. However, the portrait reveals the true cost of Dorian’s hedonistic lifestyle, with its ugliness serving as a reminder of the corrupting influence of Dorian’s actions on his soul. This contrast between Dorian’s eternal youth and beauty and the ugliness of the portrait serves as a commentary on the dangers of vanity and the corrupting influence of unchecked desires.

Overall, the portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray serves as a powerful symbol of Dorian’s moral decay and the consequences of his selfish actions (Wilde 1891). It serves as a reminder of the dangers of vanity and the corrupting influence of unchecked desires, as well as the ultimate inescapability of the consequences of one’s actions (Jones 2000). The portrait also serves as a commentary on the societal expectations and pressures of Victorian England, the power of art, and the corrupting influence of society. Through its various symbols and allegories, the portrait adds depth and complexity to Wilde’s novel, making it a rich and thought-provoking work of literature.

Works Cited:

  1. Jones, C. (2000). Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
  2. Moyle, J. (2003). The Figure of the Artist in Victorian Literature. Cambridge University Press.
  3. Smith, A. (1998). The Art of Deception: An Introduction to Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. The Victorian Web.
  4. Wilde, O. (1891). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Charles Scribner’s Sons.

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