Dorian Gray: A Moral or an Immoral Book?  — FAITH & CULTURE (2023)

Oscar Wilde wrote several first-rate plays, on which his literary reputation principally rests, and a number of mostly second-rate poems. He is also lauded, quite rightly, for his short stories, mainly for children, of which “The Selfish Giant” and “The Canterville Ghost” warrant special mention. He only wrote one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is one of the finest written during a literary golden age that Chesterton celebrated in his Victorian Age in Literature. It is, however, ironic that Wilde is not remembered by most people for his literary oeuvre but for the scandal surrounding his private life. Having deserted his wife and two young sons in pursuit of the homosexual lifestyle, he was sent to prison in 1895. Demonized by his contemporaries for the moral iconoclasm of his sexual choices, he is now lionized by many as a “martyr” for the cause of (homo)sexual “liberation”. The risibly inappropriate nature of the latter judgment is made manifest by Wilde’s description of his own homosexuality as a “pathology”, a statement that could land him in gaol in some European countries in our own “liberated” age for the heinous crime of “homophobia”.

Wilde would not have been happy with the manner in which his literary achievement has been partially eclipsed by the sordid and squalid details of his private life. “You knew what my Art was to me,” he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas, his “friend” and nemesis, “the great primal note by which I had revealed, first myself to myself, and then myself to the world; the real passion of my life; the love to which all other loves were as marsh-water to red wine.” He died in disgraced exile, in Paris, in garret poverty, fearing that future generations would see only the marsh-water of his murky “loves”, leaving the wine of his Art untasted. In his final hours he was received into the Catholic Church, being fortified and consoled by the Last Rites. It was the consummation of a lifelong and flirtatious love affair with Christ and His Church which stretched back to his days as an undergraduate in Dublin.

What are we to make of this most beguiled and beguiling, this most confused and confusing of men? How do we set about resolving the riddle that Wilde sets us? Does he have anything of value to teach us? Is his work of relevance to our own times? Is his Art an icon, revealing the image of Christ and His Truth to the world, or is it iconoclastic, seeking to tear down Christian civilization in a frenzy of debauched decadence?

(Video) The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde | Review | Bookish Favourites

As we set about trying to solve the riddle and answer the questions that Wilde sets us, we are confronted and perhaps affronted by the provocative Preface with which Wilde raises the curtain on his novel. It says something of the power of Wilde’s aphoristic wit, which was the toast of the salons of London and Paris prior to his downfall, that the two-page Preface is almost as well-known as the novel itself and that it almost outshines it in brilliance. Take for example Wilde’s vituperatively splenetic judgment on his own age:

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

For Wilde, late Victorian England is synonymous with the monstrous sub-human character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest who is bereft of all culture, all civilized values and all Christian virtues, whose physical deformity is a reflection of his moral and spiritual ugliness, and whose very name, effectively an anagram of cannibal, cries out against him. Such an age hates realism because it cannot bear to see the ugly truth about itself, but it also hates romanticism because it refuses to see the existence of a beauty beyond its own ugliness. An age that can’t bear to look at itself and can’t bear to look beyond itself is in trouble!

(Video) Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray

Having held up a Swiftean mirror of satirical scorn to his own age, revealing its ugliness, he praises those who are open to the gifts of beauty.

Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

This emphatically non-relativistic emphasis on the objective presence of beauty, which is not in the eye of the beholder but is present in spite of the beholder’s ability to see it, serves as a condemnation of the blindness of cynicism which cannot see beauty even when it is shown it, perceiving only ugliness. One is reminded of a line from one of Wilde’s plays in which a cynic is defined as one who see the price of everything and the value of nothing. The cynic is a relativist who cannot see that which is intrinsically beautiful, a thing’s inherent value, but only that which is subject to the fluctuations of his own fleeting feelings, the price which he assigns to it at any given time and which is always subject to change.

(Video) Bedtime Sleep Stories | 👨‍🎨 The Picture of Dorian Gray 👨‍🦱 Oscar Wilde | Classic Books Sleep Stories

Thus far, Wilde is revealing himself in the Preface to his novel as a tradition-oriented aesthete, reflecting his long-standing preference for the traditionalist aesthetic of John Ruskin over that of the modernist Walter Pater, both of whom had influenced Wilde deeply in his formative years at Oxford. The problem is that this traditionalist aesthetic is largely ignored by modern critics who prefer to accentuate Wilde’s claim in the same Preface that art is beyond morality.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

This elevation of beauty over morality does violence to the traditional transcendental synthesis of the good, the true and the beautiful, which Christian philosophers have rightly connected to the Trinity itself. To separate the beautiful from the good (virtue) and the true (reason) is to do violence to the cosmos itself. To split the trinity of the transcendentals is the ontological equivalent of splitting the atom, as explosive and as destructive metaphysically as the atom bomb is physically. It is no wonder that Wilde’s iconoclastic bomb, dropped with seeming nonchalance into the midst of his preface, is quoted ad nauseam by those seeking the nihilistic destruction and deconstruction of meaning itself.

There is, however, a delicious irony in the fact that Wilde flagrantly denies and defies his own aphorism in the writing of the novel, in which he presents in the denouement of the plot a vision of morality that is profoundly Christian and which seems to prophesy his own eventual conversion. In essence, following the Faustian tradition, Wilde tells the story of a man (Dorian Gray) who, inspired by his own vanity and by the iconoclastic philosophy of his satanic tempter (Lord Henry Wotton), sells his soul to the devil in return for the retention of his boyish good looks. As Gray indulges his sensual appetites with an increasingly insatiably hunger his portrait grows uglier and more cruel, a mirror of the corruption of his soul.

(Video) The Picture of Dorian Gray

In the midst of Gray’s descent into ever-deepening pits of depravity, he is given a “yellow book” by Lord Henry Wotton, which, from the description that Wilde gives of its lurid plot is quite obviously Huysmans’ decadent masterpiece, À Rebours, a novel which depicts the protagonist’s life of sheer sensual self-indulgence leading, via ennui, to an ultimate scream of despair and a desperate desire for God. Wilde’s protagonist follows the same downward path, except that Dorian Gray refuses to repent. Instead he begins to despise the portrait, which is now hideously grotesque and spattered with the blood that he had spilled. Seeing the painting as a reflection of his conscience and indeed as a reflection of his soul, he decides to destroy it so that he might enjoy his sins without the painting’s hideous reminder of their consequences. His effort to destroy it proves fatal, indeed suicidal. The moral, as inescapable as it is clear, is that the killing of the conscience is the killing of the soul and that the killing of the soul is the killing of the self.

In his own appraisal of the novel, Wilde contradicted his own aphorism by stating that “there is a terrible moral in Dorian Gray – a moral which the prurient will not be able to find in it, but which will be revealed to all whose minds are healthy”. Like all good art, of which the portrait of Dorian Gray is itself a powerful symbol, Wilde’s novel holds up a mirror to its reader. It shows us ourselves and teaches us the terrible lessons that we need to learn.

There are indeed such things as moral and immoral books, whether well written or badly written. Moral books show us ourselves and our place in the cosmos. They are epiphanies of grace. Immoral books are like Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s story or indeed like the devil himself in the story in which we are all living. They are liars and deceivers who show us a false picture of ourselves and the world in which we live. Moral books wake us up; immoral books lull us to sleep. The Picture of Dorian Gray wakes us up, stirring us from the somnambulant path of least resistance that leads to hell. It is for this reason, if for no other, that we should thank heaven for the vision of hell that Wilde’s novel reveals to us.


Why Dorian Gray was considered immoral? ›

Dorian Gray exposes the immorality of self-absorption, as Dorian's portrait becomes more disfigured with each one of Dorian's selfish acts. This self-absorption, then, appears to be an inevitable consequence of aestheticism.

Is Dorian Gray immoral? ›

As the novel progresses, Gray becomes increasingly immoral, indulging in all manner of vices, eventually including the murder of the portrait-painter. Gray only ends the split by plunging a knife into the painting and killing himself.

What is a moral or an immoral book? ›

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” writes Wilde, “Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” His claim is that works of art are legitimate objects of aesthetic judgement, but not of moral judgement.

How is Dorian Gray morally ambiguous? ›

Through Dorian's morally ambiguous character, Wilde asserts that one is not purely good or evil, but a mixture of the two; Wilde establishes this theme when Dorian breaks up with Sibyl Vane, murders Basil Hallward, and stabs his decaying portrait.

What is the meaning behind Dorian Gray? ›

It has a suggestive meaning of homosexual relationship in ancient Greece, “which an older man became the lover and the teacher of the youth” (McKenna 122). Judging from this fact, the name 'Dorian' represents the relationship of Wilde and John Gray, an older man teaches tips of life to his innocent young lover.

Can a book be immoral? ›

There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. The morality of books has long been a debated question.

Is Dorian good or evil? ›

The narrator reveals Dorian's inner thoughts and feelings after he arrives at the opium den. Now that Dorian has corrupted other people and committed murder, he knows that he has fully given up on trying to live a good life and can be considered evil.

What is morality quotes Oscar Wilde? ›

Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.”

How has Dorian violated the creed of aestheticism? ›

But it is just as possible that Dorian is suffering for having violated the creeds of aestheticism. In other words, one can argue that Dorian's belief that his portrait reflects the state of his soul violates the principles of aestheticism, since, within that philosophy, art has no moral component.

What is the difference between moral and immoral? ›

Morals are the principles we follow that help us know the difference between right and wrong. When someone is immoral, they make decisions that purposely violate a moral agreement. Immoral is sometimes confused with amoral, which describes someone who has no morals and doesn't know what right or wrong means.

What is moral and immoral examples? ›

Since morality refers to things that are right, immorality has to do with things that are wrong — like stealing, lying, and murdering.

What is a famous quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray? ›

We live in an age that reads too much to be wise, and that thinks too much to be beautiful.” “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.”

Does Dorian's moral system change or does it remain static? ›

While Dorian Gray's true character never changes, it is his own perception of his character (his conscience) that is reflected in the changing face of his portrait.

What is the main conflict in Dorian Gray? ›

Major conflict Dorian Gray, having promised his soul in order to live a life of perpetual youth, must try to reconcile himself to the bodily decay and dissipation that are recorded in his portrait.

How can a character be viewed as morally ambiguous? ›

Morally ambiguous characters are those that are not simply heroes or villains. They fall somewhere in between, and as such, add a layer of depth and complexity to your story. The truth is that most humans in real life are not pure angels or simply bad people, but rather hold elements of both.

What is The Picture of Dorian Gray about simple summary? ›

Lord Henry Wotton makes Dorian Gray believe that the only thing important in life is beauty. However, Dorian realizes that he will become less beautiful as he grows older. He wishes the portrait Basil painted would become old in his place. Dorian then sells his soul so he can be beautiful forever, but not on purpose.

What is Dorian Gray's flaw? ›

Dorian´s tragic flaw is to be easily influenceable, Lord Henry is too manipulative and Basil just cares too much about Dorian. These are the flaws that finally lead to the ruination of Dorian Gray and make the drama end in a tragedy.

Does Basil love Dorian? ›

For example, this declaration of love by Basil for Dorian on page 147: “It is quite true that I have worshipped you with far more romance than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman… I quite admit that I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly.”

What things are considered immoral? ›

Americans' List of Immoral Actions Keeps Shrinking
  • Extramarital sex. Today, 69 percent say sex between an unmarried man and woman is morally acceptable. ...
  • Divorce. ...
  • Cloning. ...
  • Suicide. ...
  • Embryo research. ...
  • Gambling. ...
  • Gay or lesbian relations. ...
  • Pornography.
Jun 6, 2018

What is considered immoral? ›

Immorality is evil, sinful, or otherwise wrong behavior. Immorality is often called wickedness and is a state avoided by good people. Since morality refers to things that are right, immorality has to do with things that are wrong — like stealing, lying, and murdering.

What are book morals? ›

The moral of a story is the lesson that story teaches about how to behave in the world. Moral comes from the Latin word mores, for habits. The moral of a story is supposed to teach you how to be a better person. If moral is used as an adjective, it means good, or ethical.

What did Dorian become obsessed with? ›

Dorian is characterized by his evasiveness and his obsession with objets d'art. For example, when Basil comes to console him about Sibyl's death, he is unwilling to discuss the matter.

Did Dorian make a deal with the devil? ›

Although Dorian Gray never contracts with the devil, his sacrifice is similar: he trades his soul for the luxury of eternal youth. For its overtones of supernaturalism, its refusal to satisfy popular morality, and its portrayal of homoerotic culture, The Picture of Dorian Gray was met with harsh criticism.

Who does Dorian manipulate? ›

Lord Henry becomes interested in how Dorian's power over Basil can influence his art so much, and later decides to influence Dorian in the same way. While Dorian's influence over Basil was unintended, Lord Henry's intentional manipulation has drastic consequences for Dorian.

What is the main idea of morality? ›

Morality is a set of values, beliefs, and principles that guide an individual's behavior and decisions. It is a code of conduct that is commonly accepted in a particular society or culture. It refers to the distinction between right and wrong, and is usually based on an individual's personal beliefs and values.

Is there always a moral in a story? ›

Not every story needs a moral or lesson, and there are some brilliant stories that don't have them (such as non fiction, wordless books, etc) but ultimately… it's a good idea to have a basic lesson or point in a story for children. It adds depth and will make a story more memorable.

What is moral morality? ›

Morality refers to the set of standards that enable people to live cooperatively in groups. It's what societies determine to be “right” and “acceptable.” Sometimes, acting in a moral manner means individuals must sacrifice their own short-term interests to benefit society.

How is Dorian responsible for his own downfall? ›

Dorian's inner secrets and weakness of mind becomes his downfall. In this novel Dorian Gray's apparent perfection is destroyed by his weakness of mind and naiiveness, which becomes the downfall of his soul as his mind is opened to sin and Hedonism by Lord Henry Wotton.

How does Dorian become corrupt? ›

In Dorian Gray, Dorian's corruption by human influence manifests itself in a desire to collect material objects and in the harm that he does to others, and he is undone by his own desire to destroy his soul.

What is the purpose of Dorian destroying the painting? ›

Deciding that only full confession will absolve him of wrongdoing, Dorian decides to destroy the last vestige of his conscience and the only piece of evidence remaining of his crimes: the picture. In a rage, he takes the knife with which he murdered Basil Hallward and stabs the picture.

What is wrong with Dorian Gray? ›

The term "Dorian Gray syndrome" refers to the protagonist of the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), an exceptionally handsome man whose hedonism and excessive self-love proved detrimental to the personal, social, and emotional aspects of his life, and who sought to escape the ravages of time and his own decadent ...

Why did people not like The Picture of Dorian Gray? ›

The whole story felt pointless, the only scenes where anything actually happened were the scenes involving the portrait (after Dorian takes it home). Most of the dialogue alnost felt like somone trying to write sophisticated and intelligent dialogue.

What is Dorian Gray's tragic flaw? ›

Dorian´s tragic flaw is to be easily influenceable, Lord Henry is too manipulative and Basil just cares too much about Dorian. These are the flaws that finally lead to the ruination of Dorian Gray and make the drama end in a tragedy.

What sins did Dorian Gray commit? ›

Dorian is a young and beautiful man who makes a Faustian pact that his self-portrait, drawn by painter Basil Hallward, would grow older as time past instead of Dorian. Throughout the story, Dorian commits many sins, for example, using his influence to ruin others' lives and the murdering of Basil Hallward.

What was the twist in The Picture of Dorian Gray? ›

But the plan backfires dramatically: by stabbing the portrait, Dorian inadvertently kills himself. The grotesque deformities of the picture come into being in Dorian's own body, while painted Dorian is restored to its original image of spotless beauty.

Why Dorian kills himself in stabbing the portrait? ›

Dorian kills himself in the picture just to eliminate all the evidences which reminded him his wicked life, hoping this will also make him redeem from his sins.

What was Dorian obsessed with? ›

Dorian is characterized by his evasiveness and his obsession with objets d'art. For example, when Basil comes to console him about Sibyl's death, he is unwilling to discuss the matter.

Why is it that Dorian continues his scandalous life but remains welcomed in society? ›

Despite the corrupt nature of Dorian's soul and despite his utter lack of an acceptable moral code, he continues to be welcomed into society merely because he looks good.

Who is responsible for Dorian's moral failing? ›

In this novel Dorian Gray's apparent perfection is destroyed by his weakness of mind and naiiveness, which becomes the downfall of his soul as his mind is opened to sin and Hedonism by Lord Henry Wotton.

Who does Dorian blame? ›

Note that Dorian defends Lord Henry but is quite willing to blame Basil for the loss of his soul.

How is religion presented in Dorian Gray? ›

The role of religion in The Picture of Dorian Gray appears with the disfigurement of Dorian's soul as portrayed by the picture. His sins ultimately leave an ugly mark on his soul. Basil tries to turn Dorian toward the redemption of religion once he sees the condition of his soul by telling him to pray.

What does all influence is immoral mean? ›

All influence is immoral" — that is, to influence someone is to alter his view of himself. In a key statement that echoes Wilde's personal philosophy, Lord Henry asserts, "The aim of life is self-develop-ment.


1. Jeremy Brett's exquisite performance in "A Picture Of Dorian Gray" FULL. 1976. Lighter upload soon!
2. “The picture of Dorian Grey” by Oscar Wilde
(Western Caspian University - Online lessons)
3. The Message of Decadence and Morality in The Picture of Dorian Gray
(Carter Scherr)
4. Le portrait de Dorian GRAY de Oscar WILDE
(Livre audio France)
5. The Picture of Dorian Gray
(LJMU Community)
6. S3 E8 : What Should We Think of Oscar Wilde? with Professor Paul Fortunato
(The Austin Institute)
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