In Oscar Wilde’s classic novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” the Victorian sensibility regarding materialism and aestheticism is quite apparent. By looking at examples of materialism and its consequences in “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” we can gain a better understand of how art and material objects was valued during the Victorian Age. Materialism and aestheticism both have a place in society yet Dorian’s gradual dissension into obsession, serves as a warning that unequal social classes and the pursuit above pleasure and power above all else is indeed a dangerous path. Dorian Gray’s relationship to objects illustrates his need to find the comfort and happiness that he is unable to obtain from life. Dorian’s relationship to them prevents him from developing real relationships with other people and lead to his obsessive tendacies.
Aestheticism and materialism may be an unfortunate result of the Victorian thought process. The relationship of objects as a thing of beauty provides Dorian relief from his dark and ugly life. Within the first couple of chapters of the novel, it is apparent that the main characters are quite dependent on their material possessions. Dorian tells Basil, [“I am less to you than your ivory Hermes or your silver faun. You will like them always.”] (Wilde). The Victorian age was fraught with class inequality and hypocrisy. The novel states, [“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”] This speaks of societies’ thought process. People where so concerned with obtaining wealth that morals went out the window. This novel speaks to a time where everything is superficial and artificial. Great airs were put on to appear to be better than the next person. This is evident in Dorian’s character, charismatic and beautiful on the outside while ugly and dark on the inside (Wilde). Basil was also overtaken with his superficial art (Wilde). Basil’s devotion to aestheticism offered him the opportunity to improve his social status by asserting himself as an artist that produces work of great beauty (Wilde). This great attention to beauty afforded him a position with the upper class that he would otherwise not be able to obtain. This also likely drove his attachment to his material objects; the desire to hold onto his social status was manifested in his attachment to his possessions (Wilde). Basil painting of Dorian was considered his best simply because it was the most beautiful. Dorian himself states, [“Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.”] (Wilde).This turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for Gray.
Dorian is first introduced to materialism by Lord Henry. Lord Henry takes a special interest in Dorian and presents him with a yellow book. This yellow book was filled with the philosophy of pleasure seeking and Dorian was quickly captivated by the text (Wilde). Determined to live out the pleasure filled life outlined in the plot of the story, Dorian allowed the text to dictate his life. His entire lifestyle changed to accommodate this new found philosophy, leading to both drug and sex addiction, as well as crime, narcissism, and misanthropy (Wilde). He always keeps it close at hand, purchasing multiple copies to insure that he is never without the book (Wilde). The book represents the bad influence that art can have over a person. Dorian’s obsession over the book warns that such an influence is unhealthy and contributes to a person’s downfall. This illustrates the power that this seemingly innocent object, such as a book, can have over a person. The book says, [“Self-sufficiency is a great good being genuinely convinced that those who least need extravagance enjoy it the most.”] (Wilde).Therefore, Dorian Gray’s worst fault is not surrounding himself with objects for pleasure, but depending upon those objects for happiness in his life. It is not until the end that Dorian begins to realize that the book is essentially “poison” which he willing took to eat away his life (Wilde). Lord Henry counters by stating that art has no such power (Wilde).
The Avoidance of Human Relationships
Throughout the novel, many of the main characters use material objects as relief from everyday life. Dorian’s dotes on his possessions in order to avoid the fact that his life is falling apart around him (Wilde). His grief over the death of his lover is always at the back of his mind; his lavish lifestyle is an attempt to dull these emotions (Wilde). Instead of investing in human relationships he spends his time collecting jewels and rare tapestries. The novel states,[ “This passion for objects is simply a way by which he could escape, for a season, from the fear that seemed to him at times to be almost too great to bourne.”] (Wilde). Dorian seems to be afraid of life and relationships, so instead depends upon the safe haven his objects allow. Even Dorian seems to realize his need to avoid others when he states, [“I am too concentrated on myself. My own personality has become a burden to me.” ](Wilde). However, Lord Henry seems to feel that this lush lifestyle is indeed itself a form of art. He states, [“You have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself! Life has been your art” ](Wilde). He sees nothing wrong with his or Dorian’s lifestyle. This is an example of two different schools of thought on materialism and aestheticism: those that feel it is sinful and those who feel it is a god given right. Lord Henry never sees the error of his ways but eventually Dorian falls into self-loathing (Wilde). However, Dorian hatred for himself is misplaced. His narcissism will not allow him to blame himself so he places the blame for his misfortunes again on an object, the painting (Wilde). The destroying of the portrait signifies the succumbing of Dorian to his problems.
Humans as Objects
In a sense, even humans become objects in Dorian’s estimation. He is so wrapped up in his own persona he is unable to recognize that humans as his equals (Wilde). His narcissistic personality and inability to age causes him to feel as if he is above all others. There are many examples throughout the plot where Dorian uses others to his own benefit without empathy. His multitude of female and male lovers are used and discarded like objects as he grows tired of them. He seems to revel in the fact that he can “possess” them to do his bidding. He manipulates his peers much in the same fashion. His debauchery contributes to the death of the one person he does care for, Sybil (Wilde). However it must be said that he appears to care more for what she can do than who she was. Dorian greatly admired Sybil’s beauty and ability to act, when she gave up acting he cruelly discarded her (Wilde). He states,[ “Without your art you are nothing.” ](Wilde). One would presume that this “object” was no longer useful to him (Wilde). Later his murder of Basil also shows how little he values life. Basil’s murder was instigated from Basil’s desire to destroy Dorian’s portrait. Again Dorian choses an object over human life.
In conclusion, the moment Dorian resigns himself to this materialistic life, his downfall is imminent. By hiding from life’s unhappy moments, he created his own world of unhappiness disguised in pleasure (Wilde). His object provided immediate gratification but not long term solution. His human relationships suffered. As a result of his narcissism he is unable to think of others as equal humans but instead equates them with objects that he can use for his own selfish intent. Because the novel takes place during the Victorian era, the thoughts of society at the time greatly influence these views. Society had unequal social classes and the quest to obtain a higher place in societies’ inner circle made the pursuit an often cut throat one. Superficial values such as money and beauty determined who was allowed within these circles, not their moral ambiguity. One of the most profound statements within “The Picture of Dorian Gray” states,[ “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”] (Wilde). This statement indicates that wealth and power are nothing without morality. Unfortunately Dorian learns this too late.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray . Penguin Classics, 2009. Print.