‘Withered, Wrinkled, and Loathsome of Visage’:
Reading the Ethics of the
Soul and the Late-Victorian Gothic in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Kenneth Womack
(Penn State Altoona).


[This article was first published as a chapter in Ruth Robbins and Julian Wolfreys (edd.): Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave 2000; and is here republished by kind permission. Numbers in blue are linked to the corresponding endnote; those in black are the page numbers of the text cited. – Editor, THE OSCHOLARS]


     As a literary phenomenon, the Victorian Gothic manifests itself in fin de siècle literature both as a subversive supernatural force and as a mechanism for social critique. Envisioning the world as a dark and spiritually turbulent tableau, the fictions of the late-Victorian Gothic often depict the city of London as a corrupt urban landscape characterized by a brooding populace and by its horror-filled streets of terror. In The Three Impostors (1895), for instance, Arthur Machen offers a desolate, hyper-eroticized portrait of London and its invasion by a chemically altered degenerate race of pagan beings. In one of the more chilling portrayals of London’s citizenry, Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan (1896) narrates the Devil’s progress through the city’s ethically bankrupt environs as he searches for someone—indeed, anyone—with the moral strength to resist his temptations. He does not succeed. At the conclusion of The Sorrows of Satan, the Devil ascends the steps of Parliament, walking arm-in-arm with its acquiescent ministers. The characters in Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) encounter a similarly troubled London cityscape. In the novel, a desperate and lonely Robert Holt wanders the city in search of lodging only to confront the supernatural insect metaphor for London’s spiritual vacancy in the form of a giant beetle. Finally, in The Lodger (1923), Marie Belloc Lowndes depicts the mean streets of 1880s London in her fictional account of Jack the Ripper’s murderous exploits in the city’s notorious East End. The novel’s chilling atmosphere of suspense, fear, and horror—as with other works in the genre—underscores the manner in which the Victorian Gothic critiques the moral and spiritual value systems of London and its forlorn inhabitants. Each volume also narrates—in one form or another, human, insect, or otherwise—the corruption of the soul.

      In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Oscar Wilde likewise investigates the ethics of the soul through his own well-known portrait of aesthetic narcissism and fin de siècle decadence. Yet in the novel’s Preface, Wilde writes that ‘no artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist,’ he coyly adds, ‘is an unpardonable mannerism of style’ (69). During the novel’s initial serialization, the popular press severely rebuked The Picture of Dorian Gray for its ostensible lack of moral import. A reviewer in the 30 June 1890 edition of the Daily Chronicle described the novel as ‘unclean’ and a ‘poisonous book’ with ‘odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.’ In a 5 July 1890 notice in the Scots Observer, yet another reviewer complained about the novel’s ‘false’ morality, ‘for it is not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health, and sanity’ (qtd. in Beckson 271). Wilde swiftly replied to the growing horde of critics, arguing, rather ironically, that The Picture of Dorian Gray was in fact too moral: ‘All excess, as well as all renunciation,’ Wilde soberly concluded, ‘brings its own punishment’ (qtd. in Ellmann 321). While the novelist’s contradictory stances regarding his narrative’s ethical properties seem purposefully beguiling, few critics deny the moral fable that functions at the core of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Although Colin McGinn, for example, evaluates the novel in terms of its humanist agenda in Ethics, Evil, and Fiction (1997), he neglects, as with other Wilde critics, to consider the role of the Victorian Gothic as the mechanism via which Wilde achieves his moral aims regarding the soul and its function as the repository for humanity’s notions of goodness and evil—the essential qualities that define our perceptions about the interpersonal fabric of the self. (1)

      An ethical reading of Wilde’s novel reveals the ways in which the novelist exploits the fantastic elements inherent in the Victorian Gothic as a means for fulfilling his decidedly moral aims in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ethical criticism, with its reliance upon contemporary moral philosophy, affords readers with a paradigm for considering the contradictory emotions and problematic moral stances that often mask literary characters. Ethical criticism also provides its practitioners with the capacity for positing socially relevant interpretations by celebrating the Aristotelian qualities of living well and flourishing. As Martha C. Nussbaum reminds us in The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (1986), the ethical study of literary works offers a powerful means for interpreting the ideological and interpersonal clashes that define the human experience. The ethical investigation of literature, she writes, ‘lays open to view the complexity, the indeterminacy, the sheer difficulty of actual human deliberation.’ Such humanistic criticism, she adds, demonstrates ‘the vulnerability of human lives to fortune, the mutability of our circumstances and our passions, the existence of conflicts among our commitments’ (13 14). By focusing our attention upon the narrative experiences of literary characters, ethical criticism provides a powerful mechanism for investigating the interconnections between the reading experience and the life of the reader.

      An ethical reading of Wilde’s novel—concerned, as it is, with the soul and our perceptions regarding the nature of goodness—demands that we devote particular attention to these issues and their relevance to such a reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In her important volume of moral philosophy, The Sovereignty of Good (1970), Iris Murdoch elaborates upon the concept of goodness and the ways in which our personal configurations of it govern human perceptions regarding the relationship between the self and the world. Murdoch’s paradigm for understanding goodness functions upon the equally abstract notions of free will and moral choice. ‘Good is indefinable,’ Murdoch writes, ‘because judgments of value depend upon the will and choice of the individual’ (3). Postulating any meaning for goodness, then, requires individuals to render personal observations about the nature of this precarious expression and its role in their life decisions. Although Murdoch concedes that goodness essentially finds its origins in ‘the nature of concepts very central to morality such as justice, truthfulness, or humility,’ she correctly maintains, nevertheless, that only individual codes of morality can determine personal representations of goodness (89). ‘Good is an empty space into which human choice may move’ (97), she asserts, and ‘the strange emptiness which often occurs at the moment of choosing’ underscores the degree of autonomy inherent in the act of making moral decisions (35). Individuals may also measure their personal conceptions of goodness in terms of its foul counterpart, evil, which Murdoch defines generally as ‘cynicism, cruelty, indifference to suffering’ (98). Again, though, as with good, evil finds its definition in the personal ethos constructed by individuals during their life experiences in the human community. (2)

      Because such ontological concepts remain so vitally contingent upon personal rather than communal perceptions of morality, Murdoch suggests that their comprehension lies in the mysterious fabric of the self. ‘The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion,’ she observes, and ‘goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness’ (93). In Murdoch’s philosophy, goodness manifests itself during the healthy pursuit of self-awareness and self-knowledge. The soul, as the product of such an intrapersonal quest, functions as the repository for goodness and evil, as well as the essential material that comprises the self. Moral philosophers often conceive of the soul as a vast entity that consists of our innate emotional senses and desires. In Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990), Nussbaum elaborates upon the concept of the soul, which she sees as ‘shaped and structured by the needs and interests of an imperfect and limited being. Its characterization of what truth and value are is distorted by the pressure of bodily need, emotional turmoil, and the other constraining and limiting features of our bodily humanity’ (248). The soul operates as a conflation of sorts between bodily desires and individual value systems, and the harmony between these two elements produces a kind of moral beauty. Robert E. Norton describes the soul’s capacity for moral beauty as ‘both the motivation and manifestation of virtue’ (48) and associates ‘moral purity and goodness with a kind of beauty of soul’ (96). As the essence of a given individual’s humanity, then, the soul consists of spiritual and emotional components that define the sensual and virtuous qualities of our selves.

      ‘To choose a style,’ Nussbaum writes in Love’s Knowledge, ‘is to tell a story about the soul’ (259). For Wilde, the literary style of The Picture of Dorian Gray manifests itself in his appropriation of the Victorian Gothic as his novel’s narrative means. ‘Form and style are not incidental features,’ Nussbaum argues. ‘A view of life is told. The telling itself—the selection of genre, formal structures, sentences, vocabulary, of the whole manner of addressing the reader’s sense of life—all of this expresses a sense of life and of value, a sense of what matters and what does not, of what learning and communicating are, of life’s relations and connections’ (5). In this manner, the Victorian Gothic’s supernatural elements make possible Wilde’s narration of Basil Hallward’s artistic rendering of Dorian Gray, the painting of whom functions as the basis for the ethical debate that undergirds much of the novel: should we, as human beings, pursue our id-driven desires for sensual gratification and external beauty for the price of a hideous soul? Wilde employs the paradoxical Lord Henry Wotton as the voice of The Picture of Dorian Gray’s moral deliberations and Dorian’s soul as the object of Lord Henry’s intellectual whimsy. In addition to calling into question the ethics of the aristocracy in his novel, Wilde avails himself of the Victorian Gothic as a means for engendering a philosophical discourse on good and evil, as well as on the mysterious properties of the human soul. (3) An ethical reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray not only allows us to speculate about Wilde’s moral aims in his depiction of Dorian’s increasingly repulsive soul, but also to interrogate the Victorian Gothic as an ethical construct in itself.

      As with the novel itself—which John Stokes describes as being from ‘that bottomless pile of Gothic stories’ (37)—the character of Dorian Gray combines elements of aesthetic decadence with the Victorian Gothic. As he roams through the ‘dim roar’ of the novel’s desolate London setting, Dorian vacillates between states of pronounced ennui and musical euphoria (71). As Basil completes the portrait, for instance, the eternally posing Dorian complains of boredom: ‘You never open your lips while you are painting,’ he tells the artist, ‘and it is horribly dull standing on a platform and trying to look pleasant’ (83). Conversely, Wilde punctuates Dorian’s most intense life experiences, particular his aesthetic ones, with musical images. Talking to Dorian, Wilde writes, ‘was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow . . . with all the music of passion and youth’ (99). Dorian’s beauty informs every aspect of his persona, from his external appearance to his capacity for inspiring confidence in every person he encounters: ‘Yes, he was certainly handsome,’ Wilde writes, ‘with his finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world’ (83). As an exquisite combination of youthful good looks and a pleasant outward demeanor, Dorian enjoys the worship of nearly everyone he meets, especially Basil and Lord Henry.

      While Dorian ultimately subscribes to Lord Henry’s ontology of new Hedonism, Basil proffers the moral philosophy that the young aesthete clearly—given the novel’s tragic conclusion—should have accepted. Devoted both to his craft as well as to his subject, Basil espouses a theory of moral beauty simply too realistic for Dorian to imbibe, stricken, as he is, with his ostensibly fleeting good looks. In sharp contrast with the fin de siècle decadence that surrounds him, Basil’s philosophy of the soul argues for a healthy balance between our inner and outer selves, between our spiritual centers and the external images that we present to the world. ‘The harmony of the soul and the body,’ Basil cautions, ‘we in our madness have separated the two, and have invented a realism that is vulgar, and ideality that is void’ (79). In his portrait of Dorian, Basil clearly attempts to strike a balance between these two vital elements, so much so that he initially refuses to exhibit his latest creation and unleash it upon an aesthetically absorbed late-Victorian society. Basil fears, correctly, that the painting will consume ‘my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself’ (75). Perhaps even more troubling, the artist confesses that Dorian’s ‘personality has suggested to me an entirely new manner in art, an entirely new mode of style’ (78). This all-encompassing sense of artistic style, a kind of decadence in itself, frightens the painter even more, for he perceives the unsettling wave of aestheticism that characterizes fin de siècle London, particularly evidenced by Lord Henry’s mindset. (4)

      Unlike Basil, who champions a theory of moral beauty founded upon a balance between body and soul, Lord Henry advocates the separation between these two forms of experience. Lord Henry, in the words of Amanda Witt, ‘cultivates the attitude of observing his own life, rather than actually living it’ (91). At times a caricature of the disinterested upper class, Lord Henry subscribes to a range of effected homilies and aphorisms. In one instance, he proudly proclaims that ‘there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’ The philosophy of new Hedonism that he delineates in the novel—and which Dorian, to his detriment, literally and figuratively absorbs—can only function by separating fully the spiritual from the corporeal self. (5) ‘Beauty, real beauty,’ Lord Henry remarks, ‘ends where an intellectual expression begins’ (72), adding that ‘Beauty is a form of Genius—is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation’ (88). Lord Henry’s decadent philosophy challenges its subscribers to elevate their desires for aesthetic experience and fulfillment over interpersonal consequences, to achieve a total separation between their ethical obligations to their community and their needs for self-indulgence: ‘I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream,’ Lord Henry observes, then ‘I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediævalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal—to something finer, richer, than the Hellenic ideal’ (85).

      Lord Henry’s late-Victorian philosophy of new Hedonism also proposes a striking counterpoint to notions of goodness as espoused by such contemporary moral philosophers as Murdoch, Nussbaum, McGinn, and others. In Murdoch’s ethical paradigm, the concept of goodness relates to a given individual’s capacity for perceiving the ‘unself,’ or that person living within us who attempts to approach the world with a ‘virtuous consciousness.’ Such a lifestyle possesses the possibility of producing a beautiful soul. In Lord Henry’s philosophy, however, what matters is ‘one’s own life,’ as opposed to the lives of the others with whom we live in community. New Hedonism, at least in Lord Henry’s postulation, urges its adherents to pursue pleasure at any cost. ‘Individualism,’ Lord Henry argues, ‘has really the higher aim’ than endeavoring to share in the ethical codes of one’s society (134). The philosophy of new Hedonism also eschews morality in favor of pleasurable experience. Although some experiences initially may be spiritually distressing or ethically unsatisfying, Lord Henry contends that their iteration should produce nothing but pleasure once the individual has inured his or her conscience to the soul-purging qualities of such experiences, no matter how sinful they may prove to be. ‘Moralists had, as a rule, regarded it [experience] as a mode of warning, had claimed for it a certain ethical efficacy in the formation of character, had praised it as something that taught us what to follow and showed us what to avoid,’ Lord Henry remarks. ‘But there was no motive power in experience,’ he adds. ‘All that it really demonstrated was that our future would be the same as our past, and that the sin we had done once, and with loathing, we would do many times, and with joy’ (118).

      Delivered with the confidence and verbal precision of his station, Lord Henry’s aesthetic philosophy proves too enticing for the naïve and impressionable Dorian to ignore and serves as the catalyst for the Faustian bargain that he strikes in the novel. ‘A new Hedonism,’ Lord Henry tells the young aesthete, ‘that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality there is nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season’ (88). Yet Dorian, inspired by Lord Henry’s philosophy, dares to possess the world for more than a mere season. While staring at his portrait, ‘the sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation. He had never felt it before’ (90). Fearing the day when time finally robs him of his youthful good looks, Dorian initially vows to kill himself when he grows old. For Dorian—with Lord Henry’s theory of beauty still ringing in his ears—living in anything other than a state of exalted beauty seems simply unfathomable:

There would be a day when his face would be wrinkled and wizen, his eyes dim and colourless, the grace of his figure broken and deformed. The scarlet would pass away from his lips, and the gold steal from his hair. The life that was to make his soul would mar his body. He would become dreadful, hideous, and uncouth. (90)

     Dorian soon finds himself unable to distinguish between himself and the picture, describing it as ‘part of myself’ and the ‘real Dorian’ (93-94). Unbeknownst to himself at the time, Dorian enters into a supernatural bargain of sorts when he wishes he could change places with the picture: ‘If it were only the only the other way!’ he pleads. ‘If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything!’ (90).

      The ethics of his Faustian transaction and of his absorption of Lord Henry’s philosophy only become known to Dorian after his brief association with Sybil Vane, an aspiring young working-class actress from London’s East End. Night after night, Dorian watches as she performs in various Shakespearean plays, taking on a myriad of fictional identities while remaining, in Dorian’s envious words, ‘more than an individual’ (115), a beautiful soul in her own right. Unconcerned with her lower-class origins, Dorian falls in love with the youthful actress: ‘Sybil is the only thing I care about,’ he tells Lord Henry. ‘What is it to me where she came from? From her head to her little feet, she is absolutely and entirely divine. Every night of my life I go to see her act, and every night she is more marvelous’ (114). In short, Dorian admires Sybil for her ability to create genuine, beautiful souls upon the stage. He reveres her capacity for taking fictional characters and imbuing them with the physical and spiritual aspects of real life that Dorian, whose external beauty depends on stasis for its endurance, simply cannot grasp. Yet Dorian’s love for Sybil collapses after she gives a lifeless performance in Romeo and Juliet. After the play, Sybil appears ‘transfigured with joy’ because her incipient relationship with Dorian had freed her ‘soul from prison.’ Before encountering Dorian, the only reality that she knew existed on the stage; after meeting Dorian, however, ‘suddenly it dawned on my soul what it all meant,’ she explains, vowing to give up the theatre and its artificiality (140-41). Dorian subsequently chastises Sybil for her change of heart, for her implicit denial of Lord Henry’s philosophy.

      After he leaves a distraught Sybil in her dressing room, Dorian strolls alone among London’s desolate Gothic streets: ‘He remembered wandering through dimly-lit streets, past gaunt black-shadowed archways and evil-looking houses,’ Wilde writes. ‘Women with hoarse voices and harsh laughter had called after him. Drunkards had reeled by cursing, and chattering to themselves like monstrous apes. He had seen grotesque children huddled under doorsteps, and heard shrieks and oaths from gloomy courts’ (143). When he returns home after experiencing his dark night of the aesthetic soul, Dorian perceives a change in Basil’s portrait of him, ‘a touch of cruelty in the mouth’ that had not existed there previously (144). Suddenly remembering his wish for eternal youth and its spiritual consequences, Dorian decides to return to Sybil in order to forestall the spiritual demolition of his soul. As he bathes in the warm glow of his romantic feelings for the young actress, Dorian repeats her name over and over again to the music of singing birds. ‘I want to be good,’ he later tells Lord Henry. ‘I can’t bear the idea of my soul being hideous’ (149). After he learns of Sybil’s suicide, however, Dorian chooses to devote himself entirely to a lifestyle of hedonism in the tradition of Lord Henry’s philosophy. Having already tasted the pleasures of decadence, Dorian resolves to avail himself of sin with the knowledge that he can do so without being challenged by a guilty conscience: ‘Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins—he was to have all these things,’ Wilde writes. ‘The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame’ (157). In this fashion, the picture becomes Dorian’s ethical doppelgänger, his willful sacrifice for a decadent lifestyle and the means via which he will preserve his youth.

      Dorian embarks upon his life of debauchery with the aid of a book given to him by Lord Henry. Essentially a handbook for decadent living, the volume—a yellow, paper-covered French novel—influences Dorian’s progress toward total spiritual and ethical ruin. (6) ‘The whole book seemed to him,’ Wilde writes, ‘to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it’ (174). With his new Hedonist education at the hands of Lord Henry complete, Dorian engages in a protracted life of crime and corrosive sensuality in Gothic London. At the age of 25, Dorian’s aristocratic social standing begins to erode when an exclusive West End club threatens to blackball him. In addition to consorting with thieves and coiners, Dorian brawls with foreign sailors in the Whitechapel area. Suddenly the subject of numerous rumors and upper-class gossip, Dorian becomes associated with scandals involving the suicide of a ‘wretched boy in the Guards’ (193); the disappearance of Sir Henry Ashton, who fled England in disgrace; and the diminished reputations of the young Duke of Perth and the son of Lord Kent. ‘Women who had wildly adored him, and for his sake had braved all social censure and set convention at defiance,’ Wilde writes, ‘were seen to grow pallid with shame or horror if Dorian Gray entered the room’ (186-87).

      In addition to his chosen life of crime and social iniquity, Dorian feeds his exaggerated licentious desires during his search for new arenas of sensual fulfillment. In one instance, he considers joining the Roman Catholic communion, not for spiritual reasons, but rather, because the ‘Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him’ (178). Dorian also becomes an avid collector of beautiful objects and searches for yet other venues for assuaging his aesthetic needs. At one juncture in the novel, Dorian devotes himself entirely to the study of music, constructing an elaborate room with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer in which to serenade himself with the pleasing strains of Schubert, Chopin, and Beethoven. As a collector of sensual objects, Dorian accumulates perfumes from the Far East, painted gourds from Mexico, rare and expensive jewelry, tapestries and embroideries once housed in the palaces of Northern Europe, and various ecclesiastical vestments. Dorian assembles his orgy of material possessions to provide himself with a ‘means of forgetfulness,’ Wilde writes, with ‘modes by which he could escape, for a season, from the fear that seemed to him at times to be almost too great to be borne’ (185). Hidden in the attic above his palatial London home lies the picture, which grows even more ghastly as Dorian’s evil exploits continue to mount. At 38, Dorian soothes his fears in opium dens in remote London, where ‘the heavy odour of opium met him,’ Wilde writes. ‘He heaved a deep breath, and his nostrils quivered with pleasure’ (224). All the while, Dorian earns glowing praise for his decadent lifestyle and his lack of meaningful social or artistic endeavor from Lord Henry, his hedonist master and tutor. (7) ‘You are the type of what the age is looking for, and what it is afraid it has found,’ Lord Henry tells him. ‘I am so glad that you have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself! Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets’ (248).

      Dorian’s life of debauchery begins to collapse, however, with the confluence of his murder of Basil and his dogged pursuit by James Vane, Sybil’s vengeful brother. Dorian kills Basil after the artist insists that the aesthete show him the picture of Dorian’s rotting soul. Basil reacts in horror as he glimpses the portrait of Dorian’s foul inner life being slowly corroded by ‘the leprosies of sin’ (199). After he stabs the artist to death for condemning his evil lifestyle, Dorian stares disinterestedly at Basil’s lifeless body as a woman on the street sings in a hoarse voice. By murdering Basil, Dorian attempts to rid himself once and for all of the artist’s irritating moral influence. As Stephen Arata observes in Fictions of Loss in the Victorian fin de siècle (1996), ‘The contrast between the lovely Dorian and the hideous portrait can be taken to stand for the difference between Henry’s ethic and Basil’s’ (64). In this instance, Henry’s hedonistic philosophy wins out yet again. Dorian finally begins to reevaluate his decadent existence after experiencing James’s stubborn effort to exact revenge for the untimely death of his sister. After spotting him in a London opium den, James follows Dorian to a social occasion at the home of the Duchess of Monmouth. James startles Dorian into a ‘death-like swoon’ after pressing his face against the window of the conservatory. ‘The consciousness of being hunted, snared, tracked down, had begun to dominate him,’ Wilde writes (233-34), and Dorian conceals himself in the Duchess’s house.

      After the Duchess’s brother accidentally kills James during a shooting-party the next day, Dorian experiences a ‘cataleptic impression’—a cognitive, philosophical phenomenon that, according to Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge, ‘has the power, just through its own felt quality, to drag us to assent, to convince us that things could not be otherwise. It is defined as a mark or impress upon the soul’ (265). Relieved to have survived James’s efforts at revenge, Dorian resolves to devote himself to goodness. ‘I wish I could love,’ he tells Lord Henry. ‘But I seem to have lost the passion and forgotten the desire. I am too much concentrated on myself’ (238). Despite Lord Henry’s considerable protests, Dorian demonstrates his intentions to adopt an ethical lifestyle by opting not to destroy the innocence of Hetty Morton, a girl in the village near the Duchess’s estate. Shocked by his sudden change of heart, Dorian ‘determined to leave her as flower-like as I had found her’ (243). As Dorian symbolically rises from the piano—the producer of the sensual music that served as the soundtrack for his evil life—he confesses to Lord Henry that ‘I am going to be good’ and that ‘I am a little changed already’ (249). Yet when he later checks the picture for evidence of his ethical renewal, he discovers ‘no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning, and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite,’ Wilde writes. ‘The thing was still loathsome—more loathsome, if possible, than before’ (252).

      Rather than being the product of a genuine shift in moral attitude, Dorian’s aspirations toward goodness result from his own vanity, as well as from his apprehension regarding the potential loss of the self that he adores above all others in his community. In this manner, the novel’s faux cataleptic impression confronts readers—and perhaps Dorian himself—with an unusual ethical construct, the anti-epiphany. Stultified by his own hypocrisy and his ‘mask of goodness,’ Dorian chooses to destroy his decaying soul: He ‘would kill the past, and when that was dead he would be free,’ Wilde writes. Dorian ‘would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace’ (253). Taking up the knife that he used to murder Basil, Dorian stabs at the picture. After servants hear an agonized cry and a ‘crash,’ they enter the attic and discover a splendid portrait of their master in all ‘his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor,’ Wilde writes, ‘was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage’ (254). By attempting to eradicate the picture that serves as a record of his unethical life, Dorian succeeds in destroying himself. While the novel’s deus ex machina conclusion, a virtual cliché of Gothic fiction in general, suggests a number of narrative possibilities, (8) Dorian’s supernatural demise nevertheless results directly from his Faustian bargain and the ethically vacuous existence that he deliberately pursues.

      In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian’s adherence to Lord Henry’s hedonist philosophy clearly manifests itself in his spiritual and physical destruction. Dorian’s soul expires, William Buckler astutely observes, because of the ‘inevitable consequence, not of aestheticism, but of an ugly, self-deceiving, all-devouring vanity that leads the protagonist to heartless cruelty, murder, blackmail, and suicide’ (140). Wilde employs the Victorian Gothic as the express means through which he characterizes the corrosion and ultimate demise of Dorian’s soul. Because Wilde relies on the supernatural and the grotesque as means for narrating Dorian’s spiritual digression in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the Victorian Gothic clearly operates as an ethical construct in Wilde’s novel. Ethical criticism, with its interest in exploring the trials and tribulations of human experience and their intersections with the act of reading, simply affords us with a mechanism for recognizing a given writer’s humanistic agenda. In The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind (1991), Cora Diamond argues that through ethical criticism ‘we can come to be aware of what makes for deeper understanding and an enriching of our own thought and experience; we can come to have a sense of what is alive, and what is shallow, sentimental, cheap.’ The ethical critique of literature reminds us, moreover, that ‘it is our actions, our choices, which give a particular shape to the life we lead; to be able to lead whatever the good life for a human being is is to be able to make such choices well’ (303, 373). In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde avails himself of the Victorian Gothic in a stunning depiction of what transpires when human beings make ineffectual choices and sacrifice their own senses of moral beauty by elevating the aesthetic pleasures of the body over the spiritual needs of the soul.


1. In ‘Ethics and Aesthetics in The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ Michael Patrick Gillespie offers yet another ethical critique of Wilde’s novel, although, as with McGinn, he fails to consider the role of the Victorian Gothic as the engine of the novelist’s moral debate regarding the sanctity of the human soul, opting instead to read the novel in terms of the ethical nature of its aesthetic elements: ‘Through the actions of its characters,’ Gillespie writes, The Picture of Dorian Gray’s ‘discourse establishes within us a sense of the wide-ranging aesthetic force that ethics exerts upon a work of art. Furthermore, Wilde’s novel gives us the opportunity to enhance the mix of our aesthetic and ethical views by extending our sense of the possibilities for interpretation beyond those delineated by our immediate hermeneutic system’ (153-54).

2. For a useful definition of ‘ethics’ and discussion of its emergence as a viable reading paradigm during the past decade, see Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s chapter on ‘Ethics’ in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin’s Critical Terms for Literary Study (2nd ed., 1995). ‘Understanding the plot of a narrative,’ Harpham writes, ‘we enter into ethics. Ethics will always be at the flashpoint of conflicts and struggles,’ he continues, ‘because such encounters never run smooth’ (404). As Wayne C. Booth observes in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988), ‘the word ‘ethical’ may mistakenly suggest a project concentrating on quite limited moral standards: of honesty, perhaps, or of decency or tolerance.’ In Booth’s postulation of an ethical criticism, however, ‘ethical’ refers to ‘the entire range of effects on the ‘character’ or ‘person’ or ‘self.’ ‘Moral’ judgments are only a small part of it’ (8).

3. In Fictions of Loss in the Victorian fin de siècle (1996), Stephen Arata rejects the notion that Wilde appropriates an ethical rhetoric in The Picture of Dorian Gray, contending that ‘here as elsewhere Wilde rejects humanistic notions of the organic and autonomous individual’ (61). Yet a comparison of Wilde’s divergent characterizations of the competing ethics of Lord Henry and Basil suggests otherwise. Wilde clearly derides Lord Henry’s ambiguous philosophy of new Hedonism through its expositor’s pompous and malformed discourse, while arguing in favor of Basil’s theory of moral beauty through the devastation, and ultimately the death of, Dorian’s soul.

4. In this instance, Basil clearly fears the rise of aestheticism because he senses the erosion of the ethical and cultural value systems of his community, a process that William Greenslade describes as ‘degeneration’ in Degeneration, Culture, and the Novel, 1880-1940 (1994). ‘Such fears at the fin de siècle were at work shaping institutional practices—medical, psychiatric, political—and their assumptions,’ Greenslade writes. ‘Degeneration facilitated discourses of sometimes crude differentiation: between the normal and the abnormal, the healthy and morbid, the ‘fit’ and ‘unfit,’ the civilized and the primitive. Degeneration,’ he adds, ‘was, in part, an enabling strategy by which the conventional and respectable classes could justify and articulate their hostility to the deviant, the diseased, and the subversive’ (2). Despite his espousal of a new Hedonism, Lord Henry also registers anxiety about the lower classes and the disenfranchised in The Picture of Dorian Gray. As an anti-Hedonist, Basil ironically demonstrates little affinity for the practices of degeneration and proves to be remarkably tolerant of the lower classes, particularly evinced by his enthusiastic approval of Dorian’s relationship with Sybil.

5. In Oscar Wilde and the Poetics of Ambiguity (1996), Gillespie reminds us of the illogic inherent in Lord Henry’s philosophy, an anti-ethical system with little concern for consistency or reason. ‘As the novel progresses,’ Gillespie writes, ‘one finds that each of these points of view contributes to a more detailed illumination of the discourse and in doing so blunts inclinations to privilege any one of these perspectives over the others. New Hedonism in fact defines itself only through the symbiotic support of multiple systems of values, and any effort to view it in isolation would prove reductive’ (61).

6. In Oscar Wilde (1987), Richard Ellmann speculates about the book’s identity. At his trial, Wilde conceded that the mystery book was Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours (1884), although it also has thematic similarities to Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). According to Ellmann, in the first draft of The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde entitled the book Le Secret de Raoul, by Catulle Sarrazin. ‘This author,’ Ellmann writes, ‘was a blend of Catulle Mendès, whom he had known for some years, and Gabriel Sarrazin, whom he met in September 1888, and the name of ‘Raoul’ came from Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus’ (316).

7. In Oscar Wilde: Myths, Miracles, and Imitations (1996), John Stokes notes the interesting similarities in the interpersonal dynamics of the relationships between Lord Henry and Dorian and between Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the novelist’s youthful lover and aesthetic protégé (11).

8. For a thorough analysis of The Picture of Dorian Gray’s sudden and mysterious conclusion, see McGinn’s Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. ‘What Wilde has done is to condense the general theme of his book into this final scene,’ McGinn argues, ‘giving it literal expression, so that Dorian’s odd ambiguous status, suspended between life and art, is represented’ (135).

Arata, Stephen. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian fin de siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Beckson, Karl. The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia. New York: AMS, 1998.
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.
Buckler, William. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Essay in Aesthetic Exploration.’ Victorians Institute Journal 18 (1990): 135-74.
Corelli, Marie. The Sorrows of Satan, or the Strange Experience of One Geoffrey Tempest, Millionaire: A Romance. 1896. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
Diamond, Cora. The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind. Cambridge: MIT P, 1991.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. 1984. New York: Vintage, 1988.
Gillespie, Michael Patrick. ‘Ethics and Aesthetics in The Picture of Dorian Gray.’ Rediscovering Oscar Wilde. Ed. C. George Sandulescu. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1994. 137-55.
———. Oscar Wilde and the Poetics of Ambiguity. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1996.
Greenslade, William. Degeneration, Culture, and the Novel, 1880-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. ‘Ethics.’ Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. 387-405.
Lowndes, Marie Belloc. The Lodger. 1923. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
Machen, Arthur. The Three Impostors. 1895. New York: Knopf, 1930.
Marsh, Richard. The Beetle. 1897. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1976.
McGinn, Colin. Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.
Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. 1970. London: Ark, 1985.
Norton, Robert E. The Beautiful Soul: Aesthetic Morality in the Eighteenth Century. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995.
Nussbaum, Martha C. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.
———. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.
Stokes, John. Oscar Wilde: Myths, Miracles, and Imitations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Wilde, Oscar. Plays, Prose Writings, and Poems. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1991.
Witt, Amanda. ‘Blushings and Palings: The Body as Text in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.’ Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 19 (1993): 85-96.

Kenneth Womack is Professor of English and Head of the Division of Arts and Humanities at Penn State Altoona. He has published widely on 20th-century literature and popular culture.

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