The Demise of Aesthetic Life in Dorian Gray

In the final scene of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian determines to destroy the portrait of himself in an effort to also destroy “all that that meant” (212). For Dorian, to kill his portrait “would kill the past, and when that was dead he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace” (212). Dorian’s resolution to destroy his portrait is a futile effort to alleviate his anxieties about the past, the power of conscious, and ultimately, about the existence of a higher universal design. Dorian’s stabbing of the painting constitutes his final attempt to achieve the pleasurable existence that Lord Henry seduced him with, which Walter Pater describes in the conclusion of The Renaissance as “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself’ (152). However, Dorian is unsuccessful, and Wilde leaves us with a final image of Dorian’s physical body visibly marked with the accumulation of his sins, “withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage” (213). Dorian’s failed attempt to “maintain [the] ecstasy” of the present moment represents the triumph of conscience and morality over the aesthetic possibilities of art.

At the heart of Dorian Gray is the reversal of the physical forms of art and conscience that occurs when Dorian wishes for his portrait to age so that he might remain eternally young. From the moment that the painting first changes to reflect the state of Dorian’s soul, it is evident that the painting has taken on the role of conscience, while Dorian’s now-eternal beauty enables him to realize the purpose of art: “to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake” (153). Initially, the physical separation of Dorian’s conscience, or the painting, allows him to pursue “experience itself,” a life of the senses, quite successfully. However, his portrait, or conscience, continues to haunt him, and his perception of the portrait at the end of the novel indicates that he believes that its destruction will allow him to pursue a sensual life unhindered. In order to continue to embrace the beauty of the present moment, Dorian believes that he must “kill the past,” and kill the “monstrous soul-life” that sends him “hideous warnings” with each transgression that he commits (212). For Dorian, this piece of art has come to represent the anxiety-producing concepts of the past, conscience, and a higher universal design. The portrait now performs the exact opposite function of art; instead of offering the “highest quality” to each moment, “simply for those moments’ sake,” the portrait now simultaneously pulls Dorian backwards towards the past and forwards into an afterlife in which he will surely be punished by his sins.

Dorian’s effort to eradicate the perversion of art that his portrait has become and to reap the benefits of his own existence as a piece of art results in his demise. After Dorian stabs the painting, the initial reversal between the painting and himself occurs once more: the portrait becomes art, and Dorian is marked with the physical evidence of his conscience. This final transformation emphasizes the futility of truly living for the sake of the current moment, and of seeking only experience in itself. As Dorian’s fate indicates, to live such a life would require a separation of the body and soul, and such a separation is not truly possible.


2 thoughts on “The Demise of Aesthetic Life in Dorian Gray”

  1. I also was struck by the final image of the book– when Dorian stabs the painting, we are left with a dead and ugly human on the floor (that was once alive) and a beautiful piece of art on the wall (that was once alive? That is STILL alive? That is also dead?) I think the ambiguity here was intentional on Wilde’s part, but for some reason, as a reader, I am still left satisfied with this ending. He almost seems to be saying that nothing that is beautiful is simultaneous wholly pure or virtuous, and nothing that is wholly pure or virtuous stays that way.

  2. Do you view Dorian’s stabbing of the picture as a suicide? You mention several points which could support that theory in your post. I believe it is certainly based on textual evidence such as when Dorian is speaking to Lord Henry and says “I have no terror of Death. It is the coming of Death that terrifies me.” (177). Death itself does not frighten him, so even if Dorian wasn’t sure that stabbing the picture would kill his seemingly immortal body, was he not aware of the possibility? Or do you think that he believed that destroying the picture would only erase his past and not his future?

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