Oscar Wilde explores society’s idea that beauty, especially as it is understood though Westernized beauty standards makes someone inherently morally good. In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) the duality of the beautiful Dorian Gray’s life allows him to explore the moral complexities associated with living a double life. Which eventually alters narratives around the fact that beauty is crucial for a sense of morality. Wilde challenges this narrative, because Dorian Gray is able to separate his actions from his appearance through the guise of a haunted portrait, the intrinsic connection between beauty and morality is upheaved. With each evil Dorian commits, he somehow becomes more beautiful and youthful while his portrait, an actualized picture of his soul, becomes increasingly evil and hideous.
The novel is riddled with metaphors and allusions to the double-nature of decadence, how beauty and consumption eventually leads to sin, and Dorian Gray becomes a sort of embodiment of this conundrum. Instead of his corruption showing on his own face, his portrait “bears the burden that should have been his own” leading to a “fascination of sin” (Wilde 156). The separation between Gray and his portrait allows him to ignore his own immorality as well as fetishize his “secret pleasure” which idealizes the impacts of his sin on his conscience (Wilde 156). The portrait becomes a sick fascination for Dorian where the contrast between the “corruption of his soul” and his beauty “quickens his sense of pleasure” making him in turn “ravenous” for further sin and corruption (Wilde 142). Because the portrait acts as a “presentation of the tragedy of his own soul” he is able to completely separate his terrible actions from his consciousness in the name of upholding his youth and beauty (Wilde 150). This acts as a dissection of the relationship between one’s conscience, one’s soul, and one’s appearance. Because Gray continues his corruption, he boosts his reputation and remains unstained by sin.
Dorian Gray is able to get away with his acts of folly because of his beauty. People are enamored by his looks, and he understands the power he holds over society. Although he understands the portrait as a “hideous corruption of his soul” and views it as inherently sinful and shameful, he does not view those characteristics as becoming unto himself (Wilde 136). The link between the word “hideous” and “sin” appears consistently throughout the book, therefore further aligning the concept of “beauty” with “goodness.” However this narrative is changed when Dorian Gray rashly lets Basil into his sordid secret. Once he shares his soul with another, he is viewed for the first time as ugly and therefore evil in the eyes of another. This leads him to the ultimate act of corruption “the madness of murder” (Wilde 178). Having exposed his soul to another, he transferred his secret out of the private sphere causing him to break and eventually get his actual hands dirty. Because he was viewed by others as ugly and shameful for the first time, he can no longer hide from the truth of his soul and must take accountability for his actions.