APL: U6 Novel discussion post (35 min.)

Through The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde challenges the strictures of contemporary society by dismissing the importance of morality in literature. During a time in which England’s upper class heavily emphasized the importance of morals, the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray was a quasi-scandal. The novel incorporates many elements of the Aestheticism literary movement, which postulated that aesthetics or beauty holds utmost importance above all other aspects of literature — including morality. In the preface, Wilde captures this sentiment well by writing, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”

His writing reflects this view with its characteristically beautiful and flowing language as well as vividly artistic descriptions of the setting. The readers are left with the impression that they’re reading a poem in prose form due to Wilde’s use of what are typically classified as poetic devices, such as alliteration. In the opening scene of the novel, he writes, “… now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect.”

Thus, with Wilde’s wonderful descriptions and diction alone, his novel in itself is a compelling case for the Aestheticism movement’s mantra: art for art’s sake.

However, to say that Wilde’s exquisite language is the book’s only memorable quality would be doing it an injustice. What guaranteed The Picture of Dorian Gray’s status as a timeless masterpiece is, ironically, the content of the novel, which grapples with the exact question: is beauty indeed of utmost importance?

Wilde’s answer to that question is a strange dichotomy in which, on one hand, he claims that beauty is indeed the most important, yet his novel portrays Dorian Gray’s demise at the hands of beauty, or more precisely the perceived importance of it. Thus, there is a complex duality to Wilde’s novel. Nonetheless, it ultimately succeeds in challenging the deeply rooted belief in the importance of morals in literature by prompting readers to re-evaluate the significance of beauty in literature, relative to that of morality.

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