Power and Art in Dorian Gray

One of the many fascinating aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the immense power Dorian and Lord Henry wield in the narrative, especially compared to Sibyl and Basil.  It’s particularly curious because Basil and, more minorly, Sibyl, are the text’s artists, but are simultaneously the ones most under Dorian’s spell and are relatively powerless to save their art from contact with him. Basil says that Dorian is “all my art to me now” and that “the work I have done, since I met Dorian Gray, is good work, is the best work of my life” (23). He places a power and personal weight in Dorian’s beauty, noting the control it has over his art.  When Dorian will no longer sit for Basil, Basil claims that in refusing, Dorian will “spoil [his] life as an artist” (91).  This personal investment in Dorian, as his artistic ideal, eventually becomes his downfall.  In a similar way, Sibyl’s love for Dorian comes between her and her art. After she kisses Dorian, she proudly loses her ability to act — in finding real love for Dorian, all of her stage love seems to her a sham and Dorian is “more to [her] than all art can ever be” (71). As we know, however, Dorian values the Sibyl of the stage more, the ideal she portrays through her art, and so her investment in Dorian also becomes her downfall. Each is robbed of their life and ability to make the art that made them special, one because Dorian was art’s ideal and the other because Dorian became more real than art could ever be.  

It sort of echoes our class conversation on “The Ballad of a Barber,” that perhaps there’s a limit to what the artists can make more beautiful or perhaps that there’s something maddening about true natural beauty, despite the fact that Basil says “there is nothing that Art cannot express” (23).  This raises another question for me however — is Dorian really beautiful? Obviously he is physically beautiful and seems at first to have a sort of naive beauty of spirit too.  But as his soul degrades, does he stay beautiful? At what point does his outer beauty become a sham too, the beauty of his form robbed of the beauty of his soul? Is he fascinating simply because he is beautiful or because of the juxtaposition of the perfect exterior and corrupt, rotting interior and the way it is hard to reconcile those two? 

One thought on “Power and Art in Dorian Gray”

  1. I find your discussion here really interesting, and mirroring some of my own thoughts on Dorian’s strange nature. It seems that in Dorian there is almost a rejection of art in favor of ‘real’ life, which seems to simultaneously conflict with and support decadent ideals. There is a line describing Dorian’s feelings that suggests “no theory of life seemed to him to be of any importance compared with life itself” (101). He rejects art and theory throughout the novel in favor of experience, and that rejection is viewed by the other characters as something beautiful, something to be marveled over. And yet, his experience is not fully complete, it does not mar his youth. In addition to your question, we could also ask is Dorian Gray art?

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