As I was reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, I kept thinking back to its preface. As we’ve discussed in class, what Wilde writes in the preface seems to contradict the content of the novel itself. There are many potential reasons for this discrepancy. It could, as we focused on in class, be a means to protect Wilde from the content of the novel. The Picture of Dorian Gray is very personal and it does reveal Wilde in a variety of ways. Although Wilde’s queer identity was not my main focus as I read the novel, it is clear that Wilde’s queerness made its way into the story and shaped it in a revealing way. Perhaps the preface is a means of protection, a way for Wilde to tell a story of himself without being damaged by it.
That reasoning is compelling to me, but I think that there is another key value for the preface. In my opinion, the preface is intentionally ironic. It praises the values of aestheticism in order to open a story about a man whose obsession with his beauty leads to his downfall. Dorian values his beauty above anything else, to the point where he sacrifices his soul in order to stay physically beautiful together. More than anyone else in the story, Dorian lives the values of aestheticism. He buys into “art for art’s sake” so much that he starts to view his life as a kind of art. He considers joining the Roman Catholic Church because “the Roman ritual had always had a great attraction for him.” He loves Sybil because of her artistic talent, and as soon as that talent is gone, he loses interest in her. He says he would “give everything” for the portrait to grow old as he continues to be young and beautiful, and he does.
Dorian actively believes in the aesthetic values listed in the preface, unlike a character like Lord Henry who constantly contradicts himself and seems more interested in entertaining himself than anything else. Rather, Dorian embraces the value of beauty above anything else until it corrupts him so thoroughly that he ends up dead in his attic. To commence The Picture of Dorian Gray with a preface about art being valuable for its own sake and the danger of looking beneath the surface seems to poke fun at aestheticism in general and at the audience for taking what Wilde says seriously. How can it be that the artist’s aim is to conceal himself when the greatest art Basil ever did revealed too much of himself? How can there be no such thing as an immoral book when Dorian is corrupted by a book? Perhaps we are not meant to take the preface seriously, but to use it as a reminder of what aestheticism states and where it falls short.