The Preface to Dorian Gray

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.

The Dangers of Exposing One’s Soul

I never read Dorian Gray before this class, and while I anticipated Dorian would psychologically deteriorate after Lord Henry’s remarks, I did not expect him to kill Basil. I think the fact that Basil was murdered by his greatest source of artistic inspiration is an interesting way for Wilde to explore the relationship between an artist and his muse, and more deeply, the dangers of putting one’s “soul” into a work of art. While Basil refused to exhibit the portrait because it exposed too much of his soul, it is really the portrait’s representation of Dorian’s soul that is the downfall of the two men. Wilde warns us in the preface about searching for meaning in art; he says, “to reveal art and conceal the artist is the art’s aim” (17). In considering Dorian not only a source of inspiration but a form of art itself, Basil reveals both himself and Dorian in the portrait. Given the fact that the portrait contains pieces of both men, it is significant that Dorian describes the portrait as motivating his violence: “Dorian Gray glanced at the picture, and suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him, as though it had been suggested to him by the image on the canvas, whispered into his ear by those grinning lips” (117). As I re-read this passage, perhaps this suggestion by the canvas is another layer of commentary on looking for meaning in art because clearly the portrait did not actually whisper in Dorian’s ear. The portrait simply reflects, and as a result, intensifies, what Dorian already thinks and feels, more specifically, the growing wickedness of his character.

            I finished this chapter with a few questions in mind. The first and more superficial is what will Dorian do with the body, but also how did the portrait change if Basil did not paint the grin in the first place? Is it possible that so much of the identities of Basil and Dorian are in the painting that they are hallucinating the same thing, and the picture is actually unchanged? I am suspicious of Lord Henry even though he is not a painter. Logistics of the painting aside, when I read the first few chapters, I thought this book could be read as a psychological study of the relationship between artist and muse and the toll that being one’s source of inspiration can take on a person. I think that element is still important, but in these last 50 pages, I’ve begun to think the novel could be read as a cautionary tale as well.