“The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s own nature perfectly – that is what each of us is here for” (Wilde 20). This statement sets an ironic tone for Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the beginning of the novel, Dorian Gray’s mind is a blank slate. However, as the novel progresses, it is made apparent that he is constantly undergoing self-development as he is influenced by the ideas of morality that surround him; Basil Hallward represents the soul-fulfilling goodness he should seek, and Lord Henry Wotton represents the sinful life he desires.
Through Lord Henry’s views of radical individualism and the beauty of his own portrait, Dorian Gray’s impressionable attitude develops into complete heartlessness as he never quite comes to realize his nature at all, but comes to delve into an obsession for vanity and vice that destroys the lives of him and everyone around him. Dorian Gray is easily influenced by the temptations that surround him. “Basil and Henry represent the opposite forces of good and evil, in a way they fight over Dorian’s soul.
Dorian represents a man who struggles to live his life surrounded by temptation” (Magnusdottir 12). In the beginning of the novel, Basil makes clear the personality and intentions of Lord Henry when he states, “Don’t pay attention to what Lord Henry says. He has a very bad influence over all of his friends, with the single exception of myself” (Wilde 19). This proves the distinct difference between Basil and Lord Henry’s characters. Basil tries to keep Dorian’s soul pure while Henry wants to corrupt his soul and make Dorian like himself.
Ultimately, Henry wins this “fight over Dorian’s soul” as his manipulative nature allows him to get inside Dorian’s mind and influence him to think that a life of corruption offers more beautiful possibilities than a life of purity. Consequently, Henry convinces Dorian that youth and beauty are the most important part of life when he states, “We denigrate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth! (Wilde 25).
According to Lord Henry, it is a life wasted if one grows old without ever giving in to the temptations of sinful pleasures while young. He warns Dorian not to waste his beauty on a pure and sheltered life. Henry’s hedonistic philosophies of life deeply intrigue Dorian Gray as he obsesses over it and allows it to take over his life. Consequently, Dorian seems to lose all morals as he allows Henry to taint his mind into thinking that sin is morally acceptable and rewarding because through his perspective, the only focus of life should be one’s own self.
The flaw in Dorian’s nature is that he blindly follows Lord Henry as if he holds every answer to the mysteries of life. Henry once told him, “To influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed” (Wilde 20). Dorian is never able to truly understand his own nature because after being influenced by Lord Henry, he is incapable of thinking for himself.
After giving his soul to the painting, it seems Dorian Gray has developed a bit of Henry’s corrupted soul to replace it. Thus, he is never truly be able to understand his own nature because all of his thoughts, virtues, and sins are a replica of Lord Henry’s. In addition to Henry’s cruel and manipulative nature, the image of Basil Hallward’s portrait of Dorian also greatly alters Dorian’s character. Almost immediately after seeing its beauty, Dorian seems to be changed. He frets about how dreadful it will be when he grows old as the painting keeps its mocking, youthful image.
Therefore, he sells his soul to keep the beautiful appearance of the portrait. Immediately after he loses his soul, Dorian shows signs of his developing cruel nature by criticizing his good friend Basil. It is noted that, “The painter stared in amazement. It was so unlike Dorian to speak like that. What had happened? ” (Wilde 28). This marks the beginning of Dorian’s alteration as he begins losing his conscience and his soul. Furthermore, though Dorian never shows the ugliness of his sins, it is made apparent through the painting that it is impossible for him to sin without consequence.
His obsessive interest in the distortion of his soul ultimately develops into a deep guilt as he becomes haunted by his murder of Basil Hallward. After slightly confessing his crime to Lord Henry, Henry quotes a verse from the Bible stating, “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? ” (Wilde 220). This statement is quite ironic, for Henry knows nothing about Dorian’s bargain with the Devil, nor is he a religious man, though the quote seems to describe Dorian’s situation perfectly.
After losing his soul, morality is not a concern for Dorian as he “gains the whole world” by surrounding himself in lavish desires. However, he comes to realize that the beautiful possibilities in his corrupted life mean nothing as his guilt and the grotesque image of the portrait consume him. Dorian comes close to understanding his nature when he states, “The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought and sold, and bartered away. It can be poisoned, or made perfect. There is a soul in each one of us. I know it” (Wilde 221).
For the first time Dorian is aware and remorseful of the evils he has committed and is trouble by the fact they cannot be reversed. He knows his soul was bartered away when he first saw the image of his portrait and his soul was poisoned when he first met Lord Henry. At the end of the novel, Dorian realizes his “beauty was always a mask and his youth a mockery” (226) and finally destroys the monstrous painting. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Wilde’s quote, “The aim of life is self-development.
To realize one’s own nature perfectly – that is what each of us is here for” (20) suggests great irony to the overall theme. Dorian has developed greatly over the course of the story but only developed into sin and corruption instead of purity. Through Lord Henry’s views of radical individualism and the beauty of his own portrait, Dorian Gray is never able to fully understand his own nature, and thus comes to delve into an obsession for vanity and vice that ultimately destroys him.