The novel can thus be defined as a symbolic representation of a dialectic between two aspects of Wilde's personality. Dorian is an archetypal image by which both aspects are fascinated. This suggests that his behaviour symbolizes Wilde's unconscious (i.e. unacknowledged) attitudes. Dorian is characterized by his evasiveness and his obsession with objets d'art. For example, when Basil comes to console him about Sibyl's death, he is unwilling to discuss the matter. He does not want to admit the possibility that his behaviour was reprehensible. He tells his friend: "If one doesn't talk about a thing, it has never happened. It is simply expression, as Harry says, that gives reality to things" (107). Later, after murdering Basil, he again seeks to avoid acknowledging what he has done: "He felt that the secret of the whole thing was not to realize the situation" (159).

Dorian escapes from every unpleasant realization by turning his attention to other things. Unwilling to admit that his actions have moral implications, he seeks refuge in art. On hearing of Sibyl's death, he accepts an invitaton, for that very evening, to go to the opera. He learns to see life only from an aesthetic perspective. He reflects:

Form is absolutely essential to it. It should have the dignity of a ceremony, as well as its unreality, and should combine the insincere character of a romantic play with the wit and beauty that makes such plays delightful to us. [142]

The consequence of this attitude is that he finds himself increasingly "stepping outside" his experiences in order to observe them from a distance. Instead of living his experiences more intensely, he finds himself observing them, as in a theatre. He confesses to Lord Henry, with reference to Sibyl's suicide:

"I must admit that this thing that has happened does not affect me as it should. It seems to me simply like a wonderful ending to a wonderful play. It has all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I have not been wounded." [100]

He tells Basil: "To become the spectator of one's own life, as Harry says, is to escape the suffering of life" (110). Some eighteen years later, Dorian no longer even feels part of his own drama. He has become only a spectator, and what he sees is a projection of the grotesque shape that his own personality has assumed. He coldly watches Basil as the latter reacts to his now hideously deformed painting:

The young man was leaning against the mantelshelf, watching him with that strange expression that one sees on the faces of those who are absorbed in a play when some great artist is acting. There was neither real sorrow in it nor real joy. There was simply the passion of the spectator, with perhaps a flicker of triumph in his eyes. [156]

He is no longer watching himself only. He is watching another person's reaction to the callousness and cruelty which he does not want to recognize in himself.

Throughout the novel, the mechanism whereby involvement is translated into aesthetic perspective is associated with fear. For example, when Dorian first meets Lord Henry, to distract him from the latter's words, he turns to observe a bee:

He watched it with that strange interest in trivial things that we try to develop when things of high import make us afraid, or when we are stirred by some new emotion for which we cannot find expression, or when some thought that terrifies us lays sudden siege to the brain and calls on us to yield. [23]

He has been granted the means to enjoy life to the full, but — paradoxically — he is afraid of life. Consequently, he seeks refuge in a pseudo-aestheticism. For example, when he shows Alan Campbell into the room where Basil's murdered body lies, he is suddenly afraid that he will have to see the consequence of what he has done: "There he stopped, feeling afraid to turn round, and his eyes fixed themselves on the intricacies of the pattern before him" (174). His subsequent passion for objets d'art, so lengthily described in chapter XI, is simply a way "by which he could escape, for a season, from the fear that seemed to him at times to be almost too great to be borne" (140). He is afraid of that side of his own personality for which he is not prepared to accept responsiblity.

Dorian is the Wildean dandy par excellence. He is what both Basil and Lord Henry would like to be. It is worth noting that Wilde wrote of the characters in his only novel: "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps" (Letters, 352). Dorian personifies a conflict between Dionysian and Apollonian elements particularly fascinating to his creator. He has a passion for "the colour, the beauty, the joy of life" (40), but avoids becoming involved with any experience for fear of it causing him possible pain. Basil's and Lord Henry's fascination with him represents Wilde's obsession with a young dandy whose evasiveness and pseudo-aestheticism symbolize his own unconscious fears.


Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Isobel Murray. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Ed. R. Hart-Davis. London: Hart-Davis, 1962.

Last modified 16 October 2003

Last modified 8 June 2007