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Basil Hallward is perhaps an old-fashioned representative of the aesthetic movement. He lives his life artfully, making a mystery when there is usually predictability, for instance, in his habit of taking trips without ever telling people where he’s going. He dedicates his life to art and, when he sees Dorian Gray, decides to found a new school of art, one devoted to the youthful beauty of his subject. His home is filled with beautiful things. He has clearly devoted his life to the pursuit of the aesthetic as a way of life.
He is an old-fashioned aesthete in the sense that he is willing to give up art for the sake of moral responsibility. When he sees Dorian has become upset over the portrait he paints of the boy, he is willing to destroy the painting. This is a painting he has just said is the best work of his artistic career. Basil Hallward is the only one in Dorian Gray’s life who beseeches him to reform himself. In this respect, Basil Hallward is the moral center of the novel. The novel opens with him and the plot action sees a sharp downward turn when he is murdered. Basil Hallward play a small role in the novel, only appearing at three points in Dorian Gray’s life, but his influence is great.
Lord Henry is the radical aesthete. He lives out all of the precepts of the aesthetic movement as outlined in the Preface to the novel. He refuses to recognize any moral standard whatsoever. He spends his time among aristocrats whom he ridicules in such a witty fashion that he makes them like him.
When the novel opens, he and his opposite in aestheticism are discussing the protagonist, Dorian Gray. Basil Hallward earnestly enjoins Lord Henry to leave Dorian Gray alone, not to interfere with him, not to exert his influence on the youth. Lord Henry ignores Basil’s plea entirely. He never has a qualm about doing just the opposite of what Basil begged him to do. He immediately begins to exert his influence on the beautiful Dorian Gray, an opposite influence to that which Basil Hallward would wish for. He makes Dorian Gray self-aware, self-conscious, and even self-involved. He gives Dorian Gray an inward focus and ridicules Dorian’s attempts to find an outward focus in philanthropy. He takes Dorian Gray around to all the fashionable salons and drawing rooms of the London aristocracy showing him off, encouraging him in his self-gratifying pursuits.
When Dorian Gray attempts to reform himself at the end of the novel, Lord Henry remains true to his long-established purpose. He ridicules Dorian’s attempts to deny his gratification for a greater good and thus makes Dorian feel it is futile to attempt to reform. At the beginning of the novel, Basil Hallward scoffs at Lord Henry’s amoral aphorisms, saying that Lord Henry always says bad things but never does anything bad. Basil Hallward feels that Lord Henry’s amorality is just a pose. By the end of the novel, when Lord Henry takes Dorian’s last chance of reform away from him, the reader might assume that Basil Hallward was wrong. Lord Henry is immoral in his supposed amorality.
Dorian Gray is the beautiful object of two men’s attentions. He dominates the imagination of Basil Hallward and he is dominated in turn by the imagination of Lord Henry. He becomes the embodiment of Lord Henry’s ideas of the aesthetic life.
When he is under the influence of Basil Hallward at the beginning of the novel, he falls in love with Sibyl Vane and is willing to sacrifice all social standing for her. He falls in love with the artfulness of her acting. When he tells Basil Hallward and Lord Henry of his passion, the two older men are alarmed, but Basil Hallward begins to think it is a good thing for Dorian Gray to devote himself to love. Instead, when his love loses her acting ability because of love, he rejects her cruelly and she commits suicide. It is in his reaction to her death that the reader recognizes the direction Dorian Gray will take, which of his two mentors he will follow. He follows Lord Henry’s amoral aestheticism, recasting the tragedy of her death as a beautiful work of art in life and therefore finding self-gratifying pleasure in her suicide. From that moment onwards, his course is set.
Dorian Gray isn’t a well-rounded character. Like Basil Hallward and Lord Henry, he is a type. He represents an idea, the idea of art in life. Once he makes his prayer that he change places with his portrait, to live life without aging while the portrait bears the marks of age, he follows a fairly unwavering course. He goes from lover to lover, male and female, and ruins the reputation of each in turn. He has no allegiance to anyone he knows. He pursues pleasure dispassionately. He cares nothing for the morality of conventional society. He cares nothing for their censure of him. He is sure he will always be accepted in enough places to satisfy him.
For Dorian Gray, sin is ugliness and therefore sin is horrible. He holds a morbid fascination with the portrait which grows older and uglier with each sin Dorian commits. He doesn’t have a developed moral sense which would recognize a moral imperative-the idea that some things are wrong no matter whether one ever has to pay any consequences for them. He only regards acts as wrong when he can see their affects on the countenance of the figure in the portrait. When Basil Hallward comes back into his life and tries to convince him to reform, he drags Basil upstairs to see the portrait. At that moment, he does seem to experience remorse. Yet, even there, it is the remorse of the undeveloped moral sense, the remorse of the child who recognizes he’s done something wrong only when he is caught in the act. Here, he shows Basil Hallward the evidence of his bad deeds out of a desire to shock and hurt his mentor. When Basil prays for him, he kills Basil, unable to accept the kind of love Basil is showing him.
When Dorian Gray tries to reform himself after killing Basil, he does so as a way to rid himself of the ugliness of the portrait. When he gives up Hetty, the country girl whom he has seduced, he assumes he is working toward his redemption. For Dorian Gray, redemption means beauty regained. He hopes to see the portrait changed, but instead sees it is uglier still. It is then that he recognizes that in order to repent, he has to confess publicly to his sins. This he will never do. Confessing publicly would mean losing the reputation he has cultivated for years. He cannot lose his public face because that is all he is. He is nothing but face. The death of the ugly portrait is the death of Dorian Gray.
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