Oscar Wilde plots The Picture of Dorian Gray on a model of descent. Dorian Gray begins at the height of his beauty and innocence. Basil Hallward is also at the height of his artistry at the opening of the novel. The novel is the inexorable downward slide of the protagonist, however secret that downward slide is. When Basil Hallward recognizes the depths to which Dorian Gray has sunk, he attempts to pull him out of it and is killed for the attempt. When Dorian Gray attempts to bring himself back into moral rectitude, he fails.
The secondary plot structure of the novel is the triangular relationship among Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry. In the first few chapters f the novel, Wilde sets up the triangle. Basil Hallward is enraptured with Dorian Gray's beauty. Dorian Gray doesn't yet recognize the power this gives him. He doesn't even recognize the power of his beauty. Then comes Lord Henry, the man who brings Dorian Gray into self-consciousness and pulls him away from the influence of Basil Hallward. Basil Hallward dies trying to bring Dorian Gray back under his influence. The novel ends with Dorian making a last, pitiful attempt to convince Lord Henry to release him from his influence.
When Dorian Gray attempts to destroy the portrait, he is trying to destroy
the link between art and morality, the link which Lord Henry has forever
denied. The attempt kills him. Oscar Wilde suggests that there is a vital
link after all between the beautiful and the good.
Under debate in The Picture of Dorian Gray from beginning to end is the relationship between beauty and morality. Oscar Wilde sets up the triangular relationship along the lines of this debate. Basil Hallward takes the position that life is to be lived in the pursuit of the beautiful and the pleasurable, but he is unwilling to divorce the good from the beautiful. Lord Henry, on the other hand, goes through life throwing one aphorism after another together to prove the non-existence or the hypocrisy of morality. In the character of Dorian Gray and in his relationship to the his magical portrait, Oscar Wilde dramatizes this debate.
In the Renaissance, people believed in the idea of correspondences. They saw correspondences between the heavens and the earth. When something went wrong on the social scale, they looked to the skies for similar upsets. In the literature of the Renaissance, storms always accompany social upheaval. In like manner, there was seen to be a correspondence between beauty and virtue. If a person was beautiful, it was assumed that she or he was also virtuous. If a person was ugly, it was a assumed this person was corrupt. The face told the story of the soul.
Oscar Wilde takes this Renaissance idea of correspondences and sees how it works in the world of the aesthetes. The aesthetes of the 1890s were intent on developing a positive philosophy of art. Art was not the classical notion of a mirror held up to life. Art was to be regarded as autonomous. In its own right, it was to be celebrated. It was no longer to be subordinated to life as a mirror is subordinate to the object mirrored. If a comparison was granted, art was superior to life. It was timeless, unchanging, and perfect.
In detaching art from its representational function, the aesthetes were also detaching it from its moral aim. Victorian writers had long held art up as valuable for its ability to instruct and correct its readers. The aesthetes wanted no moral task assigned to art. Art existed for its own sake, not as moral instruction, and not as a mirror held up to life. Aesthetes might have overstated the point. In the Preface to Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde sounded the keynote of the aesthetic movement when he wrote "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book" and added, "No artist has ethical sympathies." Ironically, his novel is just that. It is a moral book.
Wilde uses the magical contrivance of the portrait as a way to play on the themes of art in life, life as art, and the amorality of art. For the aesthetes, if something is beautiful, it is not confined to the realm of morality and immorality. It exists on its own merits. This idea is expressed by Lord Henry in its decadent aspect and by Basil Hallward in its idealistic aspect. For Lord Henry, there is no moral imperative. The true lover of beauty is safe to pursue art and pleasure and should think of conventional morality as the enemy of beauty. For Basil Hallward, the beauty should be pursued because it idealizes the viewer. It makes the world a better place. The world is made morally good when it enjoys the beauty of art.
Dorian Gray is the beautiful one who plays out the ideal of art in his life. For Basil Hallward, he is the one who can make his contemporaries better people. For Lord Henry, he should pursue pleasure and beauty for no end other than self-gratification. Dorian follows the way of Lord Henry. Oscar Wilde keeps in the forefront of the novel the ideal which Basil Hallward sets up with the use of the portrait. The portrait of Dorian Gray bears all the ugliness and age of sin while Dorian himself remains young and beautiful no matter what he does. The portrait even holds Dorian's guilty conscience, at least until he kills Basil Hallward.
Art bears the sins of the age. The portrait of Dorian Gray bears all the traces of his sins. It loses its innocent look and begins to look contemptuous and then downright vicious. Dorian Gray, on the other hand, retains the innocent look of youth and so people have a great deal of difficulty believing the stories about his bad habits. Dorian Gray's portrait even bears the weight of his guiltiness. Since he doesn't have to pay for his sins in the loss of his looks, it is easier for him to leave them behind and never repent of them. When he is confronted by Basil Hallward, he is confronted by his creator. Without Basil's portrait of him, Dorian would have had a very different life. He kills Basil when Basil begs him to reform. Dorian hates the creator, the one who enabled him to sin as he has in the first place, and so he kills him. After Basil's death, though, Dorian cannot go on as he did before. Without his creator, he loses his ability to leave all his sins to mark the portrait. He gets nervous and edgy. Vengeance comes out of his past in the form of James Vane and stalks him. When he is let off the hook by James's accidental death, he doesn't feel relief. He attempts to go Basil's way after all, but it is too late. He has no moral grounding to support moral choices. The only end possible for him is to kill the art that has poisoned his life. In doing so, he kills himself.
Oscar Wilde ended up writing a moral book after all. The novel shows the lesson that has been told over and over in story after story. Guilt will always out. There is no escape from a guilty conscience. All crime must be paid for.