What is the Purpose of the Opening Epigrams of Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Introduction to The Portrait of Dorian Gray

I will be leading a private book club discussion this summer on the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. To ease into the book, I will discuss some of the background and themes of the book and discuss the purpose and messages brought up by Wilde in the Epigrams of his opening Preface. Wilde’s only major book was first published in Lippincott’s Monthly in 1890.

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It follows Dorian Gray’s corruption and fall, from being an ideal young character to becoming an aging and decadent villain. Dorian’s ongoing corruption is symbolized throughout the book by the portrait that was painted of him by Basil Hallward. Gray barters for a deal with the devil to stay young-looking as he ages. Although he remains youthful looking for several decades, his portrait, which he hides in his attic, ages in-step with his true chronological age. Even though Dorian surrounds himself with beautiful women, fine art, and high-culture, the image that he see when he looks at his portrait, becomes increasingly hideous as he engages in immoral and criminal behavior. Both Dorian and readers, through the psychological dialogue, are able to take stock of how his image ages and becomes increasingly hideous with each viewing.  To a large extent, the three main characters of Dorian Gray (Gray, Basil Hallward, and Lord Henry Wooten) are composite characterizations of the lavish lifestyles that Oscar Wilde lead in his life.

The underlying accepted proposition of that period was that art and literature needed to depict moral correctness and to teach proper social behavior, along with the consequences for not accepting those widely held conventions. As one might expect from that type of subject and philosophy, critics severely panned Wilde’s book, featuring decadent characters, as soon as it was published. Its messages and themes were counter to those held by most English Victorian audiences. Perhaps, to address the critics’ concerns, and before republishing Picture in 1891, Wilde added a Preface only consisting of Epigrams. He believed that they offered explanations and justifications about his philosophies of life and art. An epigram is often a short and pithy statement, introduced prior to a poem, short story, or other work of literature, which offers essential elements of the wisdom that underlies the central theme of the author’s work. However, it is debatable whether Wilde’s Epigrams brought added clarity to his work or highlighted contradictions between the positions that he wrote and those he depicted throughout his book.

The Epigrams of Dorian Gray’s Preface

Wilde argued that it is “unpardonable” for an artist to express “artistic sympathies.” Conveying a message which was in opposition to the themes of popular moralistic writers, like Charles Dickens, Wilde believed that there shouldn’t be any established markers for “right of wrong.” This point of view is often labeled by today’s critics as moral relativism. In this line of thinking, no subject “is ever morbid” and writers and artists “can express everything.” He argued that “vice and virtue” are only tools that a writer should use as “materials” for producing art. He considered it as inconsequential if the themes or topics offended some or even many readers. The endings of stories did not have to resolve neatly or teach readers anything. Instead, they should simply show realities and issues faced by humans in a full range of normal and unusual situations. This literary style was established earlier by the dark writings and anti-morality tales by writers like Edgar Allan Poe, and then later carried into the twentieth century by postmodern writers like Dostoevsky and Ernest Hemingway. Wilde, like several of the postmodern writers, warned readers and critics not to look too closely at the symbolism or deeper meanings of artistic works. Art, he argued, conveys many obvious and hidden meanings, which are understood in different ways after different readers interact with works. Like the painting of Dorian Gray, Wilde proposes that, in attempting to explain what a work of art is about, a critic reveals more about himself than he/she does about the object being reviewed. These criticisms, thus, put those who judge art “in peril.” In attacking the critics of his book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde suggests that when critics “disagree” about the value of his work, he is “in accord with himself.”

If one ascribes to that point of view, Wilde’s book was wildly successful! Few books have had as many readers who loved the work and deplore it as The Picture of Dorian Gray. Although Wilde concluded that “all art is quite useless” and shouldn’t be “admired intensely,” his book is a highly useful work and conveys far more moralistic messages than he would ever have intended. It is even more socially relevant today than it was over one hundred years ago since, in the present times, so many people are overly concerned with promoting unrealistic images of their eternal youth, beauty, and prestige through social media. I will discuss the issues and topics raised in my upcoming book club discussions of the Picture of Dorian Gray in future Litchatte Forums.

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Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write Murray by leaving a Comment on this Blog, at ellisonms2@vcu.edu or by meeting him at the Poe Museum (see below):

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