The Picture of Dorian Gray Character Analysis: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Gabrielle London

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a masterpiece of literature, an epoch of philosophical thought regarding the basic nature of man. It is a resistance, a call against the impeding and crushing presence of societal rules which dictate with abject judgment when the characteristics of being are right and wrong. Oscar Wilde, the author of the novel and the nemesis of high society, battles in word the missteps of how the world has developed, and how the abundance of conceptual systems has overthrown honest debate. In morality, to be is simply to exist and to not be scorned at the gloved hands of the supposed elite. Wilde enforces this in his writing, describing in artistic eloquence the very humanity, or lack thereof, of each principal character: Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton, and Dorian Gray. They each defy the boundaries of society with their only limitations being borne out of individual righteousness. They are what Wilde saw in the world, the destruction of their minds by society acting as a commentary about the nature of the current world.

Basil Hallward: The Good

A symbol of the purified good, Basil Hallward is one of the only true innocents in the novel. Though his character may seem less complex than Lord Henry or Dorian Gray himself, it is true still that understanding the layers of his mind and the thought behind his words and decisions are essential to absorbing the value of the book. He is a remnant of the European romantic era, an artist who unintentionally claims in his works an uncovered truth about himself. His emotions and the passion which drips from his brushes are revealed, creating a relationship between that which is expressed within his portraits, and what is held in his mind. Because he is such an emotionally driven person, the dying light of his muse, Dorian Gray, is to him what it must feel like to suffer eternally. Lord Henry may be considered a friend, but his grossly selfish nature happens to wreak havoc on the one thing which means everything to Basil, who can only stand and watch. He is weak, easily bending to meet the needs of others, thus leading to the demise of the enchained artist. It is easy enough to draw a connection between Basil’s dedication to his art as a representation of how Dorian clings hopelessly to his beauty. As Dorian stumbles, Basil’s paintings stagger. As Basil’s abilities worsen, Dorian’s humanity fails. This relationship slips quickly and dangerously into a downward spiral, leading only to a gut-wrenching rift which ends the only way it possibly, satisfyingly could–twin deaths, Basil at the fearful hands of Dorian, and Dorian within the guilting clutch of Basil’s decay. 

Basil is the ultimate victim–the final untainted mind which not only withstood the entrapping grasp of Lord Henry’s ideals, but also further antagonized his beliefs. His usually fair expression distorts at the mention, a face of gloom looking down upon Lord Henry’s self-defined idea of being a man amongst men. Basil, who wished only to hide himself away from the world behind a heavy curtain of oils and canvas, was the only one who retained the integrity of his hopeful and solemn soul until a timely release; a death deserved and welcomed not as a punishment but as a reward. This escape was granted to him as a shield from the corruption of Dorian Gray, the sole event which would tear his heart apart from the inside. His character is representative of tragedy, a man stripped to the bare exposure of his being, torn of everything that gave his quiet life value. In Wilde’s vision, Basil before death is tethered by the fraying ropes of society, threatening to tear awaythe preservation of that which brought him meaning.

Lord Henry: The Bad

On the completely opposing side of Basil’s nature, Lord Henry is an absolutely despicable man whose instincts and actions just barely allow him to be classified as a human. He is more beast than man, repugnant and untamed by the iron fetters of society. Lord Henry is a gravitational force within the novel–his personality draws people to him, and with it he lures them into the landscape of his mind and philosophies about the world, entertaining the strong-willed and corrupting the impressionable. His character is one which represents the release of the primal instincts of men, ugly and trained away over the course of society’s development. At base, Lord Henry’s need is to control and dominate, to become the king of those who he can reach, and for his subjects to follow him mindlessly. He views other men not as friends or allies, but as shapeless figures waiting to be molded by him into something of value which can work for his purpose alone. Women are nothing more than the opposite sex, definitively less than shapeless clay men. Lord Henry’s personality is overwhelming.While it was just barely manageable by Basil, it entirely swallowed Dorian.

Dorian, the foolish egoist, met his end upon their meeting, with not a chance to escape Henry’s all-consuming grasp. The novel holds a constant sense of impending doom, set off with the sudden and rocketing impact of a firecracker the instant that Basil allows Henry to watch Dorian sit for the portrait. Immediately, an air of fascination took hold of Lord Henry, creeping into his mind the instinctual need to take control of Dorian’s very humanity and make it his own. Throughout the novel, the symptoms of his absurdist philosophies begin to appear within Dorian, scars of knowledge marring his pristine face. Lord Henry, entirely out of self-interest and experimentation, made a point of breaking down Dorian’s sanity into fragments, scattered and impossible to put back together, such that his original perfection could never be restored. He is the master of manipulation; the puppeteer to Dorian’s marionette, aflame like a grease fire which can only continue to burn. Without lifting a finger in any order different from his usual routine, Lord Henry is alive in Dorian’s consciousness, influencing him to madness. He is the reason that the picture grew uglier and uglier, alone responsible for Dorian’s worsening actions, and thus the decay of his portrait. He is the bile of society, rejecting it as is the intention of Wilde, yet doing so for the sake of letting uncontrolled malice reign free.

Dorian Gray: The Ugly

Dorian Gray’s life, from birth to brutal death, can be divided into two eras: Pre-Henry, and Post-Henry. Essential to his character is the existence of everyone around him and their actions towards him, including the idolatry of Basil and the more prominent control by Lord Henry. To Lord Henry’s Frankenstein, Dorian is the fiend. He is a victim, unwillingly awakened from a slumber of endless vanity and rapture by the man who is more monster than the monster himself. He was welcomed hesitantly into a new and seemingly greater version of the world, in which Lord Henry was forced into his mind as a figure of apotheosis, a guidepost erected immediately so as to impose total governance of his sanity. Before this rebirth, in the Pre-Henry era, Dorian was simply a man basking in the throes of arrogance and immense,  indescribable beauty. He was cultured too; a fine society man whose conversation was surface level so as to preserve innocence and respectability, and whose true self was withheld in his public presentation. The lighthearted softness of his actual personality was revealed only in the company of those close to him, Basil included, as the original charmer who drew from Dorian an even greater sense of conceit. He was self-obsessed and ruled over by the guidelines of society, hammered into his mind from the moment he first filled his infant lungs with the poisoned air of the high class. He had no need to think about the true nature of anything–not the relationships between men and women or the nature of existing, not the triviality of being dictated by society’s mailed fist, gloved in velvet. This was the Dorian who Basil chased as his muse, the radiant Apollo whose livelihood lay in his own face and lack of depth. He laughed and drank and chatted, silly notions spilling from his lips without any real meaning behind them. He was irreproachable, without sin or any need for it. 

In the post-Henry era, Dorian still lacked any individual thought, but in a completely different and far more painful way. The livelihood which he had and which formed the basis for his position at the top of society was stolen, forgotten and replaced by a harsh outlook through eyes not his own. He, in all his feeble fragility and confidence worn at the edges, was overtaken by philosophy. The very introduction of Lord Henry into his life was the violent murder of whoever had been Dorian Gray before. Every question that floated about the universe and that had been unsuccessfully knocking at the latched door to his mind was brought in, flooding the foundations of the psychological home. Lord Henry had torn the peacefulness of living away from him, in such a masterfully deceitful way that Dorian did not realize it until he was neck-deep in the tar of madness. He became what can only be described as a bad person without intention, mirrored in the growing hideousness of his once beautiful portrait. The story is written with insight into Dorian Gray’s mind, complicating the understanding of how his blindness and innocence intertwine with his detestable actions. It is difficult to classify him in the sense of morality, if he can be determined in such a way at all. Never once did he have a sense of humanity all his own, nor even one true friend. There was no one to stand by him whose goal wasn’t to influence him or make him their own, and so he became a lunatic formerly known as Dorian. He was dragged to King Henry’s court and made to be the jester, existing for everyone but himself. In a way, he is representative of the murderous tendencies of society towards individuality, himself a shell of a human from beginning to end, only occupied by the ideas of others. In all his beauty, he can be classified only as the ugly.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a commentary, a fascinating and exquisitely written prose which casts shame on the impossibly high walls that concern society. Oscar Wilde quite plainly expresses his total disdain for the developed high class, the social expectations which crush the sanity of individuals and doom them to misery the moment they are born. Basil, Henry, and Dorian are his voices which speak for him, destroying morality in the same way that they destroyed each other. The fragility of humanity lies at the heart of this novel, shattering the moment the cover is shut.


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