In the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray could be read : ”To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim”. Ironically Wilde himself couldn’t stick to that principle, for his only novel is highly autobiographical in nature.
To begin with, both Wilde and Dorian came from a reputable family.Dorian was the son of Lady Devereux, the grandson of Lord Kelso, and the heir to his great grandfather’s Selby property. As for Wilde, his father was Sir William Wilde, Ireland’s leading ophthalmologist while his mother,Jane,was a popular actress who went by the name of ”Sperenza”.
Wilde would go so far as to reflect the scandalous incidents which smeared his family into Dorian’s family lineage. His father, William, had three illegitimate children, and a young woman would even file a charge against Lady Wilde for libel,on the grounds that Sir William had seduced her. To make matters worse, Lady Wilde lost and was forced to pay the young woman. Later on, the once-rich family would slide into poverty: Sir William was bankrupt shortly before his death, Lady Wilde was forced to stay in abject poverty with his other son, and at the time of her death, she was buried anonymously in common ground, for a headstone was beyond her sons’ means.Likewise, Dorian Gray’s ancestors also indulged in scandals and disgrace: Lord Beckenham was infamously known for leading ”orgies at Carlton House”, Lady Elizabeth Devereux had had many affairs while Philip Herbert was engaged in a homosexual relationship with King James-he was ”Caressed by the Court for his handsome face”. In addition, Dorian’s own mother would vitiate her aristocratic background when she fled with a ”penniless young fellow”,and the way Dorian’s grandfather got rid of the man would forever be known as an ”ugly story”.
The biographical nature of the novel becomes evident as we witness the downfall of Dorian,triggered by Lord Henry Wotton who gave him his first mirror – a symbol for narcissism – and the infamous yellow book. In Wilde’s life, it was no different. He too was initiated to hedonism by Robert Ross,a hedonist friend; he too was given the yellow book.For Wilde,as well as for his alter-ego Dorian,this little book played a determining part in their lives; ”The hero….became to him a kind of prefiguring type of himself.”
What is in that book which proved so destructive to Dorian and Wilde? Well,firstly the book is none other than A Rebours written by Jonathan-Karl Huysmans.It narrates the life of an aristocrat,Jean Des Esseintes, who isolates himself in his castle and decides to embrace aestheticism. But the pursuit of beauty and art can be noxious, as demonstrated by the actions of the aesthete.Des Esseintes once set gemstones set in the shell of a tortoise,which resulted in the creature dying from the accumulated weight on its back. On another occasion,wishing to make his own perfume,he ended up with a garden full of poisonous plants.
In a similar manner,the obstinate pursuit of aestheticism proved poisonous to Dorian and Wilde.The hedonistic belief is that one should not live by any restriction,and it is without surprise that Wilde and Dorian engaged in homosexual acts.Also,although it has not been stated anywhere,one can assume that Wilde also took drugs, as is inferred by Dorian’s consumption of opium.Moreover Dorian’s pride in his success at concealing his immoral life mirrors Wilde’s feelings during the hedonistic phase of his life.According to Ellman’s biography,”Oscar Wilde” – widely regarded as the definitive work on the subject – ”After 1886, he was able to think of himself as a criminal, moving guiltily among the innocent.”
There is a line in the preface that exactly defines Wilde’s feelings about this infamous period of his:
“All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.”
Wilde wrote from experience.It is highly probable that he regretted this immoral period of his,as he engaged in those acts when he already had two sons and a wife.Sadly,ghosts from this sad time would haunt him back later.Indeed,in Dorian’s death, Wilde could foretell his own miserable ending; at the height of his career,years after writing The Picture of Dorian Gray,his immoral past was revealed and he was condemned for gross indecency with men.He died shortly after his release,at the relatively young age of 46,destitute and all alone.