Dorian Gray & The Fallacy of Hedonism

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Oscar Wilde’s famous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray remains a literary classic that’s been adapted into numerous texts and films. Originally published by Wilde in 1890 during the English Victorian era, The Picture of Dorian Gray centers upon the life and trials of a young English artistocrat, Dorian Gray, who falls into an insidious cycle of self-indulgence and moral debauchery. Similar to a Shakespearean tragedy, Dorian Gray’s hedonistic lifestyle produces tragic consequences for himself and others as symbolically represented in the perpetual decay of his painted self-portrait, which serves as a manifestation of his own soul’s degradation [1]. Wilde’s characters and storyline are indeed entertaining; yet the novel also enlightens readers on the philosophical concepts of hedonism and ethics in general.

Set in 1890s London during the height of the Victorian Era, the novel introduces Dorian Gray alongside well-known artist Basil Hallward and Basil’s close friend Lord Henry Wotton. All three men are captivated by Basil’s exceptionally painted portrait of young Dorian, prompting Lord Henry to begin subtly indoctrinating the naive and impressionable Dorian with the notion of pursuing self-serving pleasure and beauty. Dorian proceeds to adopt Lord Henry’s hedonistic views by making a Faustian proclamation to give up his soul for eternal youth, thereby giving free reign to his pursuit of self-centered pleasure seeking. Chaos ensues as Dorian manipulates others for his own amusement (including his tragic love affair with a young London actress, Sibyl Vane) all while Basil’s portrait of Dorian supernaturally deteriorates into repulsive ugliness. Dorian’s lack of morality and increasingly deplorable reputation ultimately results in his self-inflicted demise through the curse of Basil’s portrait.

Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945 Film)

Central to Wilde’s novel is the philosophical concept of hedonism which “[as a theory of well-being], states that all and only pleasure is intrinsically valuable and all and only pain is intrinsically not valuable” [2]. Spanning across antiquity and various historical time periods, hedonism as an ethical theory is very similar to utilitarianism, which encourages action choices with the goal of maximizing utility (i.e. well-being or satisfaction). Yet while utilitarianism attempts to justify individual action choices that result in the greatest net social benefit, hedonism limits such effects solely to the individual through the pleasure-pain dichotomy. Hence, this self-indulgent view (i.e. hedonistic egoism) argues that if a choice of action results in the greatest amount of pleasure and/or least amount of pain for the one acting individual alone, then it’s ethically right [2].  Unfortunately the application of such myopic hedonism by Dorian Gray results in his immense moral degradation and tragic, pride-induced downfall.

The precipitous errors of Dorian’s actions hearken back to many of Lord Henry’s discussions with the naive Dorian in the novel. Lord Henry’s hedonistic ideology is observed through such statements as “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it” (Chapter 2) and “You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit” (Chapter 6) [1]. Thus the temptation to embrace prideful debauchery and selfish behavior by Dorian in the interest of pleasure/beauty becomes apparent early on in Wilde’s story. Patrick Duggan describes Dorian Gray’s corrupted ego especially well in a 2009 Boston University journal article by stating “In pursuit of his [Dorian’s] own pleasures, a distinctly narcissistic attitude emerges, and the incompatibility of morality and unconditional aestheticism [i.e. art/beauty] becomes all the more apparent” [3]. Furthermore, Wilde’s literary exploration of hedonistic tragedy in The Picture of Dorian Gray is noted for being representative of the deterioration in moral values through the overriding importance of beauty and youth in modern society, observed today through the current cultural phenomenon known as Dorian Gray Syndrome [4]. Thus, Wilde’s novel offers us a chilling yet important glimpse into the obvious fallacy of succumbing to hedonistic thinking while ignoring ethical standards, both for us as individuals and society as a whole.

References

[1] Wilde, O. (2008, o.1890). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Project Gutenberg eBook. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/174/174-h/174-h.htm

[2] Weijers, D. (n.d.). Hedonism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/hedonism/ 

[3] Duggan, P. (2009). The Conflict Between Aestheticism and Morality in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. WR: Journal of the CAS Writing Program, 1, p. 61-68.  http://www.bu.edu/writingprogram/files/2009/11/wrjournal1duggan.pdf

[4] Drumova, V. (2015). The Picture of Dorian Gray: Eternal Themes of Morality, Beauty and False Values through Centuries. Narva College of the University of Tartu. http://dspace.ut.ee/bitstream/handle/10062/47180/Drumova_Viktoria.pdf

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