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Free Sample Essay Example - Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

"All art is quite useless," writes Oscar Wilde. Yet his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray is quite useful to the author of this sample high school AP English essay. This example literary analysis paper argues that Wilde's preface, which contains several aphorisms about art, is not just a manifesto of the Aesthetic movement - which believed in art for art's sake - but a warning for those who lack morals. This example high school criticism paper would be a good reference for a student who wants to compare the author's language in an introduction or preface to the rest of the novel.

Curing, or Cursing the Soul by Means of the Senses? The Preface and its Contradictory Nature

Primarily addressing the upper class people of Victorian England, Oscar Wilde lays down a series of aphorisms in a preface that seems unnecessary at first. But in reality, these short statements lay down the basic Aesthetic beliefs that Wilde followed, including the concept that art should be separated from morality. Thus, The Picture of Dorian Gray acts as a defense of the Aesthetic movement, explaining the advantages of a pleasurable lifestyle and the superiority of art. Yet, contrary to its preface, the novel also presents the idea that such a lifestyle, absent of moral responsibilities, leads to eventual destruction.

Wilde's preface supports the Aesthetic principle that art should be enjoyed for beauty alone. Unlike the Victorian standards of judging art based upon an underlying morality, Wilde insists that those who create and admire art only do so because it is beautiful. Indeed, he notes how the artist can only be the creator of "beautiful things" and that "there is hope" for those who "find beautiful meanings" (Wilde, 1) in what the artist creates. The creator and the admirer are thus linked by their love of beauty. This is the ideology of the Aesthetic movement, which believed in "art for art's sake". The preface acts as a declaration of aesthetic beliefs, in order to introduce a new way of looking at art. Telling the reader that "there is no such things as a moral or immoral book," (1) Wilde challenges the idea that art, and novels in particular, should be judged by the messages they might convey. Instead, books should be simply based upon whether they are "well written or badly written" (1). In line with the Aesthetic thinking, Wilde suggests that art and morality should be completely separate of each other. Art itself does not contain messages of good and evil- these are thrust upon it by narrow-minded critics. To Wilde, "the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium" (1), not in how it shocks or challenges others. The only feeling that art should bring to the viewer is pleasure and nothing more. "Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril," (2) because they risk interpreting art based on moral concepts instead of its sublimity. The real beauty of art lies in the fact that it is "quite useless" (2). Art has no other purpose than to please and be admired and should not be complicated by morals or sentimentality. To this end, Wilde's preface acts as the ultimate Aesthetic manifesto: a declaration that art can only be seen as beautiful.

Dorian Gray embodies the aphorisms in the novel's preface. Endowed with "finely curved scarlet lips . . . frank blue eyes [and] crisp gold hair," Dorian possesses "all the candor of youth . . . as well as all youth's passionate purity" (18). Wilde describes Dorian's looks as if he were a work of art. People are drawn to Dorian simply because of his handsome looks. Even those who hear evil things about him cannot "believe anything to his dishonor when they [see] him" (131). To the observer, one of Dorian's immaculate looks could not possibly do anything immoral. Thus, regardless of his transgressions, Dorian escapes any consequences of his moral conduct because of his physical appearance. To see Dorian as anything but beautiful would be like viewing art through a moral perspective. But much like art itself, Dorian possesses no other traits besides his physical beauty. To this effect, he is a useless person who exists only to live a pleasurable lifestyle. Such casual living without suffering makes Dorian "the perfect type" (222) of human: flawless and without care for anything except what is beautiful. Dorian creates for himself an enviable life that seeks to live for experience alone, regardless of the consequences. He lives life on a whim, changing from one passing interest to the next whenever he pleases. Wilde suggests that Dorian deserves to be worshipped for his love of the superficial, especially by his curing "the soul by means of the senses" (189). Dorian avoids suffering by indulging in the aesthetics of life. Knowing that his beauty will last forever, Dorian triumphantly sails through life with hardly a care. Such an existence parallels the aesthetic principles laid down in Wilde's preface, which assert that the surface is all that really matters.

Yet an inherent contradiction to the preface lies in the fact that Dorian eventually sees the reality that lies beneath his beautiful features, suggesting that the aesthetic lifestyle, without a thought to morality is destructive. By observing the hideous transformation of his portrait, Dorian is "corrupt without being charming" (1) since he finds "ugly meanings in beautiful things" (1). Beneath his youthful countenance lies a sinful creature capable of blackmail and murder. But Dorian at first denies this fact, continuing his quest for pleasure and allowing his soul to disintegrate further. Though the portrait acts as a moral indicator for Dorian, he blatantly disregards it. Such hatred of reality can be akin to "the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass" (1). Caliban, the hideous servant from Shakespeare's The Tempest, destroys a mirror to hide from his appearance. So too, does Dorian lock his picture away and indulge in material possessions to "escape, for a season from the fear that seemed . . . almost to great to be borne" (143). Instead of curtailing his sins, Dorian prefers to live his life with the absence of morality. Yet the memory of the terrible portrait always returns to haunt him, and Dorian becomes paranoid that it will be discovered and his appearance will be tarnished to the world. Eventually, Dorian sees that "his beauty to him had been but a mask, his youth but a mockery," (223) and the full weight of his sins becomes apparent. Yet caught up in his vanity, Dorian refuses to confess any of his sins. Even after committing murder, Dorian resorts to curing his soul through an opium addiction, wishing to erase the act from his memory than admit his wrongdoing. But eventually, he realizes that the portrait "acts as conscience" (228) to him, inscribing every sin onto his once beautiful features. The faade of his physical beauty destroyed, Dorian believes the only way to continue his life is to destroy the hideous portrait. Ironically, by destroying his conscience, Dorian destroys himself as well. Without giving a thought to reality, Dorian Gray concludes his life as a man destroyed by sin, his beauty all but forgotten.

Dorian Gray's demise causes the reader to wonder about Oscar Wilde's sincerity in the preface. Though Wilde advocates the Aesthetic belief that life should be more like art-refined and pleasing-he also suggests that people should take their actions seriously, with the moral consequences in mind. While Wilde did not share the same moral values as Victorian society, he iterates in The Picture of Dorian Gray that without a set of values one will be lost to a life of depravity, as Dorian is. The preface then takes on a dual role, encouraging the people to appreciate the world for its beauty, but also to warn them that life is not like art. "It is the spectator, not life, that art truly mirrors" (2), Wilde writes, implying that how one views the world will ultimately determine how they appreciate beauty.


This example high school English paper nicely connects the character Dorian Gray to the statements in the preface about beauty. The paper's argument that Dorian is "useless" because he has no other talents besides his good looks is well-done. The conclusion also raises some interesting questions - was Wilde contradicting himself, or making a statement?

This sample literary analysis essay could be improved by clarifying certain thoughts, especially the introduction. The intro is awkwardly written at parts, and it may be unclear to the reader that the author has a two part thesis - the first part deals with the ideals of the Aesthetic movement, the other warns about following these ideals without a moral compass. If the author had made the intro clearer, the reader would have an easier time following the essay's introduction.
1,227 words / 4 pages

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