The title of my research paper is The Aesthetic Movement and the Cult of Beauty in O.Wilde’s
The Picture of Dorian Gray and J.K. Huysmans’ À Rebours. As a corpus of my research I will
choose these two novels, both belonging to the end of the 19th century literature, for the fact that
they best expressed in fiction the idea of the beautiful as a direct answer to contemporary
society. The atmosphere in which Wilde and Huysmans lived was one in which the middle class
society was rising, and industrialization and commerce began to invade not only the other
classes, but also every-day life. The values of the bourgeoisie were imbued with Puritanism, i.e.
duty, decency, hard-work, charity, chastity as well as hypocrisy playing a great part in class
and gender discrimination. In literature, the money interest and alienation as causes of
community corruption were highlighted by the authors I will choose, who decided on
denouncing these negative effects through the cult of Aestheticism.
My thesis focuses, therefore, on showing that the principles linked to the idea of the beautiful
may be found in literature mostly in novels, as the 19th century was considered the “Golden
Age of the novel”. Although the Aesthetic Movement is generally associated with the literature
of the fin-de-siècle, the origins of the idea of Beauty are to be found in the art and philosophy of
Ancient Greece. For this reason, in the three chapters constituting this paper, I have decided to
first explain the principles of Beauty from a historical and philosophical perspective. The first
concept associated with Aestheticism is that of mimesis, which was conceived by Plato to
denote that a beautiful thing is to be considered as the perfect copy of the said thing, belonging
to a superior and divine world. Imitation of the beautiful is then linked with another idea, that of
kalon, in reference to the physical or moral idea of Beauty in Ancient Greece.
Importance is given also to the concept of techné, which requires particular knowledge in order
to create Art, i.e. the artist or craftsman decides on exercising his talent in the creation of
something that is to appear to his eyes as a beautiful and perfect work of art. With Aristotle, the
beautiful has been associated with representations of tragedy on stage, catharsis being the
release of all kinds of emotions and feelings, hidden or repressed, as well as of purifying the
soul in order to obtain a balance, which is seen as aesthetic perfection. For the sake of finding
further interpretations of Aestheticism, after the three major philosophers of all times, I will
decide to narrow my research to another three figures, historically nearer to the social situation
represented in the core of my work : Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche. Kant emphasizes the idea of
the beautiful as disinterestedly pleasurable, meaning that we cannot judge an object on the
grounds of subjectivity and personal feelings. He then, associates Aestheticism to the concept
of the sublime in the sense that a beautiful thing may appear in its greatness, strength and
power. Hegel tries to spotlight the beautiful in accordance to the contemporary society, as
means of translating codes and traditions, as having a history of itself, with a beginning, a
development and an ending; he attaches the idea of the beautiful in a Romantic perspective,
associating it with imagination, which is the starting point of Art.
Nietzsche, instead, takes Aestheticism linking it to personal experiences, making a distinction
between appearance and reality, truth and falsity, in the sense that beautiful things are not always
easily accessible, superficial things that appear beautiful are in fact illusionary, hiding their real
and deceiving aspect. The distinction the philosopher makes is between the Apollonian (the
superficial and false things) and the Dionysian ( the real appearance of things). Another concept
worthy of consideration: morality shows the system of rules of conventions established by the
society being called into question, not only by the philosophers mentioned above, but also by
art critics, poets and writers. In the second and third chapters of my research paper, the focus is
on analyzing the novels chosen, by giving further explanations for the rise of the Aesthetic
Movement in the second part of the 19th century, i.e. the figure of the Dandy, the idea of the Art
for Art’s Sake and the main influences on Oscar Wilde?s aesthetic attitude, also to be seen in the
characters of his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The Dandy is an anti-conformist,
refined, elegant and individualistic person who tries to challenge the society by his way of
dressing and speaking, capturing the attention of the masses, which are seen as vulgar by his
extravagance and his exaggerated cult of Beauty.
The Art for Art’s Sake has as aim the rehabilitation of the artist, who praises the artificial over
the natural, the separation of Art and Morality, as Art has to be seen perfect as it is, without
giving any kind of didactic purpose or judgment. Ruskin, Pater and Huysmans are the main
influencers of Wilde for the fact that Ruskin anticipates the beautiful without purpose while
Pater underlines the research of sensations to attain aesthetic pleasure.
Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose novel À Rebours has been considered as the “Bible of the
Decadence” by many Symbolist poets, created the character of Jean Des Esseintes, an aristocrat
who, bored and disappointed by the French society, decides to attack the corrupted city of Paris ,
isolating himself in Fontenay Castle, seen as the shelter from the mediocrity, urbanization,
vulgarity and social injustices. The last chapter of this thesis deals with the analysis of Des
Esseintes in relation to the social context in which he lives, as well as his decision to adorn
extravagantly his castle, aesthetically in line with his refined tastes in design and furniture, the
ways in which he tries to escape ennui and spleen.
As he goes on in his aesthetic search of sensations his physical and mental state gradually
deteriorates as a result, he suffers from anemia and neurosis, the latter is considered as the illness
associated with anxiety, nervousness, stress affecting his psyche. Des Esseintes, finding hard to
reintegrate himself in the society, becomes the model for Wilde?s Dorian Gray. The second
chapter of this research paper focuses on Wilde?s character, Dorian Gray a young lad whose
extraordinary Beauty captures the attention of an artist, Basil Hallward and an aesthete, Lord
Henry Wotton. Basil creates the work of art, a portrait which proves to be the pride and the
cause of Dorian Gray?s downfall , while Lord Henry plays his role influencing the lad on the
importance of Beauty and on its superiority on all existing things in life, in such a way that
Dorian unconsciously makes a pact with the devil, for the sake of preserving his youthful
After delineating the general features present in this paper, I will try to spotlight the idea of the
beautiful as a way of distinguishing from mediocrity, of contrasting and challenging a system of
values and beliefs which loses credibility at the end of an era, in which a change of perception is
necessary in order to open the door to a new age.
ORIGINS OF AESTHETICISM AND ITS INFLUENCE ON LITERATURE
1.WHAT IS AESTHETICISM?
This is a question that sometimes crosses our mind while admiring an ancient statue, or when we
read a novel which pays attention more to the form (i.e. the way in which it is structured, the
choice of particular words, the description of marvelous settings in a house, or the house itself
may be the main focus of the writer) rather than the content.
It may seem easy to state ” this is beautiful” and ” this is not beautiful” , but, to tell the truth,
these assertions are purely relative, there are several and different points of view, therefore it
cannot be possible to judge an object apparently, without trying to understand the hidden
meaning expressed, the message conveyed or simply, what is the creator?s aim. In order to
answer to the question “What is Aestheticism?”, it is necessary first to define this concept, then ,
to take a few steps back, from an historical point of view to its origins and see how
Aestheticism influences the way it is perceived life, and whether a thing may be seen as moral
The concept of “Aestheticism” has been explained, for the first time, during the Enlightenment
period by a German philosopher, Alexander Baumgarten, who associated the word aesthetics to
sensations, a particular taste, so to say , to perceive beauty. However, the origins of this word are
not so recent, but they actually belong to the Ancient Greek Era, to express ” things perceptible
by senses”(Cuddon 12) .
The purpose of this chapter is, therefore, to define Aestheticism in relation to its beginning, from
a historical and philosophical perspective, with the different interpretations given by the most
relevant philosophers and the concepts linked to the idea of the beautiful.
1.1 PLATO’S VIEW ON BEAUTY
Christopher Janaway deals with the platonian philosophy of art and the manner in which it
connects to the origins of Aestheticism. In his opinion, Plato, one of the greatest philosophers of
ancient times, beside Aristotle, did not see art as having autonomy , but rather as subject to the
representations of metaphysical and ethical order(3).
Following this view, art would be attached to morality, as a pedagogic method with which the
man would later apply as principles in life and society. The main and well-known concept
linked to Plato?s figure is without fail, that of mimesis. Mimesis means currently imitation , the
representation of something that is the perfect copy of the thing in itself(in a purely philosophical
view), of something that is considered as superior, as not belonging to this world.
An example of mimesis would be that of comparing it by holding a mirror in which “the world
mechanically reproduces itself”(Janaway 5) to express the art?s reproduction of life, to the point
that there is no particular study behind the representation of a statue or of an object, without
necessarily implying the existence of a particular or hidden truth. Plato refuses therefore to say
for example that ” if a good poet produces fine poetry, he must have knowledge of the things he
writes about, or else he wouldn?t be able to produce it all”( qtd. by Janaway in The Routledge 5)
because reality as we may see or assume, is just a vain copy of the reality that is locked and
above it. Furthermore, the object may be seen from several perspectives, i.e. everybody may see
the same object but giving it a total different interpretation. Iris Murdoch believes that “Plato
wants to cut art off from beauty, because he regards beauty as too serious a matter to be
commandeered by art” (qtd. by Janaway in The Routledge 8).
Then passing to another concept, that of kalon(which means beautiful or fine) one may think of
beauty in a modernist perspective, but , Plato, instead, sees beauty as connected to what is fine or
what is pleasurable such as mosaics, sculptures or the decorations of a temple. ” Beauty finds its
most significant treatment in the dialogue Symposium, in the speech by Socrates”(Janaway 8)
because Beauty, according to Plato, is intangible if the senses are used but it may be acceded
though the intellect(9). Associated with Plato?s philosophy, next to the concept of mimesis, it the
notion of techné which, unlike mimesis, requires particular knowledge in the several existing
crafts. In another work of Plato, Phaedrus, the highest soul is considered belonging to those who
places beauty and intellect above other things, somebody who appreciates and manifests above
else his love for philosophy, and poetry, which is „inspiration, pleasure? and therefore also
another manifestation of the mimesis.(Janaway 11).
Philosophy and poetry have been seen as taking antithetic positions, as the latter not having any
didactic aim but it is rather as “the disinterested appeal to human nature”(Kieran 383) , as a
mean of expressing the feelings and emotions, while the first is not seen as being of secondary,
lower importance because of its irrationality, whose main achievement is “the good” not only in
life but also to all things surrounding us.
1.2 THE ARISTOTELIAN APPROACH TO ART
Aristotle, the philosopher succeeding Plato, had different views about artistic principles. His
main work, Poetics, survived until today, is considered as a testament in which he contradicts
many of Plato?s concepts, for example that of mimesis.
Poetry is not only inspirational, but also it does deliver a message to the reader, it has , therefore,
a purpose, a didactic aim. Furthermore, Aristotle links Beauty to Tragedy , which is considered
as “the mimesis of a serious and complete action of some magnitude; in language embellished in
various ways in its different parts; in dramatic, not narrative form; achieving , through pity and
fear, the catharsis of such passions”(Aristotle qtd. by Pappas 16). It seems that the concept of
mimesis, kalon and techné is followed by another, not secondary to the first : catharsis. Catharsis
is another term of Greek origin meaning literally “cleaning”, “purgation”, it is used in theatrical
context , to denote the release of all kind of passions or emotions, hidden or repressed for a long
time, it appears as well as associated to “pity” and “fear”(Pappas 17).
While seeing the performance of classical plays, the audience may perceive the tragic events as
chained one to the other, succeeding in an extremely short time. This is mainly due to the fact
that the plot is central to the Tragedy itself, not to the characters. The direct consequences of
actions the main character of the play faces does not lack educational purposes. Pity and fear
appear as a common statement would say ” in the right place at the right time” , not earlier nor
later. Catharsis, had, in ancient times, also a medical interpretation, similar to that of cleaning
a deep physical wound, but it possesses, in other contexts, the meaning of “clarification” , to
make clear something sensed as obscure or meaningless( Pappas 17).
Unreleased emotions scatter in certain particular moments, are freed so to as to establish the
initial situation, in which the events of a tragic play take place. However, these emotions may
become stronger in the case in which they have not still arise. This leads to the view that the
chain of passions if containing in themselves also a teaching, or a lesson, should be evidently
educated but this does not mean that these feelings should be controlled or restrained, otherwise,
it would appear instead as a contraction to what Aristotle himself explained so far.
Until now, catharsis has been explained in psychological terms, even though, it may be possible
to glance this concept also from another angle: from the point of view of the narration, applied to
drama as the chain of the unfortunate events who later are put in order, in a circular way ,
restoring as to say the initial situation(19).
Aristotle, by emphasizing the role of the plot rather than that of the characters, indirectly
considers mimesis, but in relation to action. Tragedy conveys certain knowledge, a moral
teaching , and it relates also to another notion that of “seriousness” applied to action(20). The
action taking place should be, according to this, reasonable, logical, driven from truthful
reasons, in one sentence, it must have a clear meaning behind everything. In short, Aristotle
defines Beauty from a metrical point of view, as to be neither too long or incredibly short,
otherwise it would be absurd.
Beauty is seen as “real property of things”(Aristotle 1072) and as in a ongoing transformation
process. Art is not dependent from Beauty, the latter having a function in the tragic development
of circumstances. A clearer distinction of this will be given later, by the German philosopher
Immanuel Kant, during the 18th century, who applies the conception of what is beautiful to what
is instead also the good.
1.3 IMMANUEL KANT’S PHILOSOPHICAL AESTHETICISM
Immanuel Kant is considered as one of the most influential philosophers of all times, well-
known for works such as : The Critique of Pure Reason(1781), The Critique of Practical
Reason(1788), and last but not least The Critique of Judgment(1790), which is the keystone of
the modern aesthetic theories.
It is during the Enlightenment period that Aestheticism is considered in terms of philosophy.
Judging something as beautiful was felt as something based on everyone?s perceptions, i.e. based
on the senses. Therefore, while seeing a certain object, one may feel pleasure, admiration or
perhaps attraction to the object itself. Kant tries to see if the idea of the beautiful is to be
analyzed in a scientific or empirical way, if it has a universal validity for everybody. For this
reason, he introduces two notions: Sensibility and Understanding (Kant Judgment 52). Sensibility
is considered inferior to thought because it is influenced by the senses while Understanding
does not rely to the senses but it is rather associated with reason, whose focus is on the mind
only. According to Kant, experience is a mixture of “both sensibility and understanding”, for
the fact that they create in a certain way the concept of judgment which is connected to taste or
in a formula the judgment of taste (53).
In The Critique of Judgment, this judgment of taste is to be viewed in its validity, when affirming
that an object is beautiful and another one lacks beauty. In the first section of The Critique of
Judgment named “Analytic of the Beautiful” shows that for the judgment of the beautiful a thing
should bring “an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction”(53). Pleasure may be seen
as the other word for contemplation when referring to the attentive observation of beautiful
objects, it is free, meaning that it does not have any constraint.
“The beautiful is that which pleases universally without requiring a concept”( Kant 9). This
affirmation appears to be a contradiction because it simply does not take into consideration the
personal tastes because each person analyzes and sees things differently. A real judgment of
taste should not be subjective or related to the senses, instead it must have a well-organized
logical way of thinking. Kant tries to unify sensibility and understanding , these notions may
give the impression of being antithetic but with the feeling of pleasure it is possible to have a
view of both notions as a whole, without conceptual constraint. In a pure objective approach, we
should base our perceptions only on the form without the interference of personal feelings(54).
In this way Kant anticipates the principles of the Aesthetic Movement which states that an object
of art does not have any purpose in itself, but it only expresses Beauty. To fully understand what
is beautiful , it is necessary to reflect on a beautiful thing in terms of spatial-temporal lines
using sensibility and understanding to arise pleasure or desire. “Common sense” is considered as
“a subjective principle which determines viz. necessitates what pleases or displeases only by
feeling and not by concepts, but yet with universal validity”(Kant 20). Another concept makes
its appearance in Kant?s philosophical research of beauty, i.e. the notion of sublime.
The sublime is considered as the capacity to perceive greatness from a physical, moral, spiritual
or aesthetic point of view. When applied to nature, the sublime appears in the awareness of the
man participating in a sea storm, or while gazing a volcano in eruption from the distance, evokes
great admiration but also fear at the same time(Maglioni 61). Kant, in the “Analytic of the
Sublime” distinguishes between two types of sublime: the mathematic sublime and the dynamic
sublime. Mathematic sublime is the analysis of the power of nature though units of measure to
recognize the greatness of the natural phenomena. The dynamic sublime is acknowledging the
power and superiority of nature in comparison to human beings.
The conflict between the senses and understanding may be lowered once it is accepted the fact
that Nature is above humans. However, human beings have one thing that contradistinguishes
them from nature: the ability of using the mind(Kant 28). To put it shortly, “fine art is the
expression of the Genius of somebody having a talent for producing that for which no definite
rule can be given “(Kant 46), in this case Kant explains that in order to create something
beautiful, originality is not enough but it should be integrated with the aid of mind and taste.
With the analysis of Aestheticism, the concept of morality comes into sight for the fact that
pleasure influences over our own interpretation of the beautiful, which is linked to sensations,
different from one person to another.
1.4 THE HEGELIAN HISTORICISM AND ITS INFLUENCE ON ART AND
Following the illustration of Kant?s aesthetical ideas, during the end of the 18th century which,
from a cultural point of view, is also to be considered as the beginning of the so-called Pre-
Romantic Era in opposition to the Augustan Age. In philosophy, during this period the Idealism
has its origins in Northern Europe, particularly in Germany with Johann Gottlieb Fichte,
Friedrich Schelling and, last but not least, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. History starts to have
its importance because our perception of the world, with its constituting elements such as art or
religion which are strongly dependent on it. Hence, Art should be analyzed according to its own
historical development and the manner through which the absolute may be attained.
Hegel relies on the fine arts(architecture, sculpture, poetry, painting, music) in a chronological
way, in the hope to find “a fusion of beauty, truth and goodness, of poetry, philosophy and
morality, in a society that would be like ancient Athens, a political work of art”(Hegel 250). The
mind is seen as a human being , because it is in contact with the outside world and delimitates,
in this way, a distance between the interior and the exterior. It is clear that it is not possible to
assert that the human mind knows everything out of nowhere, of course, but it exists, however,
some steps to take in order to fully attain knowledge.
Hegel argues that this process of cognition of the world and of ourselves develops in time, in the
human?s life, through the help given by the senses. Art plays a key role in Hegel?s philosophy,
because it strengthens the mind even more, even though it should not be considered in its own
sake, on the contrary, it is active in this attempt to gain a vision of the world. This research
cannot be completed if religion is totally ignored, so, art should be integrated also to religious
ideologies, as if it takes place an overlapping of images, a fusion of the “sacred and the profane”
typical of the Romantic Age(68).
The main aim is that of conveying a message with a specific meaning, and, unlike Kant, Hegel
gives greater importance about the role of imagination as being the basis of all arts, it is poetry
to gain a point in this, surpassing sculpture, architecture and painting.
Nevertheless, Art still does not get involved with Morality, as the ” mean of representing what is
good”(Hegel 384) , but it is a representation of the outside life, of society, it translates traditions
and codes. Aestheticism with Hegel, has not reached yet the purposeleness which is to be found
later, in the literature of the second-half of the 19th century. Thus, it transmits a message, it does
have an aim. Art is viewed in a „cyclic? way, i.e. it has a beginning and also an end, its decay is a
natural action(Maglioni 469).
The classification of the different arts has been done objectively, each of them belonging to a
specific area in the human mind, and, according to the German philosopher, every aspect of life
is being taken into account, as well as the arts themselves, so to communicate effectively
something. Hegel?s view about. Historicism and its subsequent impact on Art, has been
severely attacked for many reasons : first for the fact that the human mind may not be in an
endless and continuous cycle , in the attempt to catch as much information as possible, so to say,
to reach a vision of the world as a hole.
Secondly, this would presuppose that imagination and the senses associated to it, are not the
main items to grasp the absolute. But then, it is possible to doubt whether art relies on a single
history, of universal acknowledgment, or on different relative historical events. In the end, Art
does not have a history of itself.
1.5 NIETZSCHE’S VISION ABOUT ART
Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers that took into particular consideration the
Aestheticism, as being among the main subjects of his discussion. He considers that ” it is only
as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified”(Nietzsche 52).
However, it should be pointed out the fact that Nietzsche?s philosophy contains echoes of
Schopenhauer?s ideology about life, and the so-called Veil of Maya(which got inspired by the
Hinduism or Buddhism) in which “what appears is not always the authentic representation of
things” (34). This leads to the distinction between appearance and reality, about truth and falsity.
However, for Nietzsche, this distinction is not so marked but it hints to aspect of life and society,
or in other words, of what belongs to the human experience. It alludes so to the unmasking of the
lies and the truths hidden of the man. The philosopher, then claims that “existence as an
aesthetic phenomenon is still bearable for us” (53).
The real world disappears and it is replaced by a fictive representation of itself, which erases
every aspect except for that of existence which is to be viewed in relation to human experience ,
which cannot be eternally justified but rather it is hardly tolerated. Situations we face daily in
real life are no longer accepted, therefore, the truth may appear to hurt, and the lies are seen
instead as beautiful. Therefore, Art helps us to sustain the weight of the human conditions. In one
of his most notable works, The Birth of Tragedy (published in 1872), Nietzsche introduces two
concepts, which are interdependent : the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
With the Apollonian, corresponding to Schopenhauer?s world of representation, it is illustrated,
on the one hand, the illusionary appearance of things surrounding us, the beautiful, the way the
world seems to be perceived by everybody. While the other concept, the Dionysian, portrays, on
the other hand, the horrible truth and from an aesthetic point of view it recalls Kant?s notion of
the sublime, surpassing any logical thought. In short, ” what does all art do? does it not praise?
does it not glorify? does it not select? does it not highlight?” (81).
Art represents the different aspects of life, its origins and its inevitable decay, which are to be
regarded as if they were the alpha and the omega, the one is related to the other, the two concepts
are interrelated, meaning that they cannot be separated, otherwise it would be impossible to fully
understand this dualism. For example, the artist relies entirely on the Apollonian and Dionysian ,
in order to have an exhaustive perspective about mankind.
With Nietzsche, the concept of morality assumes a position of significant relevance, due to the
oppositions governing the vision about Art, and it may classified : first, as noble morality
which is the synonym of the “vitalistic attitude towards life”(191) or to use a common statement,
it represents ” the yes to life”. In contrast, the second type of morality is known as slave morality
and it mirrors “the pessimistic view of life” (36), the negative counterpart of “the yes to life”.
These opposing concepts of morality should be analyzed with a deeper meaning, as the
phenomena behind the portrayal of human condition. Because morality, unlike Art (having
perhaps a limit if it is considered as imagination), is also restricted in the real world , primarily
because they suppress, so to say, natural inclinations. Hence, Art is privileged for its attempt to
highlight these inborn tendencies, which are hidden in the deepest parts of the soul. “To give
style to one?s character- a great and rare art!” (232).
What Nietzsche tries to explain is the fact that the creation of a character often involves a
modification of the reality imitated, of the real personalities and behaviors, which are subject to
interpretation. What is shown is not the cruel and ugly truth, because it is concealed behind a
veil, incarnation of the vain things, pure illusions of a superior force which cannot be prevented
The notion of character-stylization is tied to that of illusion and lies, not only of the external
world but also of ourselves, of the way which the truth is transformed so to benefit of a fictive
happiness, without considering the original message (72). To sum up, life is interpreted on an
aesthetic dimension, whose principles are controlled by the social aspects that made up the core
of the existence itself.
2. JOHN RUSKIN AND WALTER PATER’S CONTRASTIVE THEORIES
John Ruskin, one of the major British art critics during the Victorian Age, develops relevant
ideas about the way in which Beauty should be analyzed. In particular, George P. Landow
points out that Ruskin has formulated different theories about Art, firstly in order to assert that
“the study of beauty is the study of perception alone and is hence divorced from the study of
morality and religion.” (90). This statement, if compared to what philosophers such as Plato
affirm, would entirely contradict the view of Art as under the control of metaphysical and
ethical order, heavily constrained by the laws of the society. The separation is, therefore,
necessary because, as Ruskin himself claims, “Beauty is contemplated for its own sake, and that
the pleasure derived from the contemplation is disinterested” (Landow 98).
The idea of “art as disinterested ” is not new at all, in fact, it has been previously mentioned by
Immanuel Kant in his essay The Analytic of the Beautiful, even though there are significant
differences : for example, Kant believed that the Beautiful is also the embodiment of the good
and moral (The Critique of Judgment), while Ruskin strongly denies this concept, due to the fact
that it would give an erroneous and distorted image of what is Beauty or Art. In his work, The
Modern Painters (1843) Ruskin underlines that beautiful things do not have any purpose, any
serviceability per se, any kind of didacticism, but they are only “for their own sake”
(Preface,Vol.II,1883), thus defending the independency of Art.
Furthermore, Ruskin does not only reject the Kantian attachment of Art and the Useful, but also
refutes Plato?s idea of Art as mimesis (imitation), Beauty is not a copy of the object in itself, but
it may convey truths about the nature surrounding the human beings. Arnold Hauser in the
introduction of The Social History of Art, argues the following: “HeRuskin was indubitably the
first to interpret the decline of art and taste as the sign of a general cultural crisis”.
Ruskin criticizes the Renaissance Art for the fact that it represents a contradiction and a
catastrophe, and also for having negatively influenced the contemporary Victorian society, also
noticeable in the on-going process of industrialization. Moreover, in Stones of Venice (a notable
work consisting of three volumes of several essays, published between 1851 and 1853), whose
focus is on Venetian art and architecture, the British art critic expresses his hostility towards the
alienation of the industrial middle classes, notably in factories and in big cities, such as London.
This brought Ruskin to declare that “Art and architecture are the direct expression of the social
conditions in which they were produced”(Lovell Figgs 150). His concepts have had a strong
impact in the mind of writers, such as Oscar Wilde, who, makes explicit the distinction between
Art and Morality, and also denounces the hypocrisy, the vices and false values characteristic of
the mid-19th society in which he lived.
In the same period, another art critic should be analyzed in the same line of Ruskin i.e. Walter
Pater, whose major work The Renaissance Studies in Art and Poetry(1873) brought him
immense fame as well as many critiques and scandal. Many researchers recognize him as the
main theorist of the Aesthetic Movement (Teukolsky 1), the same author who will leave his
mark, so to say, on Wilde, in the enjoyment of pleasure of all relevant moments and impressions
of one?s life, while admiring a work of art or watching another person. “Of such wisdom, the
poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to
you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality of your moments as they pass, and
simply for these moments? sake” (Pater 190).
Although it is centered on the Italian Art of the 16th century, the main discussion is about
Victorian society and the subtle- oblique attack on its strict etiquette and conventions. Pater
proposes a new, challenging way to see and perceive things in everyday life, his shift of object?s
criticism, from an external, neutral perspective to an internal one, i.e. the way which the said
object appears „to me? not dictated from some strict, unchanging rules. Carolyn Williams
underlines that ” without distance between observer and object, there can be no perceivable
definition, no „outline? nor can there be a sense of a „sharp? and „importunate? external reality
„outside? ready to call us out of ourselves (20).
The subjective view of perceiving things, therefore, must be accompanied by scattered
emotions, personal impressions of the viewer, all based on one?s own life experiences, True
Beauty may be understood only from several, different angles, in other words, if until now
Beauty has been associated in a rational manner “To see the object as in itself really is”
(Matthew Arnold, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time).
The Paterian Aestheticism is a mixture of dark and decay, reversing the typology of the classical
artist-hero of the Italian Renaissance, so much appreciated by the Victorians, whose qualities
were considered as an example to imitate(e.g. the promotion of Classicism, the “genius”
associated with the craftsman, the artist who creates a masterpiece).
Figures such as the vampire, monsters, demons, ghosts, clairvoyants embody a more grotesque
or gothic view of what is beautiful, it may seem a clear antithesis but they actually show the
cultural marks of the past, whose influence still persist in the present. The oblique-irony, the
wordplays, the riddles which characterizes The Renaissance, is also mixed with a hidden
homosexual connotation. It is underlined , implicitly speaking, the beauty of the young men,
mostly from the Ancient Greek sculptures, or from some Renaissance paintings. The scandal
that has immediately followed, the several accusations on Pater?s book, considered as radical,
atheistic, hedonistic, a danger to the “purity” of the contemporary Victorian values.
Particularly at the university of Oxford, where many young male students(among them Oscar
Wilde) attended Walter Pater?s lectures, and where magically impressed by his radical doctrine
of pursuing the aesthetic pleasure, the passion of the beautiful. A.C. Benson, points out his own
experience at university time : “Young men with vehement impulses, with no experience of the
world, no idea of the solid and impenetrable weight of social traditions and prejudices, found in
the principles enunciated by Pater with so much recondite beauty, so much magical charm, a new
equation of values”(qtd. in Teukolsky, 8).
There were indeed , during that time, many circumstances in which there was une forte amitié
between the professor and the student, a sense of homosociality ( i.e. same-sex relationship but
not possessing obligatorily a romantic or sexual connotation, but rather of friendship). Apart
from the negative comments, The Renaissance was to be one of the main inspiration for many
aesthetes, such as for instance Wilde who praised the book, bringing Pater?s ideas in Britain and
also in the new continent. A new generation of young writers and artists immediately recognized
themselves in Walter Pater?s words, in the creation of a new lifestyle with artifices and the
rejection of the so-called respectability and decency. The influence immediately following , was
so immense at the extent that also women, who were in that time isolated from the many
intellectual élite circles, found , little by little, a new way to break the classical rules, of the self-
centered male, not to radically reverse the roles, of course, it is unconceivable but at least to
uproot gender discrimination.
2.1 THE “ART FOR ART’S SAKE”
The widely known expression “Art for Art?s Sake”, which has been considered as a motto for
the British Aesthetic Movement of the mid- 19th century and usually associated with Oscar
Wilde and the Preface of his only and successful novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray(1891),
traces back his origins much earlier : firstly, it is an English translation of the French slogan
“L?art pour l?art” made popular by Victor Cousin, a French philosopher who, after a trip in
Germany, taught new aesthetic principles which praised the separation between Art and
Morality, or of Art and the Truth. He pointed out in his lectures that “Il faut de la religion pour la
religion, de la morale pour la morale, comme de l?art pour l?art”( Cousin 224) .
This is a clear Kantian influence, particularly of the Critique of Judgment, underlining that “Free
beauty has the quality of „purposiveness without purpose?; a beautiful object has formal
purposiveness ,but no ulterior purpose.”(H.Bell-Villada 423). It may be said that is actually the
German philosopher who, in a certain sense, prepared the Aesthetic land for the French poets of
the Symbolisme such as Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé.
They, like Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, denounced in their collection of poems(Les Fleurs du
Mal 1857, Poésies 1899) the effects caused by the Industrialization and the littérature de masse
connected to it, the one willing ” to satisfy the reading demands of the triumphant middle
classes”(H.Bell- Villada 431) such as short-stories or novels who, during the 19th century, were
published in the last pages of periodicals, in order to attract more and more people and as
secondary purpose , to gain money.
Nevertheless, “The Art for Art?s Sake” should be understood as the consequence of mass-
production and as a response to the disdain and ignorance of middle class society who are
incapable to fully comprehend what is Art, and the fact that an object is beautiful „in its own
sake?. Another French poet and writer, Théophile Gauthier, the father of the Parniassianisme (a
literary movement which appeared in France, prior to Symbolisme) defends the autonomy of art
in the Preface of the novel Mademoiselle de Maupin(1834), seen as the manifesto of the French
“L?art pour l?art”(Stableford 50).
A common goal of the poets and writers who adhere to the Art for Art?s Sake, was the
rehabilitation of the role of the artist, isolated and mocked by common people, the one praising
the artificial over natural things, attacking in a subtle and veiled way moral and educational
values of contemporary society, with careful choice regarding the structure of the text to attain
stylistic perfection (C.F.Bonini et al, 138). For example, Gustave Flaubert pays similar attention,
from a formal point of view in editing his famous novel Madame Bovary(1857).
2.2 THE FIGURE OF THE “DANDY”
The figure of the “Dandy” has always been associated with the name of Oscar Wilde and his
only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray(1891) with the characters of Dorian Gray and Lord
Henry, whose way of dressing and the manner in which, particularly the latter, talks, is to be
found in aesthetes, as an opposition to the surrounding world. The term ” dandy” has an unclear
origin, and it had been already used, before the publication of Dorian Gray, at the beginning of
the 19th century in England, to refer to the interesting lifestyle of George Bryan Burnell, alias
“the Beau” (the handsome) who(although was not of noble origin) managed to have success in
society, by construing himself an image, an icon , in other words, “he shaped his life in such a
way as to become one of the most influential figures of his time”( Fong Yan 17).
He was, indeed, considered as the father of Dandyism, with the care of détails, originality,
sobriety. These are some of the key-words with which a Dandy may be defined, he is also
extremely individualistic, with an exaggerated cult of the self-image, with a tendency to
narcissism, anti-conformist, ambitious(i.e. he may be not necessarily of noble origins, although
he pretends to be one in the eyes of the society), refined, with elegant and expensive clothes and
furniture, intelligent, lonely, mysterious(Hoffmeister 231). Although some of these adjectives
may be found also in the archetype of the Byronic Hero, with the Dandy ,there is not a
donjuanesque approach to women, no power of seduction or sexual desire, instead he prefers to
keep his emotions in check, “to mask his own thoughts and feelings”(Hoffmeister 234). Charles
Baudelaire, in his essay Le Dandy, from the collection Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne(1863),
states ” un dandy ne peut être jamais un homme vulgaire” (5), as vulgarity is synonymous with
the capitalistic and industrialist middle-class society.
The dandy is seen as an isolated figure, in his attempt to be unique , to impress and shock, the
others, “c'est le plaisir d'étonner et la satisfaction orgueilleuse de ne jamais être
étonné”(Baudelaire 6). The capacity of being foreign to everything that would cause the
destruction of his persona, is also attached to his struggle to survive, but unlike the bohème (who
is a rebel, defending strongly his ideals) the Dandy does not seem to be extremely active in
political life, but he would prefer without a doubt, to pursue the idea of Beauty, even though it
would make him an outsider.
Deborah Houk in Self Construction and Sexual Identity in Nineteenth-Century French Dandyism
points out that “Dandyism, then, would represent an alternative system of beliefs for those nobles
and artists, who, having lost their position as the élite of the community, wished to mark their
rejection of society?s bourgeois values”(65).
3. OSCAR WILDE’S ESSAYS ABOUT BEAUTY
Oscar Wilde(1854-1900) is well-known for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, his
successful plays such as Lady Windermere’s Fan(1892), A Woman of No Importance(1893), The
Importance of Being Earnest(1895), An Ideal Husband (1895), Salomé(1893, originally written
in French), short stories The Happy Prince and Other Tales(1888), Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime
and Other Stories(1891). A poem, The Ballad of Reading Goal(1898) was composed following
Wilde?s imprisonment, as well as De Profundis(1897) a letter addressed to his lover,
“Bosie”(Lord Alfred Douglas). The essays, the most important being “The Decay of Lying” and
“The Critic as Artist”, collected in Intentions(1891) need particular attention for the new
promoting ideas about Art and its opposition to Nature.
3.1 “THE DECAY OF LYING”
“The Decay of Lying” is an essay which has the form of a Socratic dialogue between two
characters : Cyril and Vivian, and the scene takes place inside the library of a country house in
Nottinghamshire. The choice of not using the first person pronoun “I”, to denote not only
subjectivity but also a reliable voice is to be seen as an antithetic position to Victorian standards
of writing a critical essay.
Vivian (who is considered as Wilde?s alter-ego) is writing , ironically speaking, an essay whose
title is “The Decay of Lying: A Protest”, his friend Cyril invites him to go outside, enjoying the
afternoon and, Nature. Vivian expresses his view , by saying that ” My own experience is that
the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature” (Wilde 2), meaning that Nature is seen as the
main obstacle, with its “crude imperfections and unfinished condition, its failure to fulfill its
good intentions”(Danson 42).
This conflict is underlined in Vivian?s comments about Realist novels(namely the works of
Emile Zola, L’Assomoir, Germinal, Nana) regarded as wrong, with extremely accurate
descriptions of reality. He adds that “In literature we require distinction, charm, beauty and
imaginative power”(Wilde 4), denoting that the material for fictional stories are to be found in
Art, which is the object of imitation for Life and Nature itself. The paradox arises because it
represents, as Herbert Sussman pointed out “Wilde?s own complex attitude towards the
solipsistic view of history”(121).
Vivian has the attitude of the aesthete, praising the artificial, the beautiful, the falsehood
through his witty remarks ” Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She
is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a
mirror”(Wilde 9). The uses of masks, or personae, are necessary to define the complexity of the
mind who anticipating in a certain way the Modernism , is characterized by , using Virginia
Woolf?s words ” a myriad of impressions”, therefore, the focus is not anymore on the outside but
on the inside. For instance the library is a clear example of solipsism, of everything existing
within our own mind, an expression of the self(Sussman 115). The only figure capable of
renewing society is the liar , whose “beautiful untrue things he tells- are the things that have not
entered our repertoire of repetitive, imitative gestures”(Danson 45).
According to Vivian himself ” The only form of Lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is
Lying for its own sake, and the highest development of this is, as we have already pointed out,
Lying in Art”(Wilde 15). This is the réponse to the respectability and hypocrisy of Victorians,
along with its supporting Realist fiction, to the vulgar and distorted perceptions of Life and
Towards the end of the essay, Vivian exposes the new aesthetic principles , advocating the
autonomy of Art ” Art never expresses anything but itself” , the attack on Realism “All bad art
comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals”(15), the paradox “Life
imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”, the role of the artist “Lying, the telling of beautiful
untrue things, is the proper aim of Art”(17).
3.2 ” THE CRITIC AS ARTIST”
” The Critic As Artist” is another essay, equally important as “The Decay of Lying” , whose
original title was “The True Function and Value of Criticism”, it is perhaps the longest and the
one expressing in depth the struggle of Aestheticism, its opposition to contemporary society, the
role of the critic in this milieu, and which is the most valuable Art, between Poetry and Painting.
As in the other essay, the preferred stylistic form chosen is the dialogue , between two male
characters: Ernest and Gilbert, the whole scene taking place inside the library of a house in
Piccadilly, with a view of the Green Park. “The Critic As Artist” is divided in two parts: “The
Critic As Artist : With Some Remarks Upon The Importance of Doing Nothing” and “The Critic
As Artist: With Some Remarks Upon The Importance of Discussing Everything”.
In the first, Ernest questions Gilbert about the use of art-criticism, saying that “Why cannot the
artist be left alone, to create a new world if he wishes it? Why should the artist be troubled by the
shrill clamor of criticism?” (Wilde 3) to whom Gilbert through references to Shakespeare,
Browning, Meredith about the use of rhymical structure, later alludes to the Ancient Greek
culture, praising it because according to him, “in the best days of art there were no art-critics”(6)
during those times the artist was freer to create beautiful things, he was not subject to opinions
and attacks, unlike the Victorian period in England.
Herbert Sussman argues that this essay ” appears to follow the form of Victorian Hellenism, the
use of ancient Greece as the norm against which to judge the vulgar present”(120). In his
allusions to Plato, Aristotle and Goethe, Gilbert recognizes that are the Greeks who put the
basis for art criticism ” how fine their critical instinct was, may be see from the fact that the
material they criticized with most care was, as I have already said, language”(Wilde 11).
Criticism is considered an “art”, ” creative and independent” (Wilde 18). Creative for the fact
that represents “the purest form of personal impression” as well as “the record of one?s soul”
(19), its deep subjectivity is the main reason for which a particular technique or style is
impossible to be taught or imitated , when applied to Aesthetics. Independent in the sense that it
cannot be determined on the mere grounds of imitation or resemblance.
The critic, should, thus, be able to fill in what the artist has left empty, to “criticize through the
work of art, Beauty in itself”(Danson 132). In the comparison between Poetry and Painting,
Gilbert believes that the first is superior as “Music is the perfect type of art”(Wilde 22), because
it is the key for inspiration, imagination, and it can speak the unspeakable, the latter is considered
as having in itself limits, “it is only through the mask of the body that he can show us the
mystery of the soul”(Wilde 23).
In the second part, in the discussion between the two characters, the role of the critic is retaken
into consideration, this time as an interpreter whose main aim is similar to that of the Romantic
or Decadent poet: to decipher the hidden artistic code and to transform it in such a way as it to be
more comprehensible to common people. Gilbert, as if promoting the Aesthetic Movement, says
the following “It is through Art, and through Art only, that we can realize our perfection; through
Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of existence”
Danson explains that it is fundamental the separation of Art from Ethics, as the former is amoral,
therefore, the perfect idea of Beauty may be attained only in this way, otherwise Chaos would
prevail(144). The real critic should have, according to Gilbert, some characteristics such as
temperament (which is to be found only through Form), self-consciousness, tranquility,
disinteredness, contemplative to Life (35) , alien to any kind of external judgment about works
of art, unfair, insincere, irrational, similar to the “liar” of the “Decay of Lying”. In a society
which is characterized by contradictions, the only tentative to cleanse the impurities, the
hypocrisy and the falsities is through “the cultivation of the habit of intellectual criticism that we
shall be able to rise superior to race-prejudices”(Wilde 47).
In short, this chapter focuses specifically on Aestheticism from a historical, philosophical,
critical point of view, first delineating the concepts associated with the idea of the beautiful and
the different perspectives of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche, in
a chronological order. Then, in order to define better the Cult of Beauty in relation to social and
economical changes of the mid-19th century, the focus passed on the role of the “Dandy”, then to
the “Art for Art?s Sake” with the promoters of the movement: John Ruskin, Walter Pater and
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY: A MANIFESTO OF BRITISH
AESTHETIC AND DECADENT LITERATURE
In the first chapter, the approach to Aestheticism has been from a philosophical and critical
perspective, first by associating the idea of the beautiful with concepts such as : mimesis, kalon,
techné, catharsis, sublime, morality. Then, the focus has passed on explaining the principle of
disinterestedness linked to the contemplation of Art in its own sake, emphasized by John Ruskin
and the so-called “aesthetic pleasure” illustrated by Walter Pater, which brought a significant
impact on The Picture of Dorian Gray(1891). In addition to that, it has also been important to
focus on the figure of the dandy, as well as tracing the origins of the “Art for Art?s Sake” in
order to apply them to Wilde?s novel.
1. THE PREFACE
THE ARTIST IS the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.
This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated.
For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly
written. That is all.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the
type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor?s
craft is the type.
All art is quite useless. ( Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Preface 3 ).
Initially, The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in 1890 in the Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine,
the inspiration being a meeting between Wilde and a painter, whose name was Basil Ward.
Acknowledging the presence of a man , extremely handsome and young, Wilde, who was greatly
impressed by his beauty, decided afterwards to write a story. However, the reviews were not
favorable mainly because the story conveyed immoral messages, instead of teaching something,
as it was the custom among the Victorian literary production.
The amount of criticisms didn?t stop Wilde to complete the story with new chapters and a
Preface which is considered as a “challenging manifesto of the Art for Art?s sake movement”
(John M. Drew 12), the answer to the many complaints arising from reading the novel.
Therefore, in the following year, the epigrams had a great influence by their reflection on the
value of the beautiful, on the recuperation of the role of the artist, to the doubtful audience, for
their emphasis on the superiority of Beauty over nature, artificial things considered as being
worthy while real things as trivial and wrong. Oscar Wilde further explains that Art being perfect
in its own sake does not need any judgment, nor is there any necessity of sending a didactic
message to people. The artist may be inspired from the behavior of people, good or bad as they
may be, but he should not be influenced by them.
The true artist does not make any distinction of the right- wrong, of the good-bad; he is one of
the few who may truly see Art as it is, without falling into false and vulgar perceptions and the
one who is able to create with his own hands wonderful works of art( paintings, novels, poems,
melodies). The principle of “impersonality” consists of the fact that in a piece of art the artist
didn?t express himself, his mark is irrelevant, the message is inexistent, the form is praised far
more than the content itself (Maglioni 172).
The Preface has been analyzed separately from the novel, for its interesting ideas, which were
promoted not only by the British Aesthetic Movement, but also by the French Symbolists( like
Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Joris-Karl Huysmans) who just like Oscar Wilde,
rebelled themselves from the conventions of the bourgeoisie, responsible for the corruption and
disruption of society, and as the Preface clearly makes explicit, they are “those who find ugly
meanings in beautiful things”(3).
The other aim that the Preface is hinting at, is to anticipate for the reader that The Picture of
Dorian Gray has to be interpreted as a creative and original way to express Art through the use
of language, the instrument through which, in writing, experiments appear as the proof of the
Artist?s Genius, shocking and delighting those who had been persuaded by Aestheticism, taking
it as a main example once with the abandon of the utilitarian philosophy, of the Puritan
conceptions favoring restraint and atonement.
2. DORIAN GRAY’S FATAL DESIRE AND LOST INNOCENCE
In the novel, constitued by approximately 20 chapters, there are three characters playing a key
role in the development of the events: Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward.
They all embody symbolically Wilde?s personality, in fact, he explains the choice of giving to
each character a specific feature : “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the
world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be- in other ages, perhaps”(Letters 585).
Just like the essays “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist”, the discussions between
the characters take the form of a Platonian dialogue, a contrast of antithetic personalities. Basil
represents the artist, who, in the creation of the piece of art, is inspired by the perfect idea of
Beauty, i.e. Dorian Gray (the name itself reminds of the Doric architecture, plain and massive
at the same time). Lord Henry Wotton is the aesthete whose comments mirrors perfectly
Wilde?s. The picture is the result of the cult the painter has for the young man?s good-looks, as
if Dorian were some kind of god, the proof being Lord Henry?s remark to Basil?s refusal of
making the portrait public, in the first chapter :
Too much of yourself in it! Upon my word, Basil, I didn?t know you were so vain; and I
really can?t see any resemblance between you, with your rugged strong face and your coal-
black hair, and this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-
leaves. Why, my dear basil, he is a Narcissus, and you- well, of course you have an
intellectual expression, and all that. But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual
expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of
any face(The Picture 3).
John M.L. Drew in Introduction to the Picture of Dorian Gray, suggests that the echoes of
Greek mythological figures, such as Narcissus who ” has drowned after falling in love with his
own image”(19), find their reflection in Dorian Gray himself whose image will the main cause of
his sins and vices. Lord Henry distinguishes himself from the very beginning with his witty and
perhaps contradictory epigrams about Art, Life and contemporary society. The scene takes place
first in a closed environment, namely Basil Hallward?s own studio, whose description is rich of
details and elements of design, the names being carefully chosen by the author, with the aid of
From the corner of the divan of Persian saddlebags on which he was lying, smoking, as was
his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the
honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches
seemed hardly able to to bear the burden of a beauty so flame-like as theirs; an now and
then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across long tussore-silk curtains that
were stretched in front of the huge windows, producing a kind of Japanese effect(The
Basil Hallward confesses to his friend the circumstances through which he met the young lad,
the consequences being an assessment of Dorian Gray, by his beauty who bewitches the painter
in such a way that he feels literally absorbed by him. This idolization, according to Donald
Lawler, has been interpreted as an indirect/intimate relationship between two characters of the
same sex, but not necessarily of sexual nature, as most contemporaries of Wilde have thought
and believed, but rather following the Plato?s “ideal type of love”, of the confidentiality
between the mentor and the disciple(180).
If Dorian Gray, with his portrait, influences Basil Hallward, the young gentleman himself
becomes gradually the victim of another?s domination: Lord Henry, who meeting the lad for
the first time, starts through compliments, which flatters Dorian, as well as a series of aphorisms
of great impact in order to leave his mark on Dorian?s heart and soul. The name is not a
coincidence: Lord Henry?s name suggests as well a certain symbolism, both Dorian and Basil
call him “Harry” alluding indirectly to the “Old Harry” (i.e. the devil, the temptator, the
seducer) who tries gradually to lead the young man into a path of no return.
The few words that Basil?s friend had said to him- words spoken by chance, no doubt, and
with wilful paradox in them- had touched some secret chord that had never been touched
before , but that he felt was now vibrating and throbbing to curious pulses(The Picture 19).
After listening to Lord Henry?s words, Dorian Gray watching the portrait painted by Basil,
realizes the inevitable consequences of the physical decay, the natural process of the cycle of
life through which all living beings undergo. His looks will abandon him, transforming himself
into an old, wrinkled man, while the picture remains unchanged to the effects of time. It is a
situation which he refuses to accept, and he starts thinking for a way to have his beauty
If it were the only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture
that was to grow old! For that- for that- I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the
whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that! (The Picture 24).
Dorian Gray?s desire is to be considered fatal : according to Joseph Pearce, when the lad throws
himself in the divan, burying his hands as if he were praying is the moment when his wish is
accepted, making a pact with an absent devil, an evident parallelism of Christopher Marlowe?s
The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus(1592). The difference between
the two characters is on the object of the desire: while Faust decides to give his soul for
illimitate knowledge, Dorian exchanges his soul for eternal Beauty.
Oscar Wilde, when he replied to the editor of the Daily Chronicle, clarified his choice on
picking up the role of the temptator in his novel:
When I first conceived the idea of a young man selling his soul in exchange for eternal
youth- an idea that is old in the history of literature, but to which I have given new form- I
felt that, from an aesthetic point of view, it would be difficult to keep the moral in its proper
In a community which gives importance to success through hard-work and money, as an attack
on mediocrity and hypocrisy, Lord Henry( like Oscar Wilde himself) intends to promote a new
era in which the senses should be the only means of pursuing a better life.In the novel he says
“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul”(The
Picture 20). The Hedonistic approach is not new at all: Walter Pater, in the The Renaissance
Studies in Art and Poetry(1873) already encouraged to seek pleasure in beautiful things,
rejecting any kind of purposiveness. Lord Henry insists on this perspective, suggesting
indirectly to Dorian to do the same thing in every-day life stating that “The only way to get rid
of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it
has forbidden to itself”(The Picture 18).
Basil Hallward, aware of the fact that Lord Henry?s assertions are of a negative influence warns
the latter not to interfere in the relationship between him and Dorian Gray, for fear that the
nature of the lad would succumb to his whims. Unfortunately the artist does not realize that the
meeting with Lord Henry would have permanent repercussions on the handsome gentleman , as
his innocence and purity are lost forever.
Why had it been left for a stranger to reveal him to himself? He had known Basil Hallward
for months, but the friendship between them had never altered him. Suddenly there had come
someone across his life who seemed to have disclosed to him life?s mystery( The Picture 20).
3.THE PORTRAIT AS DORIAN’S TRUE SELF
Following Lord Henry?s paradoxical and aesthetical views on Life and Nature, Dorian Gray
slowly embraces a new path, accentuating his dandyish attitude even more, full of elegance. In
the beginning, Dorian?s origins are unknown, although there are hints which testifies that he
comes from an élite, from his clothing and for his mannerisms. Louis Markos, for example,
points out that there are echoes of the Byronic Hero in Dorian Gray himself, for his strong sense
of individualism, his will to mark extravagance and originality with the careful choice of
expensive furniture and buying unnecessary things, as a defense against the mediocrity
Lord Henry gradually shapes the soul of the young gentleman, inviting him to go to the theatre,
associating with other aristocrats and using epigrams which may annoy those who do not fully
understand Aestheticism, or persuade other people to accept in seeing things from a different
angle, as it happens with Dorian himself. “Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they
are tired; women because they are curious:both are disappointed”(The Picture 40).
As Richard Ellman suggests, “Lord Henry?s views are a subtle amalgam of subversive
contradictions of confortable bourgeois morality, just as his listeners frequently doubt his
sincerity and seriousness, the readers may wonder if he truly puts into practice or not the
precepts which he is so adept at teaching to others” (202). The bond between Dorian Gray and
Lord Henry Wotton is stronger, as time passes, particularly when they start to hang out together,
in theatres, salons, the first feeling confortable in the other?s presence, which is considered
dangerous and provoking the jealousy of their common friend, Basil Hallward. Beauty is seen as
the ultimate value worth living for, immortal and unchangeable, authentic feelings are inferior, as
an obstacle to obtain perfection, i.e. Art.
Lord Henry watched him with a subtle sense of pleasure. How different he was now from
the shy, frightened boy he had met in Basil Hallward?s studio! His nature had developed like
a flower, had borne blossoms of scarlet flame. Out of its secret hiding-place had crept his
Soul, and Desire had come to meet it on the way(The Picture 46).
In the search of new experiences, Dorian finds himself in a little theatre in a rough area of
London, despite all the distrustful glances towards him, he decides to enter and see
performances of Shakespearian works such as Cymbeline, As You Like it , Romeo and Juliet.
Suddenly he finds himself enchanted by the manner through which the actress, whose name is
Sibyl Vane, interprets on the stage the fictional feminine characters, her talent does not go
unnoticed, leading to a mutual attaction between the two . Excited, Dorian Gray confesses to
his friend and mentor not only that he is in love with the girl, but also his intention of marrying
her. Upon Dorian?s suggestion, Lord Henry and Basil Hallward are invited to witness Sibyl?s
portrayal of Juliet, which is perceived as unnatural and horrible, testified by the shouting and
subsequent exit of the audience, as their expectation immediately collapsed.
You have killed my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don?t even stir my
curiosity. You simply produce no effects. I loved you because you were marvellous,
because you had genius and intellect, because you realised the dreams of great poets and
gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. You have thrown it all away. You are
shallow and stupid My God! How mad I was to love you! What a fool I have been! You are
nothing to me now. I will never see you again.(The Picture 71).
Dorian?s anger and disillusion towards Sybil are the proof that “he is not attracted to Sibyl?s
character of personality, but rather her acting talent and enthralling performances” (Duggan 64).
Artifice and falsity go together in the representation of the beautiful in Art, the “love” which
Dorian felt for the actress, an addition to his research of aesthetic pleasures, in contrast with the
authentic feelings of the girl who never knows Dorian by his name, calling him instead “Prince
Charming” for his extraordinary beauty as well as a reference to the character appearing in the
tales for children.
An interesting research has been carried by Kerry Powell in A Verdict of Death: Oscar Wilde ,
Actresses and Victorian Women, whose focus on the figure of the young actress is essential in
tracing a significant comparison with Dorian Gray, mostly for their common attempt to assume
the identity of fictional inexistent characters, as masking their true personalities, irrelevant to
artistic conventions. The irony that arises after the separation of the two characters is that the
fictitious tragedy represented on stage, finds a unexpected correlation in Sybil?s fate, whose
suicide initially leaves Dorian shocked, as he was determined to ask for forgiveness due to his
realization of being coldhearted(23). But, then, Lord Henry manages to convince Dorian that he
has nothing to do with what happened, because in his opinion , is a wasting of time crying over
somebody who never existed, aesthetically speaking.
In the dim arrested light that struggled through the cream-coloured silk blinds, the face
appeared to him to be a little changed. The expression looked different. One would have said
that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth. It was certainly strange.(The Picture 73).
With the first manifestation of cruelty, as direct consequence of Dorian Gray?s fault, the
portrait starts to alter its handsome features, absorbing not only the human ageing process but
also the corruption, the sins and vices of a soul permanently lost for the idea of the beautiful.
After realization crosses his face, Dorian deeply reflects upon the mad desire expressed in his
friends? presence at the studio, considering whether is possible that he is already being
manipulated and indirectly forced into committing irreversible actions.
If the picture was to alter, it was to alter. That was all. Why enquire too closely into it? For
there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its
secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to
him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul( The Picture 86).
The preoccupations of the young man are replaced by a lack of concern on the picture?s change,
deciding first to hide it putting a screen, and then, aware of Basil?s future request of examing his
own artistic masterpiece, to move the potrait in a place which nobody, except him, should be
allowed to enter, for fear to reveal the reflection of his own degradation, the ugliness of his inner
self. Silvia Maglioni underlines that “his growing fascination with the evil is a mean of
spiritualizing the senses”(172).
The split between appearance and reality concerning Dorian?s persona, has been regarded as
linked to his last name, Gray, being the colour resulting from the white and black, symbolizing
purity and corruption, Ron Backer, in Classic Horror Films and the Literature that Inspired
Them finds a similar issue in Stevenson?s troubled protagonist Doctor Jekyll who is Mr Hyde at
the same time, the only element in common would be “the co-existence of both good and evil in
the same person”(223). However, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, this double personality is
reflected in the contrast between a piece of art, the portrait and the man, who defies the natural
laws of the cycle of life.
4.BEAUTY : THE KEY OF DORIAN GRAY’S DOWNFALL
Dorian Gray begins a life dedicated to his own image and to the physical characteristic he is so
proud of: his looks, which, as time passes, remain immaculate and unchanged, as if he had found
a way to kill time and decay. The painter, Basil Hallward, asks his friend to see the picture, but,
for fear of noticing its gradual transformation, Dorian threatens him to put an end to their
friendship. It may appear as an illogical reason, but in its depth it justifies the choice of carrying
the portrait upstairs, in the old library in which Dorian spent his childhood. The hidden chamber
has a symbolism in itself, using Joseph Rushton Wakeling?s words, mirrors ” the hypocrisy and
snobbery of Victorian society”(8). The barrier established between the outside and the inside is a
recurrent element in the novels belonging to the Victorian Age(such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering
Heights), to denote the respectability of the middle-class as well as the falsity of their optimism,
in the contribution of changing the society in better.
He shuddered, and for a moment he regretted that he had not told Basil the true reason why
he had wished to hide the picture away. Basil would have helped him to resist Lord Henry?s
influence, and the still more poisonous influence that came from his own temperament(The
There are moments in which Dorian is truly aware of the consequences of his acts, for instance,
when he writes a love-letter to Sibyl Vane before the announcement of her death, his seek of
repentance is weak if compared to the corruption invading his soul. Nevertheless, he continues to
fall into the trap by contradicting himself, paying more and more attention to the artificial,
letting the vices and the senses to make decisions for him.
In the meanwhile, Lord Henry, who plays his role of the evil temptator, gives Dorian a
particular book of yellow color. In reading the story , the young man is fascinated by the
adventures of the French protagonist, whose aesthetic attitude is strangely similar to his own, in
his attempt to rebel to the convention of society, by isolating himself with beautiful things. It
had been speculated that the yellow book is a direct reference and intertextuality to a novel
contemporary to Wilde?s, À Rebours, written by Joris-Karl Huysmans in 1884. In fact, John
M. L. Drew pointed out that Wilde himself confessed, in 1895, during the trial, about the
origins of the mysterious book, which later on was confirmed to be Huysmans? novel to have
given him the inspiration of a source of corruption, beside Lord Henry Wotton.
He was amazed at the sudden impression that his words had produced, and, remembering a
book that he had read when he was sixteen, a book which had revealed to him much that he
had not known before, he wondered whether Dorian Gray was passing through a similar
experience(The Picture 19).
The climax of the entire novel is when Dorian Gray reaches his maximum level of viciousness,
by being himself a bad influence for other young gentlemen, whose effects are not ignored by
the surrounding community. After many years, he appears still, physically speaking, the same
young and gorgeous person which attracted Basil, whose suspicions about the reason for which
the portrait is in another room increase, and finally Dorian agrees to show him what happened
with his own masterpiece. The two reach the room, and unveiling the portrait, Basil hardly
recognizes it, its deformation and ugliness staring at him maniacally, the mark on the canvas is
the evidence that it is his own work.
There was the madness of pride in every word he uttered. He stamped his foot upon the
ground in his boyish insolent manner . He felt a terrible joy at the thought that someone
else was to share his secret, and that the man who had painted the portrait that was the origin
of all his shame was to be burdened for the rest of his life with the hideous memory of what
he had done(The Picture 121).
In vain Basil?s attempts to persuade the lad to come back to the right path, Dorian perceives
betrayal in the artist?s eyes, and as if someone controlled his mind, a feeling of hatred and
madness suddenly take over him, grabbing a knife, he murders the painter without mercy. Basil?s
death has been interpreted as ” the cause of his excessive cult of Beauty, he committed hybris,
the excess which inevitably brings out a punishment”(Pearce 168).
In order to get rid of the body, Dorian Gray manages cunningly to have the help of a chemist,
Alan Campbell, a former friend of his who did not fall under the domination of sin and
immorality, by avoiding seeing the gentleman, a thing that Dorian had not courage nor power
enough to do, in his meetings with Lord Henry. Thinking that similar actions can be easily
obliviated, is a mistake, due to the fact that the portrait constantly reminds Dorian of his guilty
conscience, which keeps piercing him on the inside.
The deaths by suicide of many young aristocrats, as well as Alan Campbell?s, are a further
addition to Gray?s blacklist, and as every single sin is put into action , the potrait absorbs such
impurities. In The Exquisite Life of Oscar Wilde, Stephen Calloway explains that “Dorian goes
around London ruining lives and reputations, he engages in nameless vices and loathsome
practices, and while his portrait reflects the increasingly foul corruption of his soul, his own
appearance remains unaffected”(60).
Dorian?s behavior does not remain eternally unpunished because when he decides to leave
temporarily London, in the hope to suppress his memories with opium, a practice which is used
to distort images, especially of traumatic events.
Arriving to destination, in a squallid building populated by depraved people, and among them
there are two familiar faces: a former friend, Adrian Singleton, one of Dorian?s many disciples
and a sailor who proves to be Sibyl?s brother, whose only aim is to get revenge on the girl?s
death. Acting smartly, Dorian manages to save his life in asking James Vane when his sister
died, and obliging the man to place him under the lamp, to see him clearly in the light.
He seemed little more than a lad of twenty summers , hardly older , if older indeed at all,
than his sister had been when they had parted so many years ago. It was obvious that this was
not the man who had destroyed her life(The Picture 151).
However, one of the women working in the bar recognizes Dorian Gray, the rumours circulating
about his capacity of maintaining the same external image spread across members of every
social class. Luck being apparently on his side, Dorian quickly disappears, and on one of the
several meetings with Lord Henry , the subject of Basil?s absence emerges, and the now
corrupted man asks his mentor his reaction on discovering that he is behind Basil?s
assassination, the latter replies in his usual epigrammatic and paradoxical manner that “all crime
is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime”(The Picture 168).
In the end, Dorian realizes that it is too late to fix his life, despite the only good action he has
ever done being leaving Hattie, the peasant girl, unaffected by his evilness, nostalgic of the
days in which he was pure and simple. Willing to free himself from his conscience, he stabs the
portrait, which indirectly causes his death and thus the restoration of the laws of time and
nature, as well as the original appearance of the portrait.
in what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that the portrait should bear
the burden of his days; all his failure had been due to that. Better for him that each sin of his
life had brought its sure, swift penalty along with it (The Picture 174).
5.LIFE AS THE GREATEST OF THE ARTS
The eleventh chapter of the novel from which derives the title of this sub-chapter, is of
significant importance being the only one in which dialogue is not present, for its use of the free
indirect speech and the appearance of the intrusive narrator which betrays his apparent
omniscience , engaging himself in a open conversation with the reader(s), by introducing the first
person pronoun “I” and respectively the possessive determiner “our”. “Is insincerity such a
terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.
Such, at any rate, was Dorian Gray?s opinion”(The Picture 113).
The Picture of Dorian Gray may be seen as an innovative novel, interpretable also in a
Modernist perspective for the fact that Wilde?s writing is characterized by the use of paradox and
Robert Browning?s masks, as literary devices through which are reported the inner thoughts of
the characters. A key-trait of the story is “the self” which according to Nicoleta Stanca “is
constructed through language, constrained by conventions and irrational or grounded in the
Silvia Maglioni has interpreted Wilde?s prose fiction as ” an extended meditation on the final
words of John Keats?s Ode on a Grecian Urn, i.e. Beauty is truth, truth is beauty that is all we
know on earth and all we need to know “(47). Eternal Beauty is not easily achieved, there is
always a price to pay for it, like the urns of the cementeries, with the cristallization of emotions
and the total lack of vitality for the sake of immortality and perfection of art as the ultimate
value. The historical contextualization of the novel is important because through it, Oscar Wilde
expresses his point of view by denouncing the hypocrisy and respectability of the Victorian
society, emphasizing the relationship between the artist and the community of the 19th century,
praising the cult of beauty, of a life aimed at sensual pleasures and which is beyond common
Supporting Wilde?s view, Stephen Calloway explains that “The dandy-aesthetes of the fin-de-
siècle period above all honed their senses and cultivated the rarest of sensibilities; they made the
perfection of the pose of exquisitiness their greatest aim and they directed all their languid
energies towards nurturing a cult of aesthetic response that begins beyond ordinary notions of
taste”(34).The novel has received negative acclaims from the majority of the readers, particularly
from those with a Puritan mind, who heavily condemned it for promoting immorality, vice and
finding also hinted homosexual references, of not giving a lesson, but Wilde defends himself in
stating that The Picture of Dorian Gray in a self-contradictory way, does possess a morality
namely you reap what you sow. Walter Pater instead has a different opinion “Clever always,
this book, however, seems to set forth anything but a homely philosophy of life for the middle-
Dorian Gray, the anti-hero, in pursuing an aesthetic lifestyle, is considered the victim of the
society, Duggan suggests that his main and fatal flaws are “a lack of remorse, self- absorption,
and intellectual regression”(67). Interesting is the fact that Lord Henry does not succumb to the
hybris, to the pride and challenge against nature, because he only observes the chain of events,
without putting into practice his own statements.
To conclude, the impact of Art in life as a way of distinction against the masses, may be a
dangerous measure, as exemplified by the figure of Dorian Gray himself in his sordid adventures
and sophisticated experiences , in order to avoid ordinariness as a try to save the world. As in the
case of the French Symbolist poets Charles Baudelaire or Arthur Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde is aware
of the impossibility of changing the mentality of common people, as an artist who researches
the beautiful, Basil Hallward at the end is defeated by the conventions of the bourgeoisie, which
À REBOURS : THE NOVEL INSPIRING DORIAN GRAY’S
In the second chapter, the focus has been on analyzing the figure of Dorian Gray, the
relationship between him and the portrait, as well as the meeting with the enigmatic and
influential Lord Henry Wotton who managed to leave his mark and shape the lad?s personality.
The price Dorian paid in order to achieve the desire of his heart, of maintaining his physical
beauty eternally unchanged. The criticism on the hypocrisy and values of the middle-class
society, who believed in progress and financial benefit is highlighted also in Joris-Karl
Huysmans? novel, À Rebours (in English Against Nature or Against the Grain) considered as the
main reference for Decadent Aestheticism in fiction.
1.FONTENAY CASTLE: THE REFUGE INTO MEDIOCRITY
The French novel À Rebours, published in 1884, has brought significant success among the
Symbolist poets, such as Paul Valéry who in Lettres à quelques-uns declared “Huysmans est
celui d’aujourd’hui dont mon âme s’accommode le mieux. J’en suis toujours à relire A rebours;
c’est ma bible et mon livre de chevet. Rien n’a été écrit de plus fort ces derniers vingt ans. C’est
un des rares ouvrages qui créent un style, un type, presque un art nouveau”(11). For its
transition from Realism to Symbolism, many young generations, poets, novelists disappointed
of the fact that nobody notices the evil in the contemporary society, quickly recognized
themselves in the protagonist of Huysmans? work , the duke Jean Des Esseintes.
In the “Notice”, which is not to be considered as separate from the sixteen chapters constituting
the entire novel, it is narrated the story of Des Esseintes, from his childhood to maturity, his
family, of noble origins, tragically disappeared: both his parents died during his adolescence,
without having close relationships with one of them. His troublesome situation is further
underlined by a physical description: ” le duc Jean, un grêle homme de trente ans, anémique et
nerveux, aux joues caves, aux yeux d?un bleu froid d?acier, au nez éventé et pourtant droit, aux
mains sèches et fluettes “(À Rebours 2).
Decadent elements are to be seen in the use of the adjectives “nerveux”, “sèches”, “caves”
which portrays Des Esseintes?s incapability of living for a long time among the commoners in
an industrialized city , i.e. in this case Paris. These physical effects are at the same time
considered hereditary due to the fact that he is the result of many incestuous marriages, in order
to keep alive the purity of their blood. A common element with Wilde?s character Dorian Gray
is not only the family background but also the perfect idea of Beauty conveyed in physical
attributes such as, blonde hair and blue eyes. Interesting is also the fact that both characters
inherited their physical appearance from their noble ancestors.
According to Huysmans himself, in the Preface, which was added nineteen years after the
publication of the novel, the idea of potraying such a non-conformist character came from
another novel of his own, A vau l’eau, published in 1882, in which the protagonist, Monsieur
Folantin, expresses the same disappointing perception about the world he lives in. The author
imagines to create an aesthetic and more refined version of the previous character, ” je le
profilais fuyant à tire-d?aile dans le rêve, se réfugiant dans l?illusion d?extravagantes féeries,
vivant, seul, loin de son siècle, dans le souvenir évoqué d?époques plus cordiales, de milieux
Jean Des Esseintes, the main and only relevant character of À Rebours, reflects on his current
life at Lourps Castle, in the capital, realizing that everything surrounding him is void of any
meaning, thus, leading his mind to navigate into the clouds of a parallel and better world, in
which the feeling of oppression, his sense of anxiety and of discomfort is totally suppressed.
The paradise he envisages is artificial, false, plastic if compared to nature and its realistic
representations, the first act of rebellion against social conformism, seen in a clear negative
connotation, as vile, vulgar and horrible. ” Déjà il rêvait à une thébaïde raffinée, à un desert
confortable, à une arche immobile et tiède où il se réfugierait loin de l?incessant déluge de la
sottise humaine ” ( À Rebours 8).
In Frédéric Godefroid?s vision, Des Esseintes?s decision to move from the capital to the
countryside, more specifically in Fontenay Castle, isolated from everyone, ” serts de prétexte à
une réflexion sur l?état de l?art et de la société”(137). His inclination is towards refined taste and
aestheticism, although filled with the typical feeling of the fin-de-siècle atmosphere,
disillusion, pessimism, degradation, crisis and decay.
The new castle, which, after months of decoration, painting of the walls, careful choices
regarding design, opens the door at his master, responsible for its luxiorious and exaggerated
appearance, colors such as yellow, orange, red are highly symbolic representing therefore ” la
harmonie qui existe entre la nature sensuelle d?un individu vraiment artiste et la couleur que ses
yeux voient d?une façon plus special et plus vive” (À Rebours 7).
For example the color red may be either the hidden individual passion, or the blood synonym of
murder or as portraying disorder and instability.
Allan H.Pasco pointed out another aspect of Des Esseintes?s excentric house, that of
consciousness. In order to explain better what he meant by consciousness, it is necessary to
connect Huysmans? work with the context of the end of 19th century in France. Historically
speaking, new discoveries were made in many fields, such as the medical one; before the
Freudian psychanalisis, mental disorders were treated as if they were physical wounds,
although attempts were making their way into studying the processes of the human mind. He
explains that the castle has a double face : that of mirroring the physical and psychological state
of mind of the person, in this case of the nobleman, the exterior is associated with his physical
appearance and the interior with his mind. ” La maison est aussi un symbole féminin de refuge,
ce qui encourage Ziegler à suggérer que des Esseintes cherche à retrouver sa mère, qu?il
aimerait voir répondre à ses besoins élémentaires “(628).
This symbolical analysis is further reassessed in the consideration of the different floors
constituting Fontenay Castle. Contrary to popular belief, the castle has only two floors, and
surprisingly Des Esseintes places his servants upstairs, where, theoretically speaking should be
living the master and his supposed family. The main reasons would be according to Chevalier,
the progressive levels of the subconscious, the first floor ” représente la raison, la conscience de
l?homme où la divinité régulatrice”(486).
In starting his new life at Fontenay Castle, the duke immediately falls into the Baudelairian
perception of ennui and spleen, i.e. of boredom and melancholy mingled together, the
progressive degradation of his body is taking place by the rejection of movement, associated
with society, whom he hates with all his heart. “à son avis, il était possible de contenter les désirs
réputés les plus difficiles à satisfaire dans la vie normale, et cela par un léger subterfuge, par une
approximative sophistication de l?objet poursuivi par ces désirs mêmes”(À Rebours 26).
Des Esseintes, in order to busy himself in doing something that would make him happy, begins
to conduct studies on perfumes, by taking water and mixing it with different chemical elements
such as magnesium, calcium and lime in the hope of, like a chemist, obtaining positive results
from his experiments. After that, he searches another form of entertainment, that of going in his
enormous library and reading Latin literature, analyzing the language, the style conveyed by
each author. He finds Lucain particularly interesting, for the focus on the form and the sonority
conveyed, similar to Gustave Flaubert. But it is Pétrone who pointed out the decadent side of the
Roman Empire, his use of language extremely rich in which the aristocrat ” entrevoyait dans le
raffinement du style, dans l?acuité de l?observation, dans la fermeté de la méthode, de singuliers
rapprochements, de curieuses analogies, avec les quelques romans français modernes qu?il
supportait”( À Rebours 38).
The distractions of Jean Des Esseintes are to be seen as an attempt to escape the boring and
tedious reality, as a way of being “anywhere out of the world” (Baudelaire 2431) of
experimenting his life in all possible ways, but to the point of view of aesthetic fascination and
elegance, breaking any relationship with everything associated to the capital which would cause
him only distress and repulsion. According to Allan H.Pasco, the different kinds of
entertainments Des Esseintes tries to find are to be viewed also as the passage of the senses such
as ” goût, vue, odorat, ouïe” which is a indirect reference to the sensualist philosophy of the 18th
century, whose precursor is Condillac(631). The memories of the traumatic events related to his
life in the industrialized environment echo frequently throughout the novel:
Pendant les derniers mois de son séjour à Paris, alors que, revenu de tout, abattu par
l?hypocondrie, écrasé par le spleen, il était arrivé à une telle sensibilité de nerfs que la vue
d?un objet ou d?un être deplaisant se gravait profondément dans sa cervelle, et qu?il fallait
plusieurs jours pour en effacer même légèrement l?empreinte, la figure humaine frôlée,
dans la rue, avait été l?un de ses plus lacinants supplices(À Rebours 31).
2.DES ESSEINTES’S HALLUCINATIONS : THE STARTING POINT
OF HIS MADNESS
Following the readings from Latin decadent literature, Des Esseintes decides to move on his
pursuit of artifice, buying a pet, a tortoise, whose back the duke adorns with precious gems, the
choice being difficult for the fact that he searches for something in accordance with his own
tastes, gems extremely rare and uncommon, to solve in the end making an extravagant mixture of
different minerals, yet perfect in Des Esseintes?s eyes. Unfortunately, the pet dies subsequently
from the impossibility to sustain the weight of the precious gems. ” il était accablé d?une
lassitude immense, d?un besoin de recueillement, d?un désir de ne plus avoir rien en commun
avec les profanes qui étaient, pour lui, les utilitaires et les imbéciles”( À Rebours 81).
The protagonist falls into a state of perpetual boredom, his total isolation compared to that of a
cloistered monk, fed up with the taste of the different types of wine which tastes for the sake of
experimenting something new, in his aesthetic research of the senses. After retracing the history
of music, whose majority of the musicians Des Esseintes considers as uninteresting, the reason
why he saves only Schubert, Wagner and Schumann, the only ones expressing in notes his
conflicting and confusing personality. Shortly after, Des Esseintes, watching accidentally the
numerous paintings constellating the halls of the castle, one in particular captures his attention,
Gustave Moreau?s portrayal of Salomé, transfigured in such a way that the duke has the
impression of having in front of him the personifications of Hysteria and Cursed Beauty.
A characteristic of Jean Des Esseintes is the fact that he is constantly lost in thoughts more
precisely in his reveries, in which reappear pieces of the past as if they were tormenting him.
One episode concerning his meeting in rue de Rivoli, with a young lad, Auguste Langlois, who
is initiated by the duke towards a tendency towards sensations, which reminds of the interactions
between Dorian Gray and Lord Henry. Similarly, Des Esseintes has the role of shaping the soul
of a person in order to achieve his intention of fighting against middle-class society. ” mon but
sera atteint, j?aurai contribué, dans la mesure de mes ressources, à créer un gredin, un ennemi de
plus pour cette hideuse société qui nous rançonne” (À Rebours 88).
Another memory crossing the mind of Jean Des Esseintes is related to his education by Jesuit
priests, criticizing this strict approach to religion, the rigorous way of teaching, marking even
more his desire of independence from moral constraints. His rebellious attitude, inclined to
quarrels and disputes over the rejection of conventions, is strikingly similar to Dorian Gray?s.
The only thing the duke appreciates about church is art, which contributed in the development of
his aesthetic and eccentric tastes of the beautiful.
Ainsi ses tendances vers l?artifice, ses besoins d?excentricité, n?étaient-ils, en somme, des
résultats d?études spécieuses, de raffinements extraterrestres, de transports, des élans vers
un idéal, vers un univers inconnu, vers une béatitude lointaine, désirable comme celle que
nous promettent les écritures( À Rebours 96).
In the continuous research of new pleasures, which goes hand in hand with the passage from one
sense to another, Des Esseintes embarks himself in a new adventure: that of growing flowers of
the greenhouse, as expected, rare flowers are taken into account, which are seen as art. “son
penchant naturel vers l?artifice l?avait conduit à délaisser la véritable fleur pour son image
fidèlement exécutée”(À Rebours 106).
Interesting is the specification of names such as Alosacia Metallica, Tillandsia Lindeni,
Encephalarios horridus, to refer respectively to a tropical plant, a flowering plant of rose color,
orchids. It denotes not only an accurate research of Huysmans on books treating botanics but
also a certain exoticism, which is usually related to the Romantics. However, while Des
Esseintes is studying and sniffing the variety of flowers, soliciting his olfactory acuity even
more, the personification of Syphilis appears in front of him, considered as : “l?éternelle maladie
qui a ravagé les ancêtres de l?homme, qui a creusé jusqu?aux os maintenant exhumés des vieux
fossiles !”( À Rebours 113).
Frédérique Godefroid explains that the infection mirrors the bourgeoisie?s inner corruption, the
hypocrisy and the sense of degradation which Des Esseintes progressively feels, his strong
opposition to social integration, as the main cause of all evil things circulating in every-day life.
The reality appears so disappointing that the duke believes in the inexistence of such injustices,
the attack on the money business, also for the reestablishment of the nobility?s privileges,
completely lost and fallen into oblivion(139).
The vision of the Syphilis and the dehumanized Salomé mark only the beginning of the
aristocrat?s hallucinations, which go hand in hand with his aesthetic lifestyle, pushed to the
absurd. The nights following these strange apparitions, Des Esseintes suddenly suffers of
tormenting and endless nightmares, which prevent him from having a healthy and decent sleep.
In particular, he seems to feel a strange presence, appearing vaguely as a woman with a face
described as resembling that of a bulldog, then, it is clarified that is a creature without gender,
with cold blue eyes, extremely thin and lacking the majority of its teeth. The monster seems to
have the intention of strangling the protagonist. “il cherchait son origine, son nom, son métier, sa
raison d?être; aucun souvenir ne lui revenait de cette liaison inexplicable et pourtant certaine” (À
According to Michel Collomb, ” le cauchemar s?offrira donc comme un morceau d?écriture
onirique, mettant en œuvre des procédés de poétisation propres à produire cet effet-trauma, cette
intensité d?angoisse qui le distingue d?un rêve banal”(79). The passage to a dream- like and
grotesque atmosphere is further emphasizes by the enigmatic and androgynous figure of Miss
Urania who is an acrobat of American origin, in its mystery:
il voyait un artificiel changement de sexe se produire en elle; ses singeries gracieuses, ses
mièvreries de femelle s?effaçaient de plus en plus, tandis que se développaient, à leur place,
les charmes agiles et puissants d?un mâle (À Rebours 125).
Similar to the bulldog-like creature, Miss Urania portrays the other, the projection of the opposite
sexes coexisting in Des Esseintes?s psyche, masculinity and femininity together, thus explaining
the sudden gender transformation of figures coming from the subconscious, not from mere
imagination( Collomb 83). In the ambiguous and magic universe, other eerie entities come into
sight, the mythical creatures such as the Sphinx and Chimera, the latter representing the
unconscious and hidden desires of Des Esseintes in the endless aesthetic pursuit and
experimentation of the sensations, to find in precious things such as rare flowers, perfumes,
wine, jewels. It embodies the aspiration towards an unknown world, seeking ideals, meaning
beyond superficial glance, in order to break the conflicting barriers of the mind, between the real
and unreal. ” Et dans le silence de la nuit, l?admirable dialogue de la Chimère et du Sphinx
commença, récité par des voix gutturales et profondes, rauques, puis aigues, comme
surhumaines” (À Rebours 130).
3.NEUROSIS : DES ESSEINTES’S INCURABLE ILLNESS
Following the succession of the nightmares tormenting Jean Des Esseintes, because of his weak
physical condition, his extremely pale face and exaggerated thinness, new obstacles appear to
deteriorate even more his instability , the hallucinations he experimented while he was in the
garden take the shape of a serious illness : neurosis. Neurosis affects principally the mind and the
nervous system connected to the brain, resulting in frequent headaches, continuous trembling of
the fingers, backbone pain, symptoms which become evident in the case of the nobleman with
the passing of time. ” Il semble, en effet, que les maladies de nerfs, que les névroses ouvrent dans
l?âme des fissures par lesquelles l?Esprit du Mal pénètre. Il y a là une énigme qui reste illucidée ;
le mot hystérie ne résout rien” (Huysmans 5).
One day, after a mental crisis, Des Esseintes decides to find a solution to his issue by searching
for a doctor who would cure these anxieties, but, unfortunately after the visit, he turns out to be
unable to determine the causes, prescribing to the duke some laxatives and rest. Of significant
relevance is also the doctor?s reaction when entering Fontenay Castle, its eccentricity and over
refined design shocks him to the point of escaping from the strangle place as soon as possible
and never coming back. Gradually, in Des Esseintes?s mind it crosses the idea of a journey, as to
eliminate the eternal sense of boredom which is always present in his passive lifestyle. He feels
the need to do something new, he realizes that his social isolation is damaging his soul, the lack
of communication, of exchanging ideas and opinions with someone would only improve his
Reading the novels of Charles Dickens , with the description of London and the problems
concerning the difference of social class, the aristocrat intends to have his luggage prepared in
order to leave momentarily the castle, forgetting apparently the decision of living far from the
city of Paris. With the ticket in his hand, Des Esseintes seems to be determined to travel but as he
enters first in a wine shop then into a tavern, he suddenly changes his mind, in the end the
realization not to abandon his mansion anymore. Nevertheless Des Esseintes feels “la fatigue
morale d?un homme qui rejoint son chez soi, après un long voyage” ( À Rebours 169).
The gradual illness the duke develops according to Stanley Finger, François Boller and Anne
Stiles is to be considered as neurasthenia, the term has been coined by an American neurologist
of the 19th century, George Miller Beard, who started to conduct research on nervous disorders,
dismissing its physical cause(81). This pathology affects Des Esseintes?s body and psyche to
the extent that he starts to suffer also from toothache, nutritional imbalances preventing him from
feeding himself properly, the mere view of a plate causing sickness.”La névrose engourdie,
durant quelque jours, reprenait le dessus, se révélait plus véhémente et plus têtue, sous de
nouvelles formes” (À Rebours 120).
Even though neurosis seems to dominate him even more, the duke is determined to continue his
aesthetic life, in his usual attempts to avoid ennui and madness. With the hypocrisy of the others
disgusting him, Des Esseintes wastes time in bringing to light past memories, the majority
unpleasant being related to urbanization. At the same he thinks of the rising middle class as the
main cause of his current psychological state, hoping for their disappearance, invoking religious
deities to put and end to immorality.
Il y avait même une vague compensation à tous les maux, une sorte de justice qui
rétablissait l?équilibre du malheur entre les classes, en dispensant plus aisément les pauvres
des souffrances physiques qui accablaient plus implacablement le corps plus débile et plus
émacié des riches (À Rebours 205).
The protagonist follows the advice of the doctor, drinking frequently laxatives but they prove to
have no effect on relaxing his nervousness, instead, it increases mixed with sickness, satiety,
distaste, degeneration, lack of vitality, the attitude of the decadent of the fin-de-siècle. “Ces
remèdes n?agissaient malheureusement plus depuis que ses maux devenaient réels”(À Rebours
In his library, Des Esseintes enjoys his books, extravagantly carved to please his tastes, as if
they were new and containing a particular beauty which his eyes had not noticed at the moment
when he bought them. In his poor collection of books on contemporary French literature, he
becomes increasingly addicted to Charles Baudelaire, whose poems explained the condition of
the poet facing the horrors of society, in such a way that the duke has the impression of having in
front of him his feelings, his anxieties, his aspirations on universes which exist out of any moral
conventions, he attributes the merit of expressing the inexplicable, of deciphering the mysterious
messages behind beautiful things.
Avoiding authors who were commercial and successful among the masses, Des Esseintes
continues his readings, discovering borderline personalities such as Barbey d?Aurevilly, whose
nervous way of writing captures his attention. In particular, two works worthy of consideration,
Le Prêtre marié and Les Diaboliques, which emphasize the duke?s detachment from Catholic
religion, replaced by atheism and sadism, the characters? agony strangely similar to his, as well
as the soul in conflict between the good and the evil. He acknowledges the truth of the words
expressed in both books, for the fact that the precepts of the church are not only contradictory but
also going backwards instead of being renewed with the passing of time. This immobility is
evident in Des Esseintes?s eyes by the Latin language used by the priests, which is the same used
during the Middle Ages.
At the same time, Des Esseintes?s illness is getting worse on his fragmented mental state, his
nerves reaching the limit, other phenomena arise such as overheating and sweat, aggravating to
the point of fainting and being forced to rest. Unable to do any kind of activity exciting his
senses, his paleness and nearly scrawny body evident, ” il était arrive maintenant à ce résultat,
qu?il ne pouvait plus découvrir un écrit qui contentat ses secrets désirs ; et meme son admiration
se détachait des volumes qui avaient certainement contribué à lui aiguiser l?esprit, à le rendre
aussi soupçonneux et aussi subtil”(À Rebours 217).
Hardly recognizing himself at the mirror, Des Esseintes has mixed feelings of both hope and
resignation about his condition, as if he were aware of the fact that this progressive deterioration
of the mind and body cannot be treated. Yet, he calls his servants to search for a specialist
capable of finding a solution to his persisting problem, and while he falls into a deep sleep, he is
woken up by the presence of the doctor, who advised him to perform enema three times a day.
The treatment seems to improve his condition, following another medical examination, the
specialist tells the aristocrat that neurosis necessitates several years to be definitively cured. In
order for the hydrotherapy to come into effect, Des Esseintes receives the unexpected and worst
possible news of his life: ” il fallait quitter cette solitude, revenir à Paris, rentrer dans la vie
commune, tâcher enfin de se distraire comme les autres” (À Rebours 259).
The social reintegration sounds unavoidable in the duke?s attempt to survive, Rosina Neginsky
interprets the indignation and despair of the protagonist, to his shattered dream of living in
isolation for the rest of his life as ” a pretext for a nostalgic re-creation of a by-gone era of luxury
4.THE RETURN TO PARIS
Finding himself into a path of no return, Des Esseintes, reluctantly accepts his defeat,
acknowledging the fact that his aspiration of challenging society by confinement, with artificial
and refined things at his side, as measure of protection against alienation, impurity, scandals
associated with the city of Paris, the main centre of corruption. “Qu?allait-il devenir dans ce
Paris où il n?avait ni famille ni amis ? ” (À Rebours 267).
Belonging to a higher and decayed social élite, the protagonist has problems in the integration of
society, in taking back control of his life and starting over again, facing the crashing of values
and money interest as if they were perpetually hunting him, Des Esseintes?s nemesis, the
capitalistic group in command of the end of the 19th century Europe. His asocial behavior
brought as consequence the incapacity of adaptation to the present time. It is echoed throughout
the last chapter, the Darwinian law of survival, in which only the living beings capable of
adapting to change, survive. Similarly, it may be said that Des Esseintes doesn?t survive to
social and life change.
Et quel contact pouvait-il exister entre lui et cette classe bourgeoise qui avait peu à peu
monté, profitant de tous les désastres pour s?enrichir, suscitant toutes les catastrophes pour
imposer le respect de ses attentats et de ses vols ? (À Rebours 267).
His predilection for luxurious and rare objects, paintings, well-crafted books and the palatial
estate of Fontenay, remain only but an illusion, the way of forgetting the existential traumas and
of unhappy memories and situations which shaped the aristocrat?s personality and his
exacerbated distaste for the surrounding world, for their failure in understanding his role and
priorities by birth.
Est-ce qu?il ne s?était pas mis lui-même au ban de la société ? Est-ce qu?il connaissait un
homme dont l?existence essaierait, telle que la sienne, de se reléguer dans la contemplation,
de se détenir dans le rêve ? (À Rebours 261).
In vain the several medical consultations, it seems to the duke that every doctor he consults
advised him to socialize, to entertain and conform himself to the standards of the on-going
progress, leading to money-oriented perception and prosperity gained through hard work. “Le
résultat de son avènement avait été l?écrasement de toute intelligence, la négation de toute
probité, la mort de tout art” (À Rebours 268).
In Des Esseintes?s eyes appears an uncertain future without hope, he accuses the rising of
mercantilism as the main cause of his downfall, as a nobleman and last but not least as an
aesthete, symbol of the Decadence. The nervousness, exhaustion and anger leave room for
resignation and acceptance of things as they are. In desperation, Des Esseintes releases his
anxieties and indignation as a way of freeing his body from all the stress accumulated during his
stay at Fontenay castle, his only refuge and consolation abandoning him to his fate.
Eh ! croule donc, société ! meurs donc, vieux monde ! s?écria Des Esseintes, indigné par
l?ignominie du spectacle qu?il évoquait ; ce cri rompit le cauchemar qui l?opprimait. Ah !
fit-il, dire que tout cela n?est pas un rêve ! (À Rebours 269).
The sense of oppression weakens the protagonist even more, leading him to renounce also to
reflect upon the pessimistic theories of Schopenhauer, one of the few philosophers whom Des
Esseintes greatly admired and appreciated, for the similar way of reasoning and perceptiveness.
In the end, the duke falls from his chair, burying his face and addressing his prayers to God, to
the salvation in the evil world he is forced to stand until his death. Although there is no clear clue
on Des Esseintes?s future actions, whether he manages to incorporate himself in the social
bourgeois life or to have his mental disorder definitively cured.
It may be said that Huysmans?s novel has a circular ending, for the fact that Des Esseintes
comes back from the place of origin, i.e. the city of Paris. Jérôme Solal considers this circularity
as the beginning of the end, the lack of purpose in the hell of the community, coinciding with
the decline of noble privileges, evident in the character of Des Esseintes, the sense of
estrangement may be seen as the consequence of the condition of the man in modern life. In
accordance with this view, Kelly Comfort points out that “Des Esseintes deplores
commercialism in general and aims to demonstrate the ways in which it affects negatively all
levels of society. In his estimation, nothing remains sacred; commerce has profaned
The fin-de-siècle atmosphere is imbued with pessimism and a sense of crisis, proximity of death,
nostalgia of the previous eras, distrust of the economical development, the rejection of social
conventions ; the beautiful is therefore views as the solution to iniquity and all form of injustices.
In his study on French Decadents, Biétry acknowledges the impact of Huysmans?s revolutionary
work on the young generations of poets and writer adding that ” ceux-ci ont reconnu en Des
Esseintes l?incarnation même de leur propre névrose, élevée seulement à la puissance du délire”
(21). Similarly, Stephen Calloway agrees on the grandeur of À Rebours “Bizarre and perverse
both in its attitudes and its obsessive elaboration of obscure detail, it was hailed as the Breviary
of Decadence , and enthusiastically taken up as an essential text and would-be crib by Aesthetes
on both sides of the English Channel”(47).
Jean Des Esseintes is seen as the hero of the aesthetes, for his strong opposition to the Puritan
state of mind of the middle classes, the research of aesthetic pleasure by means of the senses,
inspiring Wilde to create the characters of Dorian Gray and Lord Henry, the praise of the
artificial over nature, his desire of distinguishing himself from the commoners, an attitude typical
of the dandy. From a stylistic point of view, Huysmans, marks his divorce from the Naturalist
movement, whose main promoter is Emile Zola.
Revolutionary through the choice on focusing on one character, the predilection for the
confusion of language structure, the frequent jumps from formal to informal register and vice
versa, the description of neurosis as a pathology and the nightmares of Des Esseintes, as well as
the mixture of genres, Huysmans is innovative in the sense that he rejects giving physical action
to his character, makes use of extremely long phrases and there is little or no dialogue at all as
well as the absence of plot in the sixteen chapters constituting the novel. David Weir argues that
” Huysmans?s À Rebours marks a point in the development of the modern novel by illustrating
how a deeply felt sense of decadence can affect and even alter the conventions of fiction “(97).
To conclude, it may be said that, in the representation of the imaginary of a century, Joris-Karl
Huysmans is one of the few who expresses the social and moral transformations which prepare
the world to the rise of modernity. With À Rebours, as the title suggests, Huysmans not only
emphasizes the fight between nature and Art, but also on lack of purpose, as well as defining
the fascination of Beauty as breaking the chains of morality and prejudices, embracing
extravagance and sophistication.
This thesis, The Aesthetic Movement and the Cult of Beauty in O.Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian
Gray and J.K. Huysmans’ À Rebours, constituted by three chapters, has presented the idea of the
beautiful from many interrelated perspectives: philosophical, historical, fictional, social.
The first chapter has shown the origins of Aestheticism, the interpretations of Beauty given by
two philosophers of Ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle and three philosophers from
respectively the 18th and 19th century, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche. They all associated the
beautiful with concepts such as mimesis or techné, for their attempt of finding answers in the
treatment of aesthetics. I have traced a chronological line in order to relate the cult of Beauty
studied in the two novels that I chose, The Picture of Dorian Gray and A’ Rebours to the
original ideas of Aestheticism expressed in philosophy.
The second and the last chapters have focused on the close analysis of the novels? characters:
Dorian Gray and Jean Des Esseintes. Dorian Gray, in the achievement of the desire of his heart,
eternal Beauty of his physical appearance and degradation of the portrait, faced the
consequences associated to such a wish: his soul paid the price, becoming gradually sinful,
corrupted and evil. At the realization that it is impossible to come back to the age of purity and
innocence, Dorian stabs the portrait but, in doing so, he commits suicide, as a result the portrait
returns to his original state while Dorian appears as a dead, old, wrinkled man.
Jean Des Esseintes, similarly to Dorian, denounces the negative effects of the vulgar, corrupted
society and marks his opposition assuming a dandyish attitude, pursuing aesthetic lifestyle, their
houses are subject to their refined and luxurious tastes. Contrary to Wilde?s character, Huysmans
decided to give importance to Des Esseintes?s anxieties and nervousness, the mental disorder
going hand in hand with the extravagant search of sensations (aesthetic sensations being a
principle inculcated by Lord Henry in Dorian Gray?s mind) dedicating several chapters in
describing the several “passive” ways of entertaining himself in order to avoid boredom.
Interesting is the fact that Des Esseintes abandons his place of consolation, returning to Paris,
however, we do not know for sure whether he managed or not to reintegrate himself in social
The two characters, Dorian Gray and Jean Des Esseintes proved themselves to be the victims of
the society?s rigid system and values, morality and prejudices, as well as the ones perceiving the
atmosphere of decay and the sense of crisis, typically associated with the end of a century, in this
case I should point out that the Aesthetic Movement of the 19th century had in itself the effects of
Decadence, i.e. Art is seen as the voice of mystery which translates codes and symbols.
With this research paper, I have demonstrated the impact of Aestheticism in life, the extent
through which it may get to a path of no return, the inevitable consequences brought by
criticizing directly the respectability of 19th century surrounding community.
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