Society’s Reverence for Beauty
By: Sydney Amaya and Aleena Malik
In Dorian’s society, the aesthetic movement and overall elitism of the time resulted in beauty being a crucial characteristic in people and art. Art and people deemed beautiful were revered while anything or anyone deemed ugly or taboo was cast out of society. This ideology is what drove Dorian to insanity as he internalized society’s disdain for ugliness, and in order to suppress his hidden “ugliness” — like his sexuality — he sought to remain beautiful and appealing to elite society forever.
Part I: Historic Context
In order to understand how art, beauty, and idolatry function in the Picture of Dorian Gray, it is necessary to account for the historical context. The novel takes place in the Victorian era near the end of the nineteenth century. This era was characterized by the aesthetic movement — according to the V&A, “The Aesthetic Movement in Britain (1860–1900) aimed to escape the ugliness and materialism of the Industrial Age, by focusing instead on producing art that was beautiful rather than having a deeper meaning — ‘Art for Art’s sake” (“An Introduction”). The aesthetic movement also brought with it an era of decadence; people throughout their morals in favor of self-indulgence. Themes of “Art for Art’s Sake”, decadence, and aestheticism are prevalent in the Picture of Dorian Gray, and they play a crucial role in shaping the behavior and character of Dorian.
Part II: Connection to the Novel
In an era marked by hedonistic, elitist ideals, it is no surprise why Dorian became a paranoid shell of his former self. The social alienation Dorian experienced due to these ideals is what eventually led to his breakdown. From the beginning of the novel, Dorian is characterized as an astonishingly beautiful young man. His beauty and his upbringing — a dead mother and low class father — is what sets him apart from other bourgeoisie. Furthermore, his hidden homosexuality alienates him from all of Victorian society — if it were discovered he were gay he would be banished or worse, sentenced to death. For this reason, Dorian finds himself discontent with society’s restrictions, and hoping to avoid his inescapable fate — being outed as gay or repressing his gayness — he aims to indulge in hedonistic pleasures as a form of escapism.
In their literary criticism report published in Issue 7 of the Theory and Practice in Language Studies, authors Ali Taghizadeh and Mojtaba Jeihouni discuss the conflict Dorian faces; he must either submit to society’s ideals or resist them.
It is stated, “Ahead of him, he only has two alternatives: either to submit to, or to resist the forces of bewilderment and despondency. As a member of a social minority, he copes with a continuous wave of preoccupations, and has difficulty deciding which move to take. If he decides to be a part of the majority, his mental restlessness might start to cease” (Taghizadeh).
Dorian chooses to resist. Guided by Lord Henry’s words, Dorian’s previous morals constructed by society are replaced with his newfound decadence and hedonism. However, after the deaths of Sibyl Vane and Basil Howard, Dorian grows more paranoid that society will see his “ugliness” or how he has indulged in taboo ideals and desires (such as homosexuality). Even though Dorian initially sought to escape the restrictions of society, he still finds himself influenced by them as he attempts to maintain his image.
Because society revered beautiful things like art, Dorian internalized this ideal and sought to construct an image of himself unlike his “ugly” hidden self. He tries to lie to himself as he indulges in his desires, convincing himself that he is free from society’s restrictions; however, as he dives deeper into the taboo, he watches his portrait contort and becomes terrified of society discovering it. The portrait transforming into a hideous version of Dorian symbolizes Dorian’s internalized view of ugliness and homosexuality — he finds it repulsive.
The facade Dorian puts on to appease society is what they deemed artful. He was fair, pure, and never aged. No one questioned the rumors about Dorian because they preferred to appreciate “Art for Art’s sake” — in this case the art being Dorian. Terrified to be “ugly,” Dorian constructed the perfect image that society idolized, but it came at the cost of his own demise.
Part III: Connection to Modern Times
Even today, physical beauty is equated with moral worth, increased social finesse, and is highly valued by men and women alike, although there are more rigid beauty standards placed on women. While women attempt to fulfill society’s standards for beauty to be deemed worthy of love and respect, they are simultaneously belittled and dismissed as being shallow and vain for caring about their looks. Natalie Wynn, a political commentator known as ContraPoints on YouTube, has noticed that women in male-dominated fields sometimes feel like they have to present themselves as more masculine to be taken seriously due to the inevitable prejudice that beautified femininity equals frivolousness (Beauty). This is ironic because while beauty is embraced and being aesthetically unappealing is taboo similar to the Victorian Era, it is also taboo to care or give off the impression that thought and care is expended in one’s physical appearance. Wynn believes this social construct should be banished — “smart people” should not be judged based on their looks. As someone categorized as “smart” by those around her, Wynn still pays meticulous attention to perfecting her looks through makeup and cosmetic surgery, which does not have any impending negative effect on her level of intelligence. Wynn also defends the fact that beauty is associated with youth, is a symbol of life and defiance of death which is a profound thing to be concerned about when undergoing cosmetic surgeries or applying makeup, although fixing physical issues are not sufficient reparation for an underlying psychological one. In Dorian’s case, even though he preserved his outward beauty for years while those around him aged, he sold his soul to the devil and therefore faced a downward spiral of committing irreparable mistakes and then resorting to pleasures such as drugs to numb and temporarily escape his mental pain of memory and remorse. In present-day society, there is hope, to change the unjust thinking that society has come to accept that light skinned, cis, able-bodied, or thin is considered more attractive than being dark skinned, trans, disabled, or fat. We must change beauty standards by changing social constructs. One way to go about changing harmful social constructs is to include more diverse representation in the media of advertising, the cosmetic industry, and social media beauty influencers.
Although one may have fulfilled their materialistic desires, they may still feel insecurity and worthlessness if they have a face that does not match up in elegance to their possessions. Dorian, having descended from aristocracy, was one of the wealthiest men in society, but this was not enough to satisfy his desires. Dorian wanted more — he wanted his face to match the elegance of his possessions. His present-day counterpart Hilda Black, a 63-year old woman who coughed up $230,000 for a nip and tuck, commented in a New York Times article “I have a Rolls-Royce, I have three homes, I have everything I could possibly want, but I was still depressed,” Ms. Back said. Ms. Back continued on, expressing that, similar to Dorian’s mindset,“The way I look at this is: This is my face, and it’s going everywhere I go” (Boncompagni). This mindset explains how well-heeled people too view their face as their primary self-representation as it is what others see on the get-go — as opposed to their materialistic possessions — and can make or break any relationship through a first impression. Ultimately, as humans we all crave social acceptance, and we believe it can be attained by appearing aesthetically appealing, in addition to possessing wealth-exemplifying paraphernalia. Many highly esteemed plastic surgeons charge hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet have months long waitlists even though many low-profile surgeons can perform the same surgery for a much lower cost. Dr. Matthew White, a plastic surgeon in Manhattan who does extended deep-plane face-lifts, believes that cosmetic surgeries shouldn’t be limited to the 1 percent as many patients require the more useful applications of plastic surgery but cannot afford it.
Even more than a century later, our society places heavy emphasis on physical beauty, although progress has been made to judge others on deeper factors that cannot be observed on the surface, such as the content of their character. Like Dorian, many of us are guilty of hiding away what we believe will lead us to becoming stigmatized by the society around us, but it is ultimately better to reveal our flaws than to be trapped in an inescapable downward spiral from repressing and sublimating our true selves.
Just like Dorian, we are shackled to our superficial desires to attain an image society deems beautiful — but we can change this by intentionally becoming more accepting individuals and altering social constructs.
Beauty. Produced by Natalie Wynn. YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9mspMJTNEY. Accessed 8 June 2022.
Boncompagni, Tatiana. “And Now, the $200,000 Face-Lift.” The New York Times, 3 May 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/05/03/style/and-now-the-200000-face-lift.html. Accessed 8 June 2022.
“An Introduction to the Aesthetic Movement.” Victoria and Albert Museum, www.vam.ac.uk/articles/an-introduction-to-the-aesthetic-movement. Accessed 8 June 2022.
Taghizadeh, Ali, and Mojtaba Jeihouni. “Aestheticism versus realism? Narcissistic mania of the unheeded soul in Oscar Wilde’s the picture of Dorian gray.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 4, no. 7, July 2014, pp. 1445+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A381948741/AONE?u=lom_troyhs&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=8a54c2f7. Accessed 8 June 2022.
Wilde, Oscar, 1854–1900. The Picture of Dorian Gray. London ; New York, N.Y. :Penguin, 2003.