The Picture of Dorian Gray Essay

652 words | 3 page(s)

In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a central role is clearly played by the image of Dorian Gray, the painting, which ages during Gray’s life as opposed to Gray himself, in a type of magical realism or fantasy, which contains within it the meaning of the narrative as such. In other words, the fundamental use of the image in Wilde’s work is that of semiotics, to the extent that the painting itself summarizes the entire narrative.

At the outset of the story, a young Dorian Gray is being painted, and is in discussion with the hedonistic Lord Henry. They engage in a philosophical discussion and Lord Henry avows a hedonistic account of beauty, arguing that beauty is what is to be pursued in life. Both Gray and Lord Henry, however, appear to have a very narrow conception of beauty, one that is limited to physical beauty. This is why Henry takes the role of a negative figure in the story: The foundation of this philosophy, as »artists of their own lives«, from this perspective is only linked to the physical aspect of artwork, the physical beauty of the object, as opposed to its meaning, and Lord Henry is thus the champion of a superficial life. In Saussure’s terms, this can be explained as follows: if an artistic work is a signifier that signifies something, it is not the signified that is important, but rather the signifier itself, its own beauty that is of the most importance, without any meaning. The sign itself should be exalted from the perspective of its physical beauty.

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This is why Gray wishes for the painting to age in his place: Gray sells his soul to the devil, wishing to remain physically young. It could be said in Peirce’s terms that what interests Gray is therefore only the concept of the indexical. The indexical, following Peirce’s definition, is primarily a sensual quality. The painting thus ages in place of Gray, because Gray only gives value to the sensual, he only gives value to the symbol, as opposed to, in Peirce’s terminology, the icon and the symbol. In other terms, the terrible moral of Dorian Gray is what happens when the indexical is praised at the expense of other signs, which have a deeper meaning beyond the physical.

Certainly, it could also be argued that Gray focusses instead on the concept of the icon. The icon is a simple representation of something, for example, the drawing of a cat is a drawing of the cat. But Gray’s portrait is not merely a portrait of Gray, the portrait takes on the aging process, and Gray therefore becomes eternally young. It is a representation, therefore, of a different Gray than the Gray who lives the hedonistic lifestyle and praises only physical beauty. In this sense, the relationship between Gray and the painting of himself is symbolic in Peirce’s terms: it is something more than merely Gray, but an alternative Gray. The tragedy of Gray is that this alternative Gray is the one who matures over time, who has a deeper world-view, while the hedonistic Gray who is only the index of sensual physical beauty is the one who »exists« in the world and his selfishness creates the tragedies within the narrative. Gray essentially occupies a one-dimensional world where signs are only denotations and not connotations: he only can see the surface, the physical beauty, and takes the sign as such to be important, for example, youth, instead of meanings that can be associated in a connotative manner with the sign. For example aging is not only a biological process, as its denotation would suggest, but can also have the connotation of learning, of becoming wise, of development and growth. The tragedy of Dorian Gray is in his attraction to the physical dimension of signs as opposed to their potential meanings.

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