Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a continuous paradox, constantly contradicting itself in both the plot of the novel as well as in the characters themselves. Lord Henry is completely based of the idea of paradox, coming up with one line sentences that portray two opposite ideas as true: “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it”. But the most overarching paradox is in the art of the book itself, as well as the art piece that the novel revolves around. Wilde’s aestheticism ideas on art claim that art should be made just for art sake. It is meant to be beautiful and that is it, nothing more. Art should not incorporate any morals or any part of the artist himself.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the portrait of Dorian has two sides to it that make it a contradiction to the idea of aestheticism. One side of it is that Basil has “shown in it the secret of [his] soul”, completely eradicating the idea that the artist should be completely separate from their art. The other side is that the art shows all the ugliness of Dorian’s soul which is inconsistent with Wilde’s belief of “beauty”. It show the realism of life, which contradicts “art for arts sake” and Wilde’s belief that art should not be too realistic and honest. Along with that, it is also not visually appealing to people’s eyes.
However, the real work of art in the novel is Dorian Gray in some ways. He is pure beauty in its most refined form and nothing he does (until the end) can change the way he looks, which is similar to true art. If art is not supposed to convey any emotions or morals, then it should be able to live on forever and not be changed by the outside ideas of society. True art that follow the aestheticism theory should be interpreted in the same way, no matter when it is looked at, because it has no depth to it, nothing to interpret. Dorian Gray is as unchanging as beautiful art should be. Dorian is also portrayed as a shallow character, youthful and innocent in the beginning of the book, consistent with the idea that “all art is at once surface”, as Wilde claims in the preface.
There is still a contradiction even within Dorian’s character in that if he is considered beautiful art, he should not be able to influence the people around him. But Dorian corrupts many people around him and gains a reputation for it. Basil tells Dorian “you corrupt every one with whom you become intimate”, showing that Dorian does, in fact, have great influence over others, which is not a trait of “beautiful” art. However, this deviation from beautiful art seems to start when Dorian is “poisoned by a book”, perhaps making him a no longer “beautiful” work of art. Dorian was the epitome of what aestheticism stands for up until he is “corrupted”. But even this contradicts itself, because as the preface claims, “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book”. However, within Wilde’s writing, he ignores this ideology of aestheticism by having the main plot of the novel be centered around the effect the yellow book has on Dorian.
Wilde claimed later that he was like Basil but he strives to be like Dorian. Basil is, according to Wilde’s own ideas, the exact opposite of what a good artist should be, because he puts too much of his own life into his art. Therefore, Wilde is implying that he himself does not even follow the ideas of aestheticism. He claims he strives to be like Dorian, perhaps implying that he is striving towards the pure aestheticism of art that he is always advocating. However, Dorian does have an influential side to him that does not follow these ideals. The last, overall contradiction that is made by Wilde is that his work of art, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is seemingly a moral teaching book, expressing the lesson that you cannot escape the sins of your soul. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a Matryoshka doll of contradictions; a contradiction within contradiction ranging from the actual book itself to individual plot points.