The novel opens with a theory of the purpose of art, which Wilde reasons out until he reaches that “all art is quite useless”. Whether or not this is some kind of warning from the narrator, we as readers don’t know, but what follows certainly seems to illustrate his point. It presents art in many forms and the danger of it when it is taken too literally or believed too deeply. It starts with a painting, which alters the perspectives that look on it and seems to alter itself. Once Basil has attributed to the painting the power of capturing the spirit of Dorian Gray, and once Dorian has attributed to it the power to host and represent his own soul, the painting has a dangerous life of its own. Dorian’s romance with the actress Sybil Vane is composed of the romantic characters she played and the drama of each nightly performance. To see the girl die on stage and then find her backstage alive and beautiful is a supernatural kind of existence that cannot last. The danger of seeing life only through the lens of art is that one must stay at a distance or risk ruining the illusion, just like a mirage. This is Dorian’s trouble, and Basil’s trouble, and through these examples we learn that the closer one comes to art, the closer one comes to some kind of death or destruction.
The set up of Dorian’s world in society and in his own home is full of pictures, stills and images through which we see life frozen or removed. Whether portraits, tapestries, or scenes, these images build up and up in the novel until Dorian’s climactic act of stabbing his own painting. It is the ever-present pressure of art—of being a piece of living art himself, and of seeing real life mirrored in the portrait—that destroys Dorian. In addition, as we read the novel, we are aware of the power of the narrator to embody the characters omnisciently, and to implant repetitions of their particular vocabulary, imitating the influence that Lord Henry’s memorable phrases have on Dorian’s mind. As a piece of art itself, the novel invites us to question its form and purpose, as the argument of the preface suggests.
Art and the Imitation of Life ThemeTracker
Art and the Imitation of Life Quotes in The Picture of Dorian Gray
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
All art is quite useless
“He is all my art to me now.”
“An artist should create beautiful things but should put nothing of his own life into them”
“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul”
“If it were only the other way! If it were I who was always young, and the picture that was to grow old!”
“I have seen her in every age and every costume. Ordinary women never appeal to one’s imagination. They are limited to their century.”
Mrs. Vane fixed her eyes on him, and intensified the smile. She mentally elevated her son to the dignity of an audience. She felt sure that the tableau was interesting.
“The painted scenes were my world. I knew nothing but shadows and thought them real.”
“So I have murdered Sybil Vane,” said Dorian Gray, half to himself, “murdered her as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife. Yet the roses are not less lovely for that.”
“The girl never really lived and so she never really died.”
“One day, a fatal day I sometimes think, I determined to paint a wonderful portrait of you as you actually are, not in the costume of dead ages, but in your own dress and in your on time.”
It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and trouble the brain.
And, certainly, to him Life itself was the first, the greatest, of the arts, and for it all the other arts seemed to be but a preparation.
What was that loathsome red dew that gleamed, wet and glistening, on one of the hands, as though the canvas had sweated blood?
“She is very clever, too clever for a woman. She lacks the indefinable charm of weakness. It is the feet of clay that make the gold of the image precious.”
The coarse brawl, the loathsome den, the crude violence of disordered life, the very vileness of thief and outcast, were more vivid, in their intense actuality of impression, than all the gracious shapes of Art, the dreamy shadows of Song.
If the tapestry did but tremble in the wind, he shook. The dead leaves that were blown against the leaded panes seemed to him like his own wasted resolutions and wild regrets.
“You would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram.”
“It is not in you Dorian to commit a murder. I am sorry if I hurt your vanity by saying so, but I assure you it is true. Crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders. I don’t blame them in the smallest degree. I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations.”
His beauty had been to him but a mask, his youth but a mockery. What was youth at best? A green, unripe time, a time of shallow moods and sickly thoughts.