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The Morals of Beauty
At the end of the nineteenth century a titillating and sensual movement threatened, and ultimately replaced, the conservative and discriminating Victorian traditions. This new movement, Aestheticism, promoted self expression over conformity. Permeating all areas of life, aestheticism advocated for whatever was likely to maximize beauty and happiness, often ignoring any moral or social guidance. Ideally life would mimic art; it would be considered beautiful, but superfluous beyond its appearances. Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is often considered a prominent, literary example of aestheticism from the nineteenth century. However, it can be argued that Wilde wrote this novel with the intention of warning against the loss of morality when aestheticism is unrestrained. 
Living a life of pure satisfaction and beauty, Wilde’s main character, Dorian Gray, focuses on pleasure, free from the consequences of moralizing.  Gray is instructed by Lord Harry: “Be always searching for new sensations” (16). Gray is told that his youth and beauty will leave him and that he must therefore get everything he can before age begins to take away the passions and charms of life. He is encouraged to pursue all the pleasantries of life without worrying about the results. He should live for beauty alone. Later, another of his friends, Lady Narborough, offers Gray further confirmation that his chosen path is correct when she tells him, “But you are made to be good — you look so good” (131). She is commenting on how Dorian must be honorable and innocent, simply because of his fine looks. She focuses on his beauty and youth, only his outward appearances, not on his actions or any possible beliefs that he might hold. Rules do not apply to Gray, he lives simply for pleasure.
The relationship between Dorian Gray and the actress Sibyl Vane clearly illustrates both Gray’s ongoing enchantment with aesthetics and his resulting willingness to forego moral behavior. Gray pursues Sibyl from the first time he sees her, intent on possessing her even before he knows her.  Not attracted to Sibyl’s character or personality, Gray explains, “I loved you because…you gave shape and substance to the shadows of art” (63). Gray’s love for Sibyl is purely superficial; he simply adores her artistic talent. When Sibyl decides to neglect her art, she no longer serves a purpose in Gray’s aesthetic life, and he abruptly abandons her. Gray exhibits no regret when he informs Sybil that, “Without your art, you are nothing” (64). It is obvious that Gray only appreciates Sybil as an aesthetic object. She is, to him, a living work of art, and, once she cannot act anymore, she loses all of her value. Emotions are pointless. For Gray, who acts in the pursuit of his own pleasures, the inappropriateness of his actions continues unrecognized, as do the consequences.
While there are many who move beyond immediate pleasure and attempt to perfect themselves both morally and intellectually, this is a difficult and uncomfortable task, and therefore incompatible with pure aestheticism. Gray, for much of Wilde’s novel, fails to maintain an aesthetic lifestyle as he creeps through dreadful houses and the foul opium dens in London. Once thought too honorable for such debauchery because he had: “the look of one who had kept himself unspotted,” (93) Grey outwardly remains the same, but he experiences a complete regression in his social behavior. He believes if he looks good he must be good but others see him differently. Even Basil sees the changes in Gray as he exclaims, “You were the most unspoiled creature” (79). This comment highlights the danger in mistaking outer beauty for inner beauty. As an artist Basil can see deeper than just surface appearances and understands Grey’s behaviors show a lack of true aesthetics. Poor, doomed Basil is just realizing that the man he sees is totally different from the youth he captured in paint. Outwardly Gray lives a beautiful life but inwardly he is ugly.
The decadent life and resulting decline of Dorian Gray points out the negative effects of selfish indulgence and sensuality. Wilde’s novel offers an assessment, rather than an endorsement, of obeying one’s impulses as thoughtlessly as pure aestheticism offers.  In the pursuit of beauty and pleasure, morality and constraint are necessities, yet often lacking. Without them, one is destined to suffer the same fate as Dorian Gray.

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