In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde exposes a major problem in Victorian society. For the characters in the book, material items and wealth form a major basis of their lives, which leads to their ruin. As their obsession with the material grows stronger, the line between the real and unreal begins to blur. This criticism of materialism and obsessive wealth was not unique to Wilde, as shown by the works of Bronte, Dickens, and Carlyle, but his novel offers an especially succinct critique of Victorian society.
Many of the characters in Wilde’s novel are obsessed with material goods. As Lord Henry says, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” (Wilde, 34) Through Henry, Wilde criticizes a Victorian elite class that thinks mostly about the price of goods, thinking little about the value those goods actually hold, if any. The elite retain goods to impress others and to demonstrate their wealth, but as Wilde reveals, the goods themselves are actually quite meaningless. At one point in the novel, the plot seems to break as Wilde begins simply discussing the vast amounts of wealth Dorian has acquired. “He would often spend a whole day settling and resettling in their cases the various stones that e had collected…” (Wilde, 99) says Wilde, going on to list the numerous collected gems, ranging from cymophane to moonstones. This passage, indeed the entire chapter, criticize the ultimate meaninglessness of the wealth. Just as the description of the gems has little effect of the plot, so too does the acquirement of wealth have little effect on Dorian’s own life. This obsession with wealth does not even stop with material items. People, too, become commidies to the Victorian elite.
Lady Brandon, for example, “treats her guests exactly as an auctioneer treats his goods.” (Wilde, 6) For Lady Brandon, perhaps a representation of the Victorian elite in general, friends exist as material items, they are bought and are treated as mere things. Basil also treats people as items. He calls his obsession with Dorian “artistic idolatry,” (Wilde, 8) seeing Dorian like a religious person sees an idol–as a means of worship, yes, but not as a person. Just as Dorian worships his jewels, Basil worships Dorian.
Art is one material item especially important to the characters in Wilde’s book. Basil Hallward, one of the major characters, is an artist himself, and his painting of Dorian Gray is the central plot point of the novel. When Dorian sees the painting of him made by Basil, he is appalled. The painting shows an artistic (and thus nonreal) depiction of himself. Dorian is horrified as he realises that he prizes this non real depiction over his actual self. “‘How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young…I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me.’” (Wilde, 19-20_ His actual self will grow old, but his non real self in the picture will not. Gray appreciates the painting of himself more than his actual human self, even though the painting is only pigment on canvas. It is imitative of Dorian, but Dorian is unable to see through this imitation.
The difference between imitation and the real is further explored through the relationship of Dorian to Sibyl Vane. Vane is an actress, one who Dorian adores and is incredibly convincing in playing her roles. But Dorian is unable to differentiate between Sibyl, the actress, and the myriad of characters she imitates. It is the characters, and not Sybil herself, who Dorian truly loves. “The girl never really lived,” said Henry, “and so she never really died…she was always a dream, a phantom that flitted through Shakespeare’s plays…Mourn for Ophelia, if you like. Put ashes on your head because Cordelia was strangled. Cry out against Heaven because the daughter of Brabantio died. But don’t waste your tears on Sybil Vane. She was less real than they are.“ (Wilde, 75) As Henry points out, there is no point in Dorian mourning Sybil, because Dorian only loved Sybil through her acting. Indeed, Dorian did not even meet Sybil before deciding he was in love with her.
Dorian truly loved the characters Sybil played–Ophelia, Cordelia, Brabantio’s daughter. Dorian could not see the difference between Sybil and the non real characters she played. Like the portrait, the illusion is more important to Dorian than the actual. This is further demonstrated by the eventual collapse of the relationship between Sybil and Dorian. The reason for their breakup is a loss of love on Dorian’s part, but his loss of love is only because Sybil stopped acting well, because her acting is all that matters–the illusion is all that matters. This ultimately caused Sybil’s suicide. The inability of the characters to distinguish between real life and the imitation of real life through art is criticized by Wilde by showing how these ideas caused the unhappiness of Dorian and Sybil.
The critiques of Victorian life offered by Wilde were not always unique to him. Other Victorian authors offered similar critiques of the Victorian elite in their own works. Bronte, in her own work, also criticized the materialism of Victorian society. According to Brianna Leigh Goble, “Brontë mirrors a cultural narrative in when [sic] consumer consumption drives male social class aspirations.” In Wuthering Heights, characters like Heathcliffe are possessed by a desire to gain social status through the acquirement of things. Though different from Wilde’s critique of materialism, which focuses more on the meaninglessness of wealth than the ruin brought to those wanting to gain status, both Bronte and Wilde critique materialism, showing that Wilde’s opinions about Victorian society did not exist in a vacuum. () The state of illusion. Dickens was another contemporary of Wilde who argued against materialism in his work.
English scholar Valentine Cunningham points out that Great Expectations criticizes the practice whereby people are reduced to mere things. Pip is measured “as if he was an estate,” just like Lady Brandon treats her guests like material things to be bought, or Basil treats Dorian as an idol. The boundary between people and things is radically blurred. Just as this boundary is blurred, so too is the one between the real and the unreal, between art and life, and between the imitation of a thing and the thing itself. In the Latter-Day Pamphlets, Thomas Carlyle, himself a contemporary of Wilde, claims that “really excellent speech…is terribly apt to get confounded with its counterfeit, sham-excellent speech! And furthermore, that if really excellent human speech is among the best of human things, then sham-excellent ditto deserves to be ranked with the very worst.
False speech,capable of becoming, as some one has said, the falsest and basest of all human things : — put the case, one were listening to that as to the truest and nobles!” As Carlyle points out, the Victorians found difficulty in seeing the difference between a thing itself (excellent speech) and the imatation of the thing (sham-excellent speech). This mirrors the inability of Dorian to differentiate between a real thing, such as himself or Sybil, and the imitation of that thing, such as his portrait or Sybil’s acting.
Many other authors offered similar critiques of Victorian society who were contemporaries of Wilde, but none were able to do it so succinctly nor so well as Wilde.