The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Preface | Summary

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Summary

In the preface Wilde provides readers with key points of the 19th-century aesthetic movement and his views on beauty, the roles of the artist and critic, and the interrelationships between them. He believes that artists (and writers) should create art not for their own fame but simply to display the beauty in the world. Critics—observers or readers—on the other hand should experience the beauty of the work without seeking to interpret or analyze it. People for whom Wilde believes "there is hope" are "the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty." Critics who attempt to "go beneath the surface" or to "read the symbol" of artworks "do so at their peril" because in doing so they may attribute meanings to the work that were not intended by the artist.

While artists can paint, sculpt, or write about virtue or vice, their works are neither moral nor immoral. A book, for example, is merely "well written, or badly written," and nothing more. This boils down to the ideas of "art for art's sake" and that art need not serve any practical or moral purpose—hence the concluding epigram, "All art is quite useless."

Analysis

The preface can be read as a defense or counterattack to the criticism leveled at the original narrative published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. Most critics who disparaged the 1890 publication cited immoral content. Few people addressed the story as a work of art. Wilde's preface makes the case that beauty is the purpose of art, and its only defense. By implication any criticism made on moral grounds is invalid because it fundamentally misunderstands art. In addition to defending himself, Wilde promotes aestheticism—embracing beauty, art, and artifice. Finally Wilde inserts the character Caliban from Shakespeare's play The Tempest. Caliban was Prospero's bestial servant who misunderstood his master's magic (as well as how to act). Using the metaphor of Caliban to refer to a perceived dislike of realism and romanticism can be seen as an attack on the literary tastes of 19th-century society.

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