Revisiting Literary Characters: Lord Henry Wotton (The Picture of Dorian Gray)

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“I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world.”

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a story about corruption. The influence of Basil Hallward’s art and Lord Henry Wotton’s opinions manipulates the initially innocent Dorian Gray, leading him to be a man of little morality but everlasting beauty, and plagued by Basil’s masterpiece – a portrait of Dorian that visibly ages while the real Dorian stays forever youthful.

Lord Henry Wotton is a proud member of the English aristocracy at the fin de siècle. He meets Dorian Gray one summer afternoon and, much to Basil’s chagrin, they discuss matters of the world. Of course, being such elite members of society means that the opinions they hold and discuss are tainted by a certain ignorance, propriety, and a preference for art and beauty over morality. Dorian, in awe of his grand theories and seductive intellect, allows Lord Henry to lead him to a life of pleasure; Lord Henry’s ‘New Hedonism’ dominates his character, making him value the things and people around him by their physical beauty and the level of pleasure they can bring to him.

It is viable to suggest that the character of Lord Henry is used by Oscar Wilde as a pawn to criticise the hypocritical, ignorant but incredibly intelligent Victorian conservatism that dominated, and continues to dominate, the English elite. His character is a transparent figure, displaying such curious and ultimately immoral opinions with no judgement, bar that of Basil, passed; his ignorance and lack of seriousness is described perfectly by Basil, who states: “You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose.” Henry never cares nor sees what his flippant, mindless statements do to those who listen; the impressionable Dorian, keen to enter into a life of high class idleness and grandeur, follows Lord Henry’s every word, attempting to mimic his elegance and wit, until it spirals out of the control of both characters.

The Picture of Dorian Gray documents Dorian’s downfall, from a boy of youth and beauty to a man of corrupted morals. But Lord Henry, even as Dorian’s closest friend, doesn’t see this. Instead, he lends Dorian a book. Containing no coherent plot, this novel plays on Dorian’s deepest fantasies and fascinations, sparking something so sinister settled within this figure of beauty. Dorian Gray murders Basil Hallward, after Basil confesses his undying love for Dorian, and Dorian shows Basil what has become of his masterpiece – now ugly in its old age and tainted by the corruption that should be displayed on Dorian’s face. Dorian’s reading of this book marks a turning point in the novel, and the question is asked of whether, by lending it him, Lord Henry is to blame for Dorian’s decline in mental stability and morality. This is significant when understanding Henry’s stance on literature: “Books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” The book he lends to Dorian is clearly immoral, so it is right to ponder on whether Henry actually believes the things he says: Does he, in his ignorance, say whatever comes to him without caring of its impact, or is he genuinely an evil person? Either way, it’s clear that Lord Henry has no prominent conscience.

Lord Henry Wotton is a curious albeit increasingly unbearable character in this novel. The radical, opinionated and undesirable mind locked away in a figure of Victorian propriety shows his hypocrisy. He never changes, unlike his protégé, but he stands as the main influence of Dorian. The ending of the novel shows Dorian Gray alone as he destroys the picture of himself, leading directly to his own death, confirming that Lord Henry Wotton’s influence of Dorian Gray has transcended his own control.

Words by Caitlin O’Connor

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