Imperial Decay: Dorian Gray As the Picture of the British Empire (SOURCE Spring 2018)
This paper examines Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in the context of the British Empire and the exploitation of colonized people under British reign. Through research into the history of the British Empire, the artifacts and knowledge that Dorian Gray collects, and the role opium played in British colonialism, I show that Wilde depicts British culture (particularly British aristocratic culture) as dependent on violent exploitation of colonized peoples.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray is the story of a young, breathtakingly beautiful man. When he wishes his portrait could grow old and tired instead of him, he unknowingly gets his wish. When he realizes what has happened, the protagonist goes through his life selfishly, leaving a trail of corruption and death. His corruption and debauchery go hand in hand with his materialism; he spends an entire chapter collecting artifacts and treasures from all over the British Empire, decorating his home with symbols of violent, exploitative colonialism. Furthermore, he spends the entire novel, spanning eighteen years, addicted to opium.
The story ends with Dorian, unable to face the horror and guilt of his actions, destroying the painting that has aged in his place, and dying at its feet, his body suddenly old and decrepit. Dorian Gray’s death mirrors the way the British Empire could not continue to ignore with impunity the horrors they were inflicting.