English Literature


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The Significance of Aestheticism in Literature

When it comes to evaluating the quality of a movie, many people turn to expert ratings like Rotten Tomatoes or user reviews on IMDB. Similarly, works of literature also have standards of taste, with aestheticism emerging as a key factor in determining their value.

Defining Aestheticism

If you're not familiar with the term, aestheticism was an art movement that gained popularity in England during the late 1800s. It emphasized the beauty and overall experience evoked by a work of art above all else.

During this time, the Victorian Age, named after Queen Victoria who reigned at the time, imposed strict moral codes and societal constraints on people from all social classes. As a result, Victorian art, including literature, was judged based on its didactic value. In other words, if a piece of art taught or reinforced moral or ethical values, it was deemed "good".

However, aestheticism challenged this notion by promoting "art for art's sake". This concept meant that art should exist independently of morals and be evaluated solely on its aesthetic appeal.

The Influence of Aestheticism on English Literature

Aestheticism not only impacted literature but also other forms of art such as sculpture, painting, architecture, and music. In terms of literature, it marked a departure from the traditional Victorian literature that aimed to serve a specific purpose, such as imparting values and morals. Instead, aestheticism evaluated literary texts based on their beauty and aesthetic experience.

Some of the notable figures of the aestheticism movement in literature include Oscar Wilde, Walter Horatio Pater, and A. C. Swinburne.

Aestheticism in Action: Key Figures and Works

Let's delve deeper into the key figures of aestheticism and their most influential works.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was a renowned author, poet, and playwright, known for his works such as The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), The Ballad of the Reading Gaol (1898), and Poems (1881). However, his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), is closely associated with the aestheticism movement.

In the novel, the main character, Dorian Gray, realizes that his youthful beauty will eventually fade as he ages. To avoid this, he makes a pact that his portrait, painted by his friend Basil Hallward, will age in his place, allowing him to remain young and handsome forever.

In pursuit of eternal youth, Gray indulges in a life of pleasure and immorality, breaking the heart of his fiancee who ultimately takes her own life. As his sins pile up, the portrait begins to reflect the true ugliness of his soul, leading him to commit murder. In the end, driven mad by his depraved lifestyle, Gray stabs the portrait, only to be found dead by his servants, barely recognizable except for his rings.

The term "Faustian" is derived from a German legend and refers to sacrificing moral or spiritual values for material wealth, power, or knowledge. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian's pact can be seen as a Faustian deal, as he values beauty and pleasure above all else, corrupting the idea of art by placing it against morals.

The portrait, symbolizing art in the aestheticism movement, becomes increasingly hideous as Dorian's sins accumulate, serving as a constant reminder of his selfish desires. Even his attempt at redemption is driven by a desire to restore the portrait's beauty rather than genuine remorse for his actions.

In conclusion, aestheticism in literature focused on the beauty and experience of a work of art rather than its didactic value or moral lessons, with influential figures like Oscar Wilde breaking boundaries and challenging traditional Victorian norms.

The Principles of Aestheticism in Literature

In his preface to the novel, Oscar Wilde discusses the concept of 'art for art's sake', emphasizing that the purpose of art is not to serve a higher meaning but to be appreciated for its sensual appeal.

Walter Horatio Pater, a philosopher and essayist, championed hedonism - the pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate goal. His 1873 collection of essays, 'The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry', laid the foundations of aestheticism. The idea that art should be appreciated for its beauty and experience rather than its moral implications was a revolutionary concept that had a profound impact on literature and other forms of art.

Oscar Wilde and the Rise of Aestheticism in Victorian Literature

The late 1800s saw a significant shift in the literary world, thanks to writers like Oscar Wilde, who challenged traditional Christian beliefs and introduced the concept of 'art for art's sake'. This notion, synonymous with the aesthetic movement, prioritized the appreciation of beauty and overall experience in art above moral and ethical values.

In 1885, Wilde published 'Marius the Epicurean', a novel that follows the journey of Marius, a young man who discovers the pleasures of reading after encountering a hedonistic boy named Flavius. As Marius embraces the philosophy of Epicureanism and becomes an aide to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, he also becomes disillusioned with both the city of Rome and the conflicting ideals of Epicureanism and Stoicism.

Epicureanism, which advocates for a materialistic lifestyle in pursuit of pleasure, is represented by Flavius, while Stoicism, which emphasizes rationality and a strict moral code, is embodied by Aurelius in 'Marius the Epicurean'.

As Marius nears death, he is taken in by Christians, revealing that his heart was naturally inclined towards their teachings, despite never being formally introduced to Christianity. Along with Wilde, other influential figures in the aesthetic movement include poet and novelist Algernon Charles Swinburne, who rose to fame for his exploration of taboo topics such as homosexuality and sado-masochism in his 1866 collection of poems, 'Poems and Ballads'.

The impact of aestheticism in literature extended beyond writing and influenced other artistic movements such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Decadence, and Symbolism. The Pre-Raphaelites, who emphasized the imitation of nature in their work, drew inspiration from the aesthetic movement, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brother of poet Christina Rossetti, being one of the most well-known members.

The Decadent movement, known for its focus on excess and exaggerated portrayals of the human condition, was also heavily influenced by aestheticism. Prominent works of decadence, including Oscar Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', express feelings of self-disgust and skepticism, much like Lord Henry Wotton in the novel. Similarly, the Symbolists, who used symbols, metaphors, and imagery to convey artistic expression, also drew inspiration from the principles of aestheticism.

Key Takeaways from the Aesthetic Movement

Aestheticism in literature prioritizes the beauty and overall experience evoked by a work of art above moral and ethical values.

Important figures of the aesthetic movement include Oscar Wilde, Walter Horatio Pater, and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

The movement of aestheticism challenged and rejected the strict moral code imposed by Victorian society.

Aestheticism's influence extended to other artistic movements, including Decadence, Symbolism, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Oscar Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' (1891) is a significant example of the principles of aestheticism in literature.

The Essence of Aestheticism and Decadence

Aestheticism and Decadence in Victorian literature broke away from traditional norms and emphasized the importance of beauty and experience in art. These movements sparked a new way of thinking and continue to leave a lasting impact on the literary world. From literature to art, the influence of aestheticism and decadence can still be seen today, making it a crucial part of literary history.

The Expression of Emotions through Decadent Works

During the Victorian era, many literary works of Decadence were created as a form of self-expression, often conveying feelings of self-disgust and skepticism. These works challenged the strict moral codes and societal restrictions of the time, and instead, focused on the aesthetic experience offered by art.

The Concept of Aestheticism

Aestheticism does not follow a specific theory but rather offers a unique perspective on art. It places beauty at the forefront, considering it as the main indicator of value in literature. This means that Aestheticism values the aesthetic experience provided by a literary piece above its moral or ethical teachings.

Aestheticism in Victorian Literature

Victorian literature saw the emergence of Aestheticism through works such as "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1891) and "Marius the Epicurean" (1885), as well as poetry collections like "Poems and Ballads" (1866). These works embraced the idea of valuing art for its beauty rather than its didactic value.

The Clash with Victorian Society

The Victorian era was known for its strict societal rules and moral expectations, set against the backdrop of Queen Victoria's reign. During this time, literature and art were judged based on their ability to educate and reinforce moral values. However, Aestheticism challenged this, advocating for the belief of "art for art's sake." This concept emphasized the independence of art from morals and focused solely on its aesthetic appeal.

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