Odessa Hewitt-Bernhard

Lady Lazarus

Martha’s study was on the top floor of their house, overlooking the garden. After Nathan moved out, she moved her son’s bed and dresser out of the room, replacing it with a wooden desk and a set of shelves. She worked best in the mornings, when the sun came in through the window. 

Every morning, after Martha had been working for a few hours, Laurence would climb the stairs with two cups of coffee and greet her with a kiss. He liked to sit in the chair by her desk and watch as she worked. He loved the way she looked with her head bent over her papers. Her hair, almost fully grey now, fastened at the nape of her neck, her fingers ink-stained, her eyes bright and curious. 

The house was lonely without their sons, but Martha and Laurence made do. They had quiet mornings enjoying each other’s company, hosted big dinner parties, Martha gardened, and Laurence taught himself how to cook. The two of them were happy, for the most part. 

It was one of those mornings, Martha at her desk and Laurence in his chair, when Laurence got a phone call. He kissed his wife on the cheek and went downstairs to talk in the kitchen.

“Is this Laurence Denton?” a voice asked over the phonel. Laurence grunted his yes.

“My name is Doctor Archie Waters, Chief Clinical Ethicist at Bridgewood General Hospital. I have some news about your wife, and I was wondering if you could come by for a meeting sometime this week to discuss your next steps.” 

Laurence paused, thinking about Martha upstairs. The kitchen still smelled like the pot of coffee he’d made for them earlier. 

“What’s this about my wife?” he asked after a beat. 

“One of our nurses noticed that she opened her eyes last night. This is a good sign – we think in a couple of days she might become more responsive. Now we understand that -” 

A feeling of dread settled into Laurence’s stomach as the man spoke. “I don’t think I can talk about this right now,” Laurence interrupted, “But thank you for your call. Would it be possible to talk about this some other time?”

After some back and forth, they agreed that Laurence would come by the hospital later that afternoon. Doctor Waters hung up the phone with a sharp click. Above him, Laurence could hear Martha’s footsteps coming down the stairs. 

“Is there any coffee left?” She asked, popping her head into the kitchen. He nodded and let his eyes follow her to the stove. As Martha filled up her mug, Laurence felt his heart begin to race and a lump form in his throat. 

Life Triumphs over Death

Bonnie Greene, for Technology Today

November 21, 2061

How much would you give to see a lost loved one once again? For some, the answer is easy: $50,000. That’s the price of a new technology from Lazarus Inc., a company that claims to be able to bring the dead back to life. 

“Essentially, we make a copy of their mind at the time of death – their personality, memories, everything they’ve ever learned, everything they’ve ever hoped for. Once their consciousness is uploaded, we transplant it into a model. Real skin, organs, everything. After a few weeks, they’re ready to go and you can bring your loved one home again like nothing ever happened,” Marcus Zimmer, Lazarus’ CEO explained in an interview with us last week. 

Zimmer tells us that around ten people have made use of this technology in the past six months, a number he thinks can only grow with more awareness. “We feel like we’re doing a small bit to make people’s lives happier.” 

Frank Byrd, head of Medical Research and Innovation at the Millennium Institute for Science and Technology, says this innovation could change the course of medical technology. “It’s really the goal of everything us in the medical world have been trying to do for the past thousand years,” he says, “the triumph of science against nature. The triumph of life over death.”  

Doctor Waters’ office was sparse and clean, with a big window, white furniture, and a collection of leather-bound books behind his desk. Laurence sat on a chair across from him, next to a woman who had introduced herself as Ms. DeLaurentis. She was speaking in a low, serious tone, but Laurence wasn’t listening. His eyes were focused on a tree outside the window that was beginning to change colour. Laurence missed the summer. He and Martha had stayed with some friends in a cottage up north. She had spent the afternoons reading on the deck, soaking up the sun and jumping into the lake when she got too hot. Laurence smiled thinking of the way she would laugh when the cold water hit her skin. 

“Do you understand what I’m saying Mr. Denton?” Ms. DeLaurentis asked, “We need you to decide what you’re going to do.” 

“I’m so sorry,” Laurence said, bringing his attention back into the room. Ms. DeLaurentis had her hair pulled back too tight and a bit of a frown, but her eyes were a warm brown and she had thin laugh lines around her mouth. Laurence decided to like her. “As you can imagine, this is a lot for me to process right now. Can you go through it all again slowly for me?” 

Doctor Waters nodded, clasping his hands and meeting Laurence’s eyes, “Last night, your wife, Martha, opened her eyes. We have reason to believe that she will be out of her coma soon – a month at most. She’ll be confused and agitated at first, and she may not be as capable as she used to be. Twenty years is a long time to be out. We’ll spend a few months rehabilitating her here at the hospital, and if she’s well enough after that you should be able to take her home.

Now, I understand that after Martha’s accident, you decided to… extend Martha’s life so to speak.”

Laurence nodded in confirmation. 

“The legislation around this technology has changed now,” Ms. DeLaurentis told him, “For the past fifteen years, nobody has been allowed to use the technology from Lazarus’ inc. without a death certificate. Of course, these laws didn’t exist when you used it. My firm is looking into a possible class action lawsuit against Lazarus Inc. You are one of a few people who – “

“I’m sorry Ms. DeLaurentis,” Doctor Waters interrupted, “Maybe we should give Mr. Denton some time to let this settle in before we talk about your lawsuit. Laurence, before anything, you should think about what you’d like to do.”  

“And what exactly can I do?” Laurence asked, “I’m very happy to hear that Martha’s doing better but, well, I have a Martha who’s doing just fine back at home.” 

“Well,” Doctor Waters started, “You can tell your wife at home that your wife here has woken up and bring her home to live with the both of you. Now, there might be a period of adjustment, some identity problems, conflict. I don’t think this has ever been successful. 

You can also pretend we never had this conversation. Martha will make a full recovery in our hospital and once we determine she can live alone we’ll send her off. She will make a new life by herself, and you can continue living as you have for the past twenty years, with the Martha you have at home. 

Finally, you can bring Martha back and…”

“Lazarus Technologies has a new program to address cases like these,” Ms. DeLaurentis stepped in, “Essentially, they will take the woman that they constructed for you back to their facilities and deactivate her. This won’t cost you anything and there won’t be any fallout. All good and back to normal.”

Laurence mulled that over. He thought about Martha’s bright eyes, and the warmth of her skin. “Isn’t that murder?” he asked. 

“No, not legally,” Ms. DeLaurentis replied, “Technically, your wife at home isn’t human. She can be deactivated with no legal consequences.”

Laurence sat for a while, staring out the window. He tried to think, but his mind felt clear and empty. Eventually, he thanked them both, and stood up to go. Doctor Waters pushed a handful of brochures into his hand, and Ms. DeLaurentis gave him her business card. By the time he made it to his car, Laurence had tossed the brochures into a hospital garbage can. 

That evening, Laurence made French onion soup. Martha always said it tasted best in the autumn. They drank a few glasses of wine and, while doing the dishes, Martha put on an old song. Laurence spun her around, just like he had done when they were younger. 

“Do you remember when we first danced together?” Martha asked, “When we were chaperoning Bridgeview High’s prom together?” 

Laurence grinned and wrapped his arm around her waist, “Of course I remember! Do you remember how our students gasped when I dipped you like this?”

With that, Laurence tipped Martha over, catching her in his arms. She let out a small, delighted yell, and started to laugh. But of course, this wasn’t the Martha he had met when they were both schoolteachers, and it wasn’t the Martha he had danced with for the first time at their prom. That Martha, the one who he’d kissed in front of his coworkers and the graduating class, that Martha was opening her eyes in a hospital bed a few miles away. 

Martha met Laurence’s eyes and tilted her chin up to kiss him. Despite himself, Laurence felt himself turn his head. As Martha stiffened in his arms, Laurence pulled himself away and muttered that he had to put on a load of laundry. He gave his wife a quick, cold kiss, and left her to dry the rest of the dishes. 

“Love you, darling,” She called after him. Laurence couldn’t find it in himself to reply. 

Later, when they were both in bed, Laurence watched Martha fall asleep, unable to hold her as he usually did. As she began to drift off, Laurence thought about her skin, grown in a lab over metal bones, and her brain, a small chip in her skull. Everything Martha had ever been was contained in a series of zeroes and ones. That night he had strange, dizzying dreams about twins in the womb and metal fixtures grating into each other. 

A few days later, Laurence met his mother in a café and caught up over sandwiches. His mother was in her eighties now, but still active. She told him about her new neighbours, a young couple, and the goings on at her church. When there was a lull in conversation, she nudged her son. 

“What’s gotten into you sweetheart?” She asked, “You seem distracted.”

Laurence sighed and nodded. He was. He hadn’t been able to think about anything except for Martha since his meeting with Doctor Waters. Even his students had made comments about it. 

“It’s been a rough week,” He admitted to his mother, “I got some news about Martha. They think she’s going to be out of her coma soon.”

Laurence’s mother gasped and put down her fork. “Oh, that’s great news!” She exclaimed, beaming. 

Laurence tried to muster up a smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes. His mother asked what was bothering him. “I just don’t know what to do,” He told her, “If I should send my Martha back, if I should bring the other Martha home…”

“What are you fretting about Laurence?” His mother asked, “It’s easy! What you have at home is a little toy, not the woman you married! Something to keep you busy so you don’t have to grieve. Send her back to the factory and get on with your life.”

“But I’ve loved her for the past twenty years, Mom,” Laurence explained, “The woman who watched our kids become adults. Who I’ve built my life around!”

Laurence’s mother pursed her lips and took a bite of her sandwich. She and Martha had loved each other when she and Laurence had first married, but after the accident she had pulled away. Martha never understood exactly what she had done to make her act this way, and of course Laurence couldn’t have explained it to her. 

“That isn’t your wife,” Laurence’s mother said, “It was created in a lab twenty years ago.”

“But she has Martha’s personality, her childhood memories. For all she knows, she’s fifty-eight years old.”

“Listen Laurence,” She said, almost angry, “I knew it was a mistake to do this when it happened. I told you there’s no use trying to delay the inevitable –only God can choose when we go! Your wife is coming back from a coma that nearly killed her. Can’t you see this for the miracle it is?”

“Say I do send her back, and bring the Martha in the hospital back home with me,” Laurence conceded, “How could I possibly explain this to Nathan and Emerson?”

“They’re both grown up now. They could handle it.”

Laurence gazed past his mother through the window, thinking of his two boys. Nathan and Emerson looked at their mother like she was the whole world, and their love for her had only deepened as they entered adulthood. Martha – his Martha, the Martha at home – was there for graduations, weddings, the birth of Emerson’s first child. To hear that their mother would be going back to a laboratory to be shut down, even to hear that their real mother had been lying in a hospital bed for the past twenty years… Laurence knew the two would end up hating him. 

The two finished their meal in silence, and Laurence paid the bill. Before they parted ways, his mother gave Laurence a tight hug and told him she loved him. 

“You know what to do,” she said, walking away. 

On Sunday, six days after Laurence received the news, he and Martha spent the afternoon cleaning up their garden for the winter. Martha’s tomato plants had stopped bearing fruit, and her herbs had all wilted in the cold. She put on a heavy coat and spoke to Laurence while she pulled her plants out of the ground.

“I was thinking of looking for jobs outside of Bridgeport once I’ve finished up my degree,” She said, placing a handful of weeds in a brown paper compost bag, “Somewhere close that I can drive to. Our university doesn’t have the best math department and my advisor says I should be looking somewhere bigger if I really want to do research.” 

Laurence nodded at her, distracted. He wondered if Martha had noticed a change in him. Whenever he looked at Martha, he saw her in a hospital bed, or going to some warehouse to be shut down. He saw the warmth leaving her eyes, saw her coming home to a building that was unfamiliar to her after so many years away. 

“Laurence,” Martha said, bringing him back to the garden, “I was thinking I’d like to go somewhere when I’m done with my dissertation. Somewhere warm. We haven’t been on a vacation since the boys graduated.” 

Laurence grunted in acknowledgment. “Maybe,” he said. The idea of promising anything to her made his stomach flip.

Martha looked over at him and her lips turned down slightly, “I think it would be nice.” 

A moment passed and Martha shivered despite the late afternoon sun. She made her way to the house, paused for a moment as if she had something to say, then let out a puff of air and disappeared inside. 

A New Lease on Life: Local Woman Defends Lazarus Amid Protests

Iris Cullen, for The Easthaven Observer

August 31, 2075

If you were to meet Augusta Desmond, you wouldn’t think that she was anything other than a flesh and blood human being. Augusta has a big laugh, a warm smile, and a near encyclopedic knowledge of Easthaven’s local history. You would never guess that the woman in front of you was a cleverly made replica of the original Augusta Desmond, who died of lung cancer last year. 

“I told my husband that I wanted him to use the technology as soon as I heard about it,” Augusta tells me. I’m joining her and her dog Rufus for their daily walk in Queensway Park, to ask her about her perspective on Lazarus Technologies following the protests in Washington last month. 

When Augusta was diagnosed with terminal cancer six years ago, she saw Lazarus Inc. as a cure when nothing else was possible. “It gave me a new lease on life,” she tells me. 

For Augusta, her family, and many like her, Lazarus technologies provides a chance to continue living in the face of terminal illness. She says that the technology has been the best thing to happen to her family.

While many people worry that Lazarus Inc. has gone too far, Lazarus technologies was a godsend for Augusta. “Everyone is afraid of things they don’t know about; I think that’s the real problem here,” Augusta tells me, “In a few years, the treatment will be as commonplace as penicillin.”

When Laurence and Martha first met, they were both working as teachers. She had caught his eye on his first day, when she offered to pour him a cup of coffee at a staff meeting. 

“The machine is tricky,” She told him, “I don’t want you to burn yourself.”

It took him almost two years to ask her out to dinner. Martha wore a blue dress and the two spent the evening talking about their students and the books they were reading. As he walked her home, Martha told him she had wanted to go out with him since they first met. Laurence kissed her under a streetlight, and they were married six months later. 

When Martha had gotten into her accident, there was no question for Laurence. He had read about Lazarus in the newspaper, seen the protests outside their laboratory on the nighttime news. By then, Laurence and Martha had been married fifteen years. Nathan was five and Emerson was ten. Laurence told himself he was doing it for them, but he knew that mostly he was afraid of going to bed alone. Of her pillow being cold beside him, her clothes unworn in their closet. He wanted to see Martha brush her teeth one last time. 

The surgeon had told him she wasn’t supposed to live for more than a month. It was almost a guarantee. Laurence had been warned against it, sure, but there was nothing telling him he couldn’t do it, and his sons were asking about their mother. He couldn’t wait a month. He spoke to an agent at Lazarus, he took out a line of credit. His wife was back home within two weeks, believing that she had made a miraculous recovery after her accident.

Their sons grew up and left home. Martha quit her job and went back to school. Laurence learned to forget that anything was different. And, in the hospital, the woman he married remained unconscious.

“Is this Ms. DeLaurentis?” Laurence asked when the call connected. He was sitting in his classroom in the late afternoon, after his students had gone home for the day. The voice on the other line confirmed that it was the lawyer from the hospital, and Laurence introduced himself. She remembered him immediately. 

“What can I help you with Mr. Denton?” she asked, “Are you interested in pursuing legal action against Lazarus Inc?”

Laurence frowned down at his notepad, where he had written down her office number and a handful of questions. “Not exactly,” He said, “Well, maybe in the future. I’m sorry, I know you’re a very busy woman, but I think I just wanted to ask…”

“Don’t worry Mr. Denton,” Ms. DeLaurentis said, her voice softening, “I can try my best to answer any questions you might have.”

Laurance thanked her, “I was only wondering, what have other people in my position done?”

There was a small pause, then Ms. DeLaurentis said, “Well, I’m afraid that I can’t give personal details, but the majority of my clients ended up taking their loved ones home with them and deactivating the other one. 

You see, Lazarus’ products aren’t legally ‘people.’ They don’t have the same protections or rights as others do. Which is something that a lot of people are angry about right now, but it does put you in an easy place. If you wanted to send Martha back, there would be nothing stopping you. 

On the other hand, there can be a messy legal proceeding if you don’t take your wife home with you. A hard divorce. Courts generally don’t look favourably on someone who’s abandoned their spouse for what is, technically, a product. Did you and Martha sign a prenup by any chance?”

As Ms. DeLaurentis spoke, Laurence felt his stomach turn over. He hated the thought of sending Martha back, and he hated the thought of abandoning Martha in the hospital. Laurence muttered something about not having a prenup, thanked Ms. DeLaurentis hurriedly, then hung up the phone.  

Millions Gather to Protest Controversial New Technology 

Harris Clement, for The Eastern Tribune 

July 7, 2065

WASHINGTON – Groups from across the country are gathering in Washington today to protest Lazarus Inc.’s new technology, which claims to be able to bring the dead back to life. 

Although Lazarus Inc. has been providing this service for around four years, public interest in their work has only sparked recently, after nearly 200 people across the country made use of their technology in the past six months. While some see this treatment as a godsend, others are worried about the implications of a technology this powerful. 

“Essentially, what we’re seeing here is a big tech company creating new people,” Ralph Newman, head of the Bioethics Department at California State, explains. He came to Washington to voice his concerns about creating copies of those who have died, and the rights of both the people created by Lazarus Inc. and their families. 

Many of the protesters are here to voice religious concerns against the technology. Reverend Pierce Mackey, who led a prayer circle outside the Capitol earlier today, explains that much of the concern comes from the implication that this technology can end mortality: “These things, who dies and when, they really aren’t up to us and they certainty shouldn’t be decided by a big company like Lazarus.” 

While some are here to protest the technology itself, others are simply hoping for stricter regulations: “Right now, this can be used in almost any situation,” Newman explains, “What I’d like to see is some restrictions, so that people can only use this once their loved one is really in the ground. And then of course, we need some rules about how these copies should be treated once they’re made. Whether they have full rights as citizens, or whether they’re owned by their families. Or owned by Lazarus Inc!” 

Protests are set to continue over the next six days, with the possibility of others being organized through the months to come.  

Every Sunday, Nathan, Emerson, and their families came by for dinner. Martha spent all afternoon in the kitchen, making roast beef and potatoes for the family. Laurence, who usually helped her cook, kept to himself, going through old photographs in the living room. By the time their sons dropped by, the two hadn’t spoken for hours. 

Martha came to life in the presence of her children. She kissed everyone on the cheek and scooped Emerson’s daughter, Lily, into a hug. Nathan helped her bring the dishes to the table and everyone piled into their chairs. Laurence took his usual place next to his wife, giving her a small nod as he settled in next to her. Martha frowned slightly, hardly noticeable, before turning to her family with her usual beaming smile. 

As they ate, Nathan told everyone about his new position at the publishing house, and Emerson’s wife Daniella filled them in on Lily’s new sleep schedule. The air was heavy with the smell of gravy, and as they spoke, Laurence’s family’s voices seemed to rattle around in his head. He took a bite of potatoes that made his stomach churn. He glanced at Martha and felt his heartbeat in his throat. 

“I’m going out for a smoke,” he said suddenly, standing up in the middle of Nathan’s impression of his boss. Martha reached out for his hand, concerned, but he pulled it away. Laurence went into the foyer, grabbed a pack of cigarettes from his jacket, and sat on the front stoop. The air was cold and clean, and the nicotine helped clear his headache. He relished the quiet and took a few deep breaths. 

“Hey Dad,” said a voice from behind him. It was Emerson, standing in the doorway. He took a seat next to Laurence, who offered him a cigarette. Emerson shook his head. 

“What’s going on with you and mom?” He asked eventually, “She started to tear up when you left the table.” 

Laurence looked across the street, refusing to meet his son’s eyes. He had always prided himself on the strength and stability of his family. If he were to tell Emerson what was bothering him, he knew it would break his son’s heart. 

“Did something happen?” Emerson asked him, “You know she called Daniella yesterday, worried about you? She said you’ve started eating dinner alone.”

Laurence shook his head, refusing to meet his son’s eyes. A long moment passed, the air heavy between them. 

“Do you remember your mom’s accident?” Laurence asked, finally. 

“Yeah, I remember,” Emerson said, “I was what, ten years old? It was scary, I thought she was going to die.” 

“What if she did?” Laurence asked, “Or what if she had stayed in her coma longer?”

Emerson let out a confused laugh, “What are you talking about?” 

“How would you have felt if you didn’t have your mom around when you were growing up?”

Emerson shook his head, baffled, then shrugged. “I don’t know Dad.” 

Emerson looked at Laurence for a moment, furrowing his brow. Then he sighed and stood up to go back inside. 

When his son was gone, Laurence crushed the butt of his cigarette under his shoe. As he lit another, he felt tears well up in his throat. A roar of laughter came in from inside, Martha’s familiar laugh mixed with his sons’. The smell of pie drifted through the window – Martha must have put it in the oven to heat up – and Laurence began to cry.

It was a Saturday afternoon and Martha was sitting in the living room, reading a book. When Laurence walked in, he was struck by her for a moment by how normal the scene was. The light through the curtains was soft and warm, Martha was deep in thought. He thought for a moment about how easy it would be to ignore everything, to let Martha recover in the hospital room and make her way in the world alone. How easy it would be to forget anything has happened, to convince himself that this Martha was human. 

The moment passed and Laurence sighed, squared his shoulders. He was ready to tell Martha everything. He had to tell her everything. She deserved to know. 

“My darling,” Laurence said, coming to her side, “I need to tell you something.” 

Martha looked up and smiled at her husband, “What is it?”

“Do you remember when you got into your accident all those years ago?”

When he began to speak, the words fell out of him like water. It was the easiest thing he had ever done, to tell his wife the truth. He told her about the accident, about his choice to revive her, about the woman waking up right now in the hospital. He said he was sorry, he begged her forgiveness, he almost kissed her feet and wept. He told her he loved her. He told her he missed her. He told her he wished he could go back and do it all over again. He told her he wished they could go on as normal, as if none of this had ever happened. 

When Laurence stopped after what felt like hours of speaking, Martha said nothing. She closed her book, and stood up, then walked up the stairs to their room. Laurence watched as she left, frozen. After a while, he managed to follow her. 

In their room, Martha had her suitcase laid out on the bed. She was taking her clothing out of her drawers, folding it carefully, and placing it inside. When Laurence walked in, she met his eyes. He had never seen her so angry. 

“What are you doing?” He asked. 

“I’m going to stay with my sister,” she told him, her voice short. 

“Why?” Laurence asked. When Martha didn’t answer, he came up to her and tried to hold her. She shook him off. 

“Please,” he begged, “Just talk to me. We can work through this. I’ll leave her in the hospital. We can go on like nothing is different.” 

When he said it, Laurence knew it was true. He could never bring his Martha home from the hospital. He could forget the accident ever happened. 

Martha zipped up her suitcase and made her way to the door. 

“I love you,” Laurence told her. 

She turned around and shook her head, “Twenty years and I never knew.” 

With that, Martha left. Laurence heard her footsteps down the stairs, then the door open and close. He sat on the bed, shocked, as Martha hailed a taxi to take her away. And, in a hospital bed down the road, Martha opened her eyes and began to look around.

Odessa Hewitt-Bernhard is a fourth-year student studying philosophy and ethics, society, and law at the University of Toronto. She is especially interested in ethics, phenomenology, and philosophy of religion. She is currently working on a project on philosophy of grief as part of a research fellowship with the Jackman Humanities Institute.
Kenzo Pecchia

The Ethics of The Picture of Dorian Gray

Ethcisim is the aesthetic theory proposed by Berys Gaut which argues that consideration of the moral content of a work of art is legitimate for evaluating the work’s aesthetic content because the moral value of the work has a legitimate influence over the work’s overall aesthetic quality (Gaut 182).  Morally valuable features are aesthetically valuable and likewise morally reprehensible features are aesthetically defective.  Although I agree with ethicists that the moral characteristics of a work of art have legitimate influence on our aesthetic evaluations of it, the mere presence of morally valuable features do not necessarily translate into aesthetic value; nor would the mere depiction of immorality necessarily devalue a work’s aesthetic.  Rather, I will argue, moral claims are only aesthetically significant in as much as they demonstrate the paradoxical nature of the relationship between morality and art, not for the ethical content being advanced itself.  Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is an exemplary model for highlighting the conflict between aesthetic and ethical aims due to the shared fate of its titular portrait and protagonist.  Despite Wilde’s brazen depictions of Dorian’s descent into depravity and vice, Dorian’s moral downfall is not an aesthetic defect of the novel.  Insead, Dorian’s descent is central to the novel’s beauty.  Dorian’s conscience is symbolized by his portrait, which deteriorates over the course of the novel as he leans deeper into vice.  However, once Dorian’s depravity leads to his necessary demise which renders him hideous and deformed, the painting is restored to its former beauty.  The painting’s restoration is therefore both a declaration of the irrelevance of Dorian’s crimes and a powerful condemnation of them simultaneously.

Ethicists do not believe that ethical values are the only influence on the aesthetic value of a work, nor are they necessarily the most important.  Rather, moral characteristics are only one of various possible considerations that influence a work’s aesthetic value (Gaut 182).  Thus, works can be aesthetically beautiful but morally reprehensible (e.g. Triumph of the Will) or aesthetically ugly but morally good (e.g. Uncle Tom’s Cabin) (Gaut 182-183).  Ethical value is only one of many aesthetic values a work may have and therefore the ethicist must balance all aesthetic values to determine the overall quality of the work.  The ethicist has a more complex framework than initially appears for contemplating a work’s aesthetic value in complex moral cases which is, for the most part, sufficient for dealing with edge cases like Riefenstahl.

The Painting as a Rejection of Ethics in Art

Wilde is perhaps the greatest challenger to ethicism due to his complete denunciation of moral characteristics having any semblance of influence over aesthetic quality.  Although I do not endorse his view, I believe my objections to ethicism are best exemplified by the preface to Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  The preface explicitly tells the reader “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.  Books are well written, or badly written.  That is all” (Wilde 7).  Wilde rejects Gaut’s ethicism because Wilde outright rejects the very notion that art can even appraise moral claims.  “Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art” (7). their value only arises as aesthetic flourishes, not for their moral content itself.  Thus, for Wilde, art can only be judged in terms of its beauty or lack thereof, regardless of subject matter.  Although Wilde does concede “the moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist” (7), he also proclaims “No artist has ethical sympathies.  An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style” (7).  Art is fundamentally supposed to be pointless as “All art is quite useless” (8) and it derives its value precisely because it lacks a function.  Therefore, to advance an ethical sympathy is to give art purpose, undermining its value as art.  While I disagree with Wilde for his stance on moral content being wholly irrelevant to aesthetic value, his preface is nevertheless a powerful challenge which must be directly confronted for ethicism to survive.

Despite his claims in the preface, however, Wilde’s treatment of Dorian at the end of the novel appears to be an “ethical sympathy” of some form.  When Dorian dies, his body is rendered hideous and deformed but the painting is restored to its former beauty.  Dorian’s moral character appears to directly correlate to his aesthetic quality, for his death renders him an abomination: an accurate portrayal of his moral character.  It therefore seems that Wilde’s “ethical sympathy” has creeped into his work and has manifested in his depiction of Dorian’s death.  If the novel is a didactic warning against excessive hedonistic behavior and the ending is the inevitable fall which such behavior necessarily brings, then the novel’s aesthetic qualities are contingent on Dorian’s moral character.  Even assuming the novel is still aesthetically pleasing for its prose, structure, plot and emotional resonances with the reader, the novel’s content would be in direct opposition with its aesthetic value and would therefore be a major and irreconcilable defect.  Thus, the didactic function of the novel appears to undermine Wilde’s claims about the purposelessness of art in the preface.

But this is not necessarily the case, for the painting is restored to its former beauty.  While Dorian is left hideous, the hideousness of the painting is removed.  If Wilde were truly denouncing Dorian’s ethical behavior, then why is the painting restored?  If he truly wanted to condemn Dorian, Wilde ought to have left both Dorian and the painting destroyed, leaving no aesthetic value remaining.  The painting is directly tied to Dorian’s conscience and reacts to his immorality and yet, despite Dorian never atoning for his sins or clearing his conscience, the painting is still restored to its original beauty.  Its restoration cannot be reflective of Dorian’s moral character unless it represents his moral character as a dead man, for a corpse is intrinsically amoral due to being incapable of moral action.  But if this is the case, then the painting is no longer tied to any moral characteristics.  It is tied to the dead yet exists independent of death.  The preservation of the painting thus seems to act against any moral claim one could seemingly make against Dorian because a moral condemnation is illogical if the painting’s function completely ceases following Dorian’s death.  Wilde must not be making any moral claims in the ending, but is rather making the claim that the painting is autonomous.  The painting is beautiful because it is no longer tied to anything, for its own sake and nothing more.  The ending is not, then, a punishment for Dorian’s sins nor is the novel a didactic warning that necessarily ends in horrific downfall.  Rather, the ending is a claim for the novel’s own artfulness.  With Dorian’s death, the novel, like the painting, has become purposeless and exists on its own, free of moral characteristics and beautiful in its own right.  

The painting’s autonomy is thus a realization of the preface.  In the preface, Wilde explicitly detaches the novel from moral characteristics, effectively killing off any influence they may possess to allow the novel to stand as its own autonomous aesthetic object.  The novel ends exactly as it begins: by killing off the influence of moral characteristics and allowing the painting to stand on its own.  The ending of the novel is, in the words of Cleanth Brooks, “an instance of the doctrine it asserts; it is both the assertion and the realization of the assertion” (Brooks 17).  The preface claims moral characteristics can only serve as flourishes for the artist and the ending realizes this claim.  Dorian’s depravity ultimately has no effect on the beauty of the painting in the same way Wilde claims moral character has no effect on the aesthetic qualities of his novel.  Just as the novel preserves Dorian’s beauty, so too does the painting.  Hence, the preservation of the painting is reflective of the structure of the novel itself.  The painting harkens back to the novel’s genesis to see the novel realized and wholly completed, thereby unifying beginning and end into a harmonized singularity.  By acting as a re-invocation of the preface, the restoration unifies both the novel itself and the painting into beautiful and autonomous works free of moral characteristics.

The Painting as an Affirmation of Ethics in Art

However, the harmony between preface and ending is complicated through Wilde’s constant allusions to Hamlet as Wilde explicitly draws parallels between his characters and Shakespeare’s.  Dorian’s first lover, Sibyl Vane, is an actress of Shakespearean drama and her relationship with her brother James directly parallels the relationship between Ophelia and Laertes.  James’ cautionary advice for his sister to “beware of” (Wilde 71) Dorian mirrors Laertes’ own advice that Ophelia “be wary” (Shakespeare 1.3.42) of Hamlet’s affections.  Likewise, Sibyl’s suicide drives James to the same mortal vengeance Laertes vows over his sister’s congenerous fate.  Dorian thus occupies the same role as Hamlet as he drives his beloved to suicide and incurs the wrath of her brother.  His demise, then, must be understood as belonging to the same genre of tragedy Hamlet operates under for he himself is another iteration of the character.  

There is, then, a potential secondary reading of the novel which directly opposes the reading prior: the didactic warning against excessive hedonism that was previously dismissed.  While the ending appears to depict immorality unpunished, the painting’s restoration should not be understood as a depiction nor embodiment of vice.  Rather, the ending ought to be read as a didactic condemnation of Dorian’s excessive hedonism through the lens of tragedy.  Shakespearean tragedy often was, and continues to be, read under the framework established by A.C. Bradley, who read Shakespeare’s plays as depicting tragic heroes who exhibit some hamartia (tragic flaw) that must be punished by the play’s narrative.  Though the didacticism of Shakespearean tragedy is a contentious issue and Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy was written well-over a decade after The Picture of Dorian Gray, the literary tradition from which both Wilde and Shakespeare are drawing from inherently entails there be a didactic element to their respective tragedies.  Aristotle defines tragedy as “a representation of an action that is serious, complete, and of some magnitude… by means of pity and fear bringing about the catharsis of such emotions” (64).  Regardless of how one interprets the infamously untranslatable catharsis, no one can deny that Aristotle perceives the “pity and fear” that arise as a result to have a practical purpose that benefits the audience.  Further, as Colin Burrow argues, Aristotle’s concept of the hero’s hamartia came to be known generally as ‘sin’ under the Christian era Shakespeare occupied and referred to both the general weakness of the fallen and the specific vices of tragic figures (2).  This Christianized version of hamartia is evident in the title page to one edition of John Lydgate’s translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s tragedies, where the downfall of Boccaccio’s princes is advertised as valuable for its ability for readers to observe “what vices bring men to destruction, with notable warnings how the like may be avoided” (The Tragedies).  Tragedy, from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Wilde, was therefore understood as having a necessarily didactic function of informing its audience on potential pitfalls of vice and the ruin they can cause.  In his invocations of Shakespearean tragedy to the narrative of his novel, Wilde must also assimilate the didactic connotations of the genre as well.  If Dorian is a Hamlet figure, he must be a didactic one as well.

The necessary didacticism of the novel’s tragic structure becomes apparent when Dorian quotes Hamlet directly in order to explain his feelings on the painting (Wilde 210), stating it was “Like the painting of a sorrow, / A face without a heart” (Shakespeare 4.7.106-7).  The novel later explicitly declares that the painting “had been conscience” (Wilde 218) itself for Dorian, hence his compulsion to destroy it.  If the novel is not merely a reflection but a genuine representation of Dorian’s conscience itself, then the painting cannot be a mere “painting of sorrow” because it is directly tied to Dorian’s own heart.  Thus, when Dorian attempts to extirpate the painting once and for all, the knife he uses with the intention of its obliteration is instead plunged directly into his chest.  The painting cannot then be autonomous precisely because it is inextricably linked to Dorian himself and its destruction necessitates the destruction of its owner.  In being his very conscience, the painting is an integral part of Dorian’s essence.  In attempting to destroy his own being, Dorian must necessarily destroy himself.  Thus, Dorian’s status as a tragic figure requires him to be a didactic warning against the blatant disregard of virtue his excessive hedonism entails.  Dorian’s deformity and the painting’s restoration serve as a reminder of Dorian’s fall from grace: it captures his beauty and goodness prior to depravity and immortalizes it as a stark warning against emulating Dorian’s actions.

The two contradictory readings are, by themselves, non-issues for ethicists as they are capable of accepting both and utilizing them into their framework.  If the ethicist accepts the restoration as autonomous reading, then they would regard the ending as aesthetically deficient because of Wilde’s failure to punish and denounce Dorian for his sins and therefore beautifies them.  The novel may still be aesthetically valuable for its style and form, but its moral content is a problematic hindrance.  If the ethicist accepts the Shakespearean reading, then the ending promotes a powerful ethical claim consistent with the themes and form of the novel and therefore bolsters the novel’s aesthetic excellence.

The Paradox of the Painting

However, together, the two readings pose a major threat to ethicism due to the irresolvable conflict between them.  At the very same moment of Dorian’s tragic fall and the reaffirmation that the painting reflects a genuine heart, the painting actually becomes “a face without a heart” because the heart it was previously tied to has literally been eradicated as the knife pierces Dorian’s corporeal chest.  In Dorian’s destruction, the perfectly preserved portrait can only be a “painting of sorrow” as it is no longer tied to anything.  It can no longer express anything genuine outside of itself.  The painting truly becomes “an instance of the doctrine it asserts” but only through a moralistic claim.  The tragic connotations of Dorian’s demise inherent to the genre Wilde must operate under necessitates his absolutely autonomous creation be established under the moral lens of tragedy.  The painting is autonomous, yet it relies on external moral statements to preserve its autonomy simultaneously.  The painting is therefore, at every moment, undermining itself at every turn.  We are thus faced with a seemingly irreversible paradox in which both the preface’s amoral assertion and the tragedy’s didactic assertion are both being realized simultaneously with Dorian’s death.  What makes the novel so striking is that these two conflicting assertions reach the climax of their struggle with Dorian’s death but the resolution never follows.  Neither side claims victory over the other.  While the didactic reading clashes with the preface, the autonomous reading clashes with the didactic elements with equal force.  The novel is therefore left unresolved as both a perfect reassertion and a perfect contradiction of itself, regardless of which interpretation one prefers.  It is a constantly unfolding dialectic in which the argument over the relevance for moral characteristics is revealed to us actively as we read, but neither assertion can prevail and the dialectic must continue indefinitely past the novel’s finale. 

The paradox thus undermines ethicism’s efficacy as the theory has no means of making sense of it.  The ethicist has no true grounds for asserting one reading over the other and therefore struggles to find aesthetic value or deficiency in Wilde’s depictions of immorality.  Nor can the ethicist assess both readings simultaneously due to Dorian’s sins being depicted both didactically and non-didactically.  The ethicist can therefore neither reject nor accept the paradox in any capacity and is left completely incapable of making any moral claims about the novel.  While ethicists are normally capable of making aesthetic judgements independent of and uninfluenced by moral judgements, The Picture of Dorian Gray is structurally and stylistically inseparable from Wilde’s engagement with Dorian’s degradation.  The didactic or non-didactic evaluation of moral characteristics only occurs through the novel’s engagement with moral characteristics: without challenging morality’s role, the paradox that the entire novel is centered around would cease to function.  Wilde’s novel is structurally dependent on this conflict regarding the relevance of moral characteristics for art.  Moral characteristics thus define the novel, for without them it cannot function.  The novel’s aesthetic qualities are fundamentally dependent on engaging with and challenging morality’s role in literature.  The role of moral characteristics is therefore not only important but structurally integral and inseparable from the novel’s aesthetic value.  But the ethicist, incapable of structuring a moral evaluation, is left incapable of making any aesthetic claims at all.

While the paradox may be irresolvable, Wilde still makes an explicit claim about morality’s function.  The intertwined relationship of the novel’s moral value, or lack thereof, from its aesthetic value proves the inseparability of moral content from aesthetic value.  Wilde, in his attempt to distance himself from moral characteristics, has perhaps given the most powerful defense in the history of art for their relevance.  He has revealed that moral character is the means by which we engage with an artwork’s aesthetic qualities and to challenge these characteristics is to engage with them at such a structural level that the novel’s aesthetic qualities are dependent on the conflict.  Moral characteristics are inseparable from the work they inhabit for without them we could not perceive the work we are evaluating, be it for aesthetic value or anything else.

Gaut is therefore correct to assert “the truth of ethicism shows that the aesthetic and the ethical are intertwined” (Gaut 199) for Wilde has proven the inseparability of ethical and aesthetic claims.  Whenever a work engages with moral characteristics, even if to reject them, it is structurally and aesthetically defined by the moral characteristics it exhibits.  Where Gaut errs is in his conflation of the content of moral characteristics with their implementation.  The paradox of Dorian Gray is not contingent on the content of the moral characteristics Wilde is engaging with nor on the conclusions he draws from them.  Whether or not Dorian is a good moral agent worthy of praise or blame is irrelevant because that is not the focus of the paradox.  Dorian is merely the vehicle for conflict, whose immorality drives the plot but not the core of the novel.  The paradox is instead built upon the structure of Dorian’s engagement with moral characteristics and the ways in which he interacts with them, not on the actions themselves.  Hence why Wilde offers very little detail about most of Dorian’s sins: they are irrelevant as only the painting’s reaction matters.  It is the necessarily paradoxical relationship between art and morality that generates aesthetic value, not the didactic content of the novel itself.  “Ethical sympathies” are only beautiful in driving aesthetic function and reprehensible if they function poorly.


Aristotle. “Poetics.” In Classical Literary Criticism, ed. Penelope Murray, and T. Dorsch. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. 1975.

Burrow, Colin. “What Is a Shakespearean Tragedy?” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, edited by Claire McEachern, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013, pp. 1–22. Cambridge Companions to Literature.

Gaut, Berys. “The Ethical Criticism of Art.” Aesthetics and Ethics. 1998, pp. 182–203.

“The Tragedies, Gathered by Ihon Bochas, of All Such Princes as Fell from Theyr Estates Throughe the Mutability of Fortune since the Creacion of Adam, Vntil His Time.” Collections,

Shakespeare, William, and A. R. Braunmuller. Hamlet. Penguin Books, 2016.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Arcturus. 2017

Kenzo Pecchia is currently pursuing a specialist in Philosophy and major in English at the University of Toronto. His philosophical interests include aesthetics, literary criticism, and ethics. He enjoys the process of analysing literature under a philosophical framework, as is the case in this essay.

I would like to thank Professor Misha Teramura for directing my attention to both Colin Burrows’ excellent essay on Shakespearean tragedy and the title page to Boccaccio’s Tragedies. His advice and direction were invaluable to my analysis of the Shakespearean elements of Wilde’s novel.

I would also like to thank Professor Griffin Klemick for his assistance in my original planning of the paper and initial feedback. Without him, this essay would not have been possible.

Lastly, I would like to thank the entire Noēsis team for their constructive feedback and willingness to publish this paper. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity.
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