The following essay will explore the character of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The idea of Dorian’s deteriorating morality will be emphasized in this essay and the juxtaposition of the character’s picture and his physical appearance will be a main component in the development of thesis of this essay. The theme of morality will be a major issue in this paper as it is through morality that Dorian has drastically declined into his stygian state. Oscar Wilde presents the reader with a very modern day novel, both in theme, place setting, and character development.
The reader is introduced to Dorian Gray through Basil Hallward; the two characters are the crux of the novel’s actions. In fact the two characters, Basil and Dorian, although equally enthralled with each other at the start of the novel, become increasingly distance as the novel progresses and as Dorian finds himself in moral turpitude through the tutelage of Lord Henry Wotton Lord Henry looked at him. Yes, he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once.
All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world. No wonder Basil Hallward worshipped him (Chapter Two). In the first exchange between Dorian and Lord Henry, the theme of the novel, that of youth and its disappearance, brings Dorian to curse his portrait because it will only be a reminder of how beautiful and young he once was, and with this curse it is revealed to the reader how important the aspect of youth is to Dorian whose sole belief in himself rests with this characteristic.
Within the theme of youth is the ultimate curse of Dorian, for it is within this context that he becomes a doomed ‘hero’ and therefore loses his love, his life, and in the end of the story, his youth. Thus, the item which he once treasured becomes his downfall. It is with this curse that is Dorian’s lamenting of the portraits everlasting youth, that Dorian offers his soul in exchange for the portraits youth to be transferred to him while the portrait bears the brutality of Dorian’s life. In a type of Faustian decline, Lord Henry introduces Dorian into a very debilitating lifestyle in which Dorian becomes absolutely enthralled.
This new lifestyle is full of carnal pleasures and Dorian dives into it headfirst, exercising no judgment only the thrill of the moment, without regret, remorse, or reason at times (Baker 1969). Although this may be considered to be Lord Henry’s influence, Dorian embraces this lifestyle with fervor. It is Dorian’s choice how he lives, and even though it may be considered to have been a type of brainwashing, Dorian latches onto the ideals presented by Lord Henry in that first conversation in Basil’s house. In fact, the reason that Basil had admired Dorian, at least according to Dorian, is because of his youth and beauty.
Thus, Basil in the act of painting Dorian reiterates this theme. The support for this thesis runs consistent for most of the interactions among the characters in the novel. In one of the first examples the reader discovers of Dorian’s changing portrait is when Dorian falls in love with an actress by the name of Sibyl Vane. However, the plight of these two lovers is that Dorian falls in love with Sibyl because of her acting abilities; the twist is that since Sibyl has fallen in love with Dorian she no longer believes she can pretend to be in love on stage and thus quits her acting career (Wikipedia).
After this event, Dorian rejects Sibyl and breaks off their engagement, “He flung himself down on the sofa, and turned away his face. “You have killed my love,” he muttered. ” (Chapter Seven). This is when the audience and Dorian see the first changes in Dorian’s picture; his picture, once full of youth, beauty and a hopeful innocence, now sneers. This is the first sign of decline and it is not seen on Dorian’s picture perfect face but instead is relayed to the audience through the portraits physiognomy (Brown p. 264).
After this realization that Dorian’s curse has come true, Dorian seeks to make retributions with his moral fortitude and to make amends with Sibyl. Despite this last ditch effort, or even of the one chance Dorian has in the course of the novel to make reprimands, Lord Henry tells Dorian that Sibyl has killed herself and that he, Dorian, should take the suicide as a type of artistic triumph. Thus, Dorian is urged to live without regret or worse, with no remorse for his actions and involvement in the young girl’s death Yet it was watching him, with its beautiful marred face and its cruel smile. Its bright hair gleamed in the early sunlight.
Its blue eyes met his own. A sense of infinite pity, not for himself, but for the painted image of himself, came over him. It had altered already, and would alter more. Its gold would wither into grey. Its red and white roses would die. For every sin that he committed, a stain would fleck and wreck its fairness. But he would not sin. The picture, changed or unchanged, would be to him the visible emblem of conscience. He would resist temptation. He would not see Lord Henry any more—(End of Chapter Seven). From this point in the novel and onwards, there can be no rescue of Dorian since this is taken to be the crossroads of the story.
If Dorian cannot succumb to change his carnal lifestyle at the suicide, which he aided in, of his love, then there seems to be no hope for the young man and the rest of the course of the plot is full of Dorian’s revolting moral character and the constant influence of Lord Henry, and the gentle if somewhat absent depictions of Dorian as seen through Basil’s eyes. The story is very much like Faust because it is at the climax of the carnal lifestyle and its full meaning that Dorian has a change of heart and repents, but it is not until after Dorian has had his carnal lifestyle that this penance is shown.
Dorian is conscious of his changing moral character and in this light, he seeks to hide his portrait in an upper room of his house where only he may see the changing and aberrant images transforming Dorian’s physiognomy. The catch in the novel however is that in the eighteen years of Dorian’s interaction with London society on a debasing character, the elite of society continual to accept him, despite his moral character because Dorian remains young and beautiful.
While the fight between Lord Henry and Basil has occurred in the early stages of the novel, and it is obvious that Lord Henry has won, Basil nevertheless goes to Dorian’s house to confront Dorian about his flagging reputation in London society. While at Dorian’s house however, Dorian decides to show Basil his portrait of Dorian, and thus, the artist is confronted with how Dorian’s soul has been distorted through almost two decades of immoral living. Basil however is not put off by this effrontery and still begs Dorian to change his ways.
The reader however knows that the time for change would have been with Sibyl, and if Dorian cannot change his character after her suicide, then all hope is lost. Basil still persists, and in a fit of rage, against himself, and for Basil having witnessed the truth of Dorian’s soul, Dorian stabs Basil to death The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than in his whole life he had ever loathed anything. He glanced wildly around. Something glimmered on the top of the painted chest that faced him.
His eye fell on it. He knew what it was. It was a knife that he had brought up, some days before, to cut a piece of cord, and had forgotten to take away with him. He moved slowly towards it, passing Hallward as he did so. As soon as he got behind him, he seized it, and turned round. Hallward stirred in his chair as if he was going to rise. He rushed at him, and dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table, and stabbing again and again (Chapter 13).
Dorian’s goal in life now is to escape from guilt, which is a difficult task because only the guilty party has the ultimate power to induce remorse. After being confronted by Sibyl’s brother James Vane, and after James’ accidental death at a hunting party Dorian wishes to change his life. Dorian does not know how to repent his since without a complete confession of them and so fear causes him to be stagnant in his decision. In Dorian’s decision to confess his crimes, and yet not able to be plucky enough to do it, his portrait now reflects his intents to be hypocrisy.
In this new vein of the story, Dorian, in yet another classic fit of rage, revenge, or helplessness, Dorian picks up the same knife he used to kill Basil and attacks his self-portrait. The story then goes to the third person narrative and the servants hear a loud crash and go to find out what the noise was, and when they open the door, the servants and the readers find that the portrait has been restored to its formal beauty and youth and that Dorian lies an old, disfigured man on the floor with a knife plunged into his heart.
Thus, with Dorian’s final act of repentance, he is able to change that which he had cursed and traded his soul for in the beginning of Wilde’s story (Lawler & Knott p. 390). This, as mentioned prior is the Faust aspect of the story, the change of heart of the protagonist after having fulfilled his pleasure and had his share of dark fun. Dorian’s character then consists of a youth who is innocence, then persuaded by Lord Henry to live only for pleasure, then after murdering Basil, and seeing his love’s brother killed, and after staring at the state of his soul in the portrait Dorian changes.
It is this last that has the full affect on him; Dorian, faced with his true image, and the hate, jealousy, snide nature that has become him, becomes overwhelmed with truth and cannot believe the state of it, and thus, must cover up this last bit of evidence; he must kill himself. With this final act, the reader is faced with the ambiguous finding of whether or not through his actions Dorian was able to change what he had created through eighteen years of carnal pleasure seeking with his one act of retribution; stabbing his own self, after finally recognizing the evil that he had become.
Is this guild-ridden remorse for fear of eternal damnation? No, it is in fact Dorian finally confronting his sins and paying the ultimate price for them by his own hand; and thus is his morality reversed in the act of the stabbing and the recognition of the symbolism of it through the human Dorian and the portrait changing their appearances. This proves that Wilde wrote this story in order for a degradation morality to have a chance of change, even at the last moment and failings of life.
Dorian had thought himself beguiled by Basil’s own forceful praise of youth and then his introduction to Lord Henry who confirmed youth was the greatest prize; however, by the end of the story, Dorian has changed his morality into thinking that he is indeed responsible for his own actions through the course of his life and that with this responsibility and his owning of the action of stabbing himself, Dorian becomes purified and thus takes his true form. Work Cited Baker, H. A. Jr. A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Dec. , 1969), pp. 349-355. Brown, R. D. Suetonius, Symonds, and Gibbon in The Picture of Dorian Gray Modern Language Notes, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Apr. , 1956), p. 264. Lawler, D. & C. E. Knott. The Context of Invention: Suggested Origins of “Dorian Gray” Modern Philology, Vol. 73, No. 4, Part 1 (May, 1976), pp. 389-398. Wikipedia. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Online Accessed April 19, 2007. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Dorian_Gray. Wilde, O. The Picture of Dorian Gray Modern Library Classics, New York. 1998.