Free Study Guide for The Picture of Dorian Gray: Book Summary |
Dorian Gray is the beautiful object of two men’s attentions. He dominates the imagination of Basil Hallward and he is dominated in turn by the imagination of Lord Henry. He becomes the embodiment of Lord Henry’s ideas of the aesthetic life.
When he is under the influence of Basil Hallward at the beginning of the novel, he falls in love with Sibyl Vane and is willing to sacrifice all social standing for her. He falls in love with the artfulness of her acting. When he tells Basil Hallward and Lord Henry of his passion, the two older men are alarmed, but Basil Hallward begins to think it is a good thing for Dorian Gray to devote himself to love. Instead, when his love loses her acting ability because of love, he rejects her cruelly and she commits suicide. It is in his reaction to her death that the reader recognizes the direction Dorian Gray will take, which of his two mentors he will follow. He follows Lord Henry’s amoral aestheticism, recasting the tragedy of her death as a beautiful work of art in life and therefore finding self-gratifying pleasure in her suicide. From that moment onwards, his course is set.
Dorian Gray isn’t a well-rounded character. Like Basil Hallward and Lord Henry, he is a type. He represents an idea, the idea of art in life. Once he makes his prayer that he change places with his portrait, to live life without aging while the portrait bears the marks of age, he follows a fairly unwavering course. He goes from lover to lover, male and female, and ruins the reputation of each in turn. He has no allegiance to anyone he knows. He pursues pleasure dispassionately. He cares nothing for the morality of conventional society. He cares nothing for their censure of him. He is sure he will always be accepted in enough places to satisfy him.
For Dorian Gray, sin is ugliness and therefore sin is horrible. He holds a morbid fascination with the portrait which grows older and uglier with each sin Dorian commits. He doesn’t have a developed moral sense which would recognize a moral imperative-the idea that some things are wrong no matter whether one ever has to pay any consequences for them. He only regards acts as wrong when he can see their affects on the countenance of the figure in the portrait. When Basil Hallward comes back into his life and tries to convince him to reform, he drags Basil upstairs to see the portrait. At that moment, he does seem to experience remorse. Yet, even there, it is the remorse of the undeveloped moral sense, the remorse of the child who recognizes he’s done something wrong only when he is caught in the act. Here, he shows Basil Hallward the evidence of his bad deeds out of a desire to shock and hurt his mentor. When Basil prays for him, he kills Basil, unable to accept the kind of love Basil is showing him.
When Dorian Gray tries to reform himself after killing Basil, he does so as a way to rid himself of the ugliness of the portrait. When he gives up Hetty, the country girl whom he has seduced, he assumes he is working toward his redemption. For Dorian Gray, redemption means beauty regained. He hopes to see the portrait changed, but instead sees it is uglier still. It is then that he recognizes that in order to repent, he has to confess publicly to his sins. This he will never do. Confessing publicly would mean losing the reputation he has cultivated for years. He cannot lose his public face because that is all he is. He is nothing but face. The death of the ugly portrait is the death of Dorian Gray.
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. 09 May 2017