This book, similar to Faust, focuses on the idea of pleasure and the role it plays in one’s life. To understand the central theme of Dorian Gray, an understanding of the term hedonism must be had.
Hedonism, in this context refers to the ideology which states that all people should try to achieve as much pleasure in life as they possibly can. This pleasure should be way more than the amount of pain they experience in life. That’s the jist of it but if you want the more technical version, courtesy of Wikipedia, here it is:
“Hedonism is a school of thought that argues that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. In very simple terms, a hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain)."
The Picture of Dorian Gray was extremely scandalous at the time of its publication. It was first published in the Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in June 1890. Even after the magazine’s editing, it was still considered outrageous to many. Later, Wilde edited the novel himself and this version was published by Ward, Lock and Company in April 1891. Even this edited version was offensive to the proper and pious Victorian Era people. It exemplifies Wilde’s literary revolt against their conventions and expectations of behavior.
Although the content of this novel is revolutionary for its time, Wilde commonly used standard plots and literary devices in his writing. The story opens with a typical build up to the presentation of the main character. The first chapter begins with Lord Henry Wotton casually lounging in the artist, Basil Hallward’s studio observing a painting Basil has recently finished. The two have a lengthy conversation about art and beauty and Lord Henry exhibits obvious interest in the subject of the painting as he is exquisite in so many ways. Basil is reluctant to reveal the name of the subject and just as reluctant afterwards that they should ever meet. In this manner, Wilde builds up excitement for Dorian Gray’s entrance to the story and gives a hint at what is to come:
“Dorian Gray? Is that his name? asked Lord Henry, walking across the studio towards Basil Hallward.
“Yes, that is his name. I didn’t intend to tell it to you.”
“But why not?”
“Oh, I can’t explain. When I like people immensely, I never tell their names to any one. It is like surrendering a part of them.”
When at last the two men encounter Dorian Gray in the artist’s house, we as readers are presented with an extraordinary look at Dorian from the eyes of Lord Henry:
“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.”
The three men converse and Dorian Gray is astounded and awed by Lord Henry’s world view. Lord Henry proposes that all men should seek out pleasure and not resist anything. He promotes that the world would be a better place if we all just gave in to our every desire.
“I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream – I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal – to something finer,richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be… The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden itself, with desire for what is monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”
Lord Henry also gives a lengthy speech to Dorian Gray about beauty. He believes that everyone judges upon beauty. He tells Dorian that the gods have been kind to him in that respect but he must enjoy it while it lasts. He describes how quickly Dorian’s beauty will fade and he will be old and wrinkled and ugly. Once this happens, he says, Dorian will be miserable and suffer greatly.
The artist makes some final touches to the painting of Dorian Gray while he is present. At length, Basil comes out and says the painting is now finished. Dorian looks at it in amazement. Upon seeing the beauty of his own person, he realizes for the first time just how incredibly beautiful he truly is. It is at this moment that he becomes visibly upset as Lord Henry’s words sink in to his thoughts. He will become old someday and ugly and his painting will never age. Dorian thinks that it would be wonderful if it were the other way around.
It is at this moment the deal is made:
“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June . . . If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”
Dorian Gray at this time begins his transformation. He argues briefly with Basil, who until this point had been his ultimate admirer. Basil cannot believe Dorian speaks as he does and neither can Lord Henry. Dorian begins his infatuation with Lord Henry and wishes to spend time with him that he may learn more of his thoughts on living:
“I would sooner come with you; yes, I feel I must come with you. Do let me. And will you promise to talk to me all the time? No one talks so wonderfully as you do.”
Dorian has stepped from innocence and his artist friend Basil into a darker, more sensual and tempting world of people. Following Lord Henry’s leadings, Dorian finds a talented young actress, Sibyl Vane, in a dingy old theater. In the introduction of Sibyl in the story, we find another common plot. The young beautiful girl is seduced by the lover, her innocence is assaulted by the indifferent lover and upon his rejection, she commits a pathetic suicide and her brother attempts to avenge her death. In this case the innocence is Sibyl’s naivety in being seduced by the rich Dorian Gray and being taken in by his marriage proposal. She sees him as ‘Prince Charming.’ He then rejects and abandons her. Sibyl’s brother James then seeks revenge against Dorian. James does not, however, exact revenge and is killed accidentally in a hunting accident later.
Wilde distances the reader from this standard plot theme by making it seem as a play through the various character’s eyes. Dorian Gray sees Sibyl’s life and death as a Greek tragedy while Lord Henry sees it as a Jacobian, or revenge tragedy.
It is after the suicide of Sibyl that Dorian sinks completely into his exotic world of debauchery. Having far exceeded Lord Henry’s dalliances and behaviors, Dorian Gray seeks out pleasure from all manner of people and places. The book alludes to every type of sexual misdeed, indulgence and even perhaps criminal behavior as Dorian engages in “a wild desire to know everything about life.” We find out rumors swirl around the actions and debauchery of Dorian Gray.
During his escapades and indulgences, Dorian’s picture has aged and changed. It takes on the effect on Dorian’s soul with each and every immoral act. At first Dorian is relieved and happy that his portrait is taking on the effects of age and actions rather than himself. Dorian is then repulsed by what he sees occurring in the painting, with the hideous effects his actions have had on his soul. Upon showing the painting to Basil, Dorian blames him for his ruinous state. In a fit of rage, Dorian stabs Basil to death then has his body destroyed by a chemist whom he blackmails.
After the murder, Dorian seeks to drown out the guilt of Basil’s murder in opium dens and various activities. Disgusted with himself and his portrait, Dorian seeks out Lord Henry. Lord Henry, as he had before the murder, assures Dorian that he can do no true wrong.
Lord Henry seems to find Dorian’s progression acceptable and is completely oblivious to Dorian’s struggles with morality and immorality, pleasure and guilt:
“Ah, Dorian, how happy you are! What an exquisite life you have had! You have drunk deeply of everything. You have crushed the grapes against your palate… It has not marred you. You are still the same.”
Dorian on the other hand, does not share Lord Henry’s assessment. In an attempt to alter his fate and his portrait, to clear his blackened soul, Dorian promises to be good from then on. Returning to his portrait, however, he sees his actions had no effect and his visage is still horrible. In fact, his portrait was now loathsome to him. He decides that there is no redemption without confession of his sins.
In his last moments, Dorian contemplates the meaning of his life, of life in general. He considers the portrait to be an unjust mirror of his soul. We see his struggle with himself and with truth at last:
“In hypocrisy he had worn the mask of goodness. For curiosity’s sake he had tried the denial of self. He recognized that now.
But this murder – was it to dog him all his life? Was he always to be burdened y his past? Was he really to confess? Never. There was only one bit of evidence left against him. The picture itself – that was evidence. He would destroy it. Why had he kept it so long? Once it had given him pleasure to watch it changing and growing old. Of late he had felt no such pleasure. It had kept him awake at night. When he had been away, he had been filled with terror lest other eyes should look upon it. It had brought melancholy across his passions. It mere memory had marred many moments of joy. It had been like conscience to him. Yes, it had been conscience. He would destroy it.”
With the very knife with which he had murdered Basil Hallward, Dorian stabs the “monstrous soul-life.” He feels with the destruction of its hideous warnings, he could finally be at peace. Upon stabbing the portrait, an agonizing cry is heard throughout the house and into the square below.
The story ends with Dorian’s body being discovered by servants with a knife in the heart. The body of Dorian Gray has at last taken on the age and effects of his life of misdeeds. It is horrible to behold and so withered and terrible that not until the body is examined and the rings recognized that they identify him. The portrait is seen to be hanging on the wall and shows the original flawless image of Dorian Gray.
The significance of the knife in his heart and his ultimate struggle on the connection to his conscience is felt in this final chapter. Many see this novel as a ‘penetrating commentary on life.’ Wilde portrays Dorian’s story as one of corruption. In following Lord Henry’s ideas on life and pursuing pleasure at all costs, Dorian’s soul is corrupted. We see this corruption in the decay of his portrait. At the end, we see that Dorian still has hopes of saving himself but ultimately fails as he tries in vain to at last destroy his conscience.