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Dorian Gray and His Downfall

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In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde tells a story of a young man’s moral downfall at the end of the 19th century. The eponymous protagonist poses as a model for his friend Basil, a talented painter. While doing so, Dorian meets Lord Henry, a selfish aristocrat who lives for the sensual pleasures of every kind and immediately introduces Dorian to his worldview. Once the portrait is finished, Dorian wishes to always be as beautiful as the painted image so that the portrait would grow old, ugly, and decrepit instead of him. Inexplicably, his wish comes true: any vice Dorian engages in only affects the portrait, but his youthful beauty remains untarnished forever. Influenced by Lord Henry, Dorian pursues the latter’s hedonistic lifestyle. He hurts those around him, parting with Sybil, the actress he claimed to love, because she ceased to entertain him and killing Basil once he learns the truth about the portrait. In the end, Dorian lashes out at the portrait that becomes unbearably ugly and offends his narcissist sensibilities – only to kill himself and return the painting to its original beauty.

The story of Dorian’s moral degradation, mirrored by the ghastly changes of his portrait, it still leaves a question of causality open. The protagonist’s downfall is evident, yet an inquiring reader will wonder what the primary reason behind it was. Answering this question requires analyzing how Dorian interacts with other people – in the course of the novel, including such essential characters as Basil, Lord Henry, Sybil – and the eponymous portrait itself. When completed, this analysis reveals that, ultimately, Dorian has no one to blame for but himself, however tempting it might be to assign the guilt to an outside party. From the very beginning, Dorian is a narcissist who takes Basil’s adoration for granted, is ready to accept Lord Henry’s teachings, and only likes Sybil insofar as she serves his craving for variety.

Since Basil is the one to introduce the audience to Dorian by describing him in detail, it is only natural to start the assessment of Dorian’s relationships with other characters with him. Technically, the relationship between Basil and Dorian likely qualifies as friendship – in Chapter 1, he even directly states that they “became friends at once” (Wilde). However, the text soon reveals that there is much more than an ordinary friendship between the two – at least as far as Basil is concerned. The painter confesses that he wants to see Dorian every day and even states that the latter “is absolutely necessary” to him (Wilde). Moreover, Basil says: “He is all my art to me now,” thus equating his dedication to art and his infatuation with Dorian. This – almost religious – dedication exceeds friendship – rather, it is an obsession, plain and simple. Basil perceives Dorian as an epitome of everything beautiful and fair – of all things that he, as a painter, feels an obligation to depict and preserve for eternity.

Analyzing the relationship between Dorian and Basil as a kind of artistic obsession is one avenue of approach, but there are also rather evident homosexual subtests in it. Admittedly, nothing in the text directly suggests any sort of sexual tension between them – quite on the contrary, Basil invokes the “ideal of male love as a friendship that is intellectually and spiritually productive” (Grech 160). However, numerous details hint at Basil’s rather homoerotic perception of his supposed friend. When saying the latter’s name for the first time in the entire novel – “Dorian Gray’s good looks” – Basil immediately links it to the idea of physical beauty (Wilde). Moreover, the activity these two engage in as a painter and a model is also suggestive in its own right. It requires Basil to appreciate Dorian’s appearance and Dorian – to stay still and be perceived as an aesthetic object. There is no question that Dorian’s physical beauty has a tremendous effect on Basil, and while the two never demonstrate anything resembling a romantic relationship, there is an evident homoerotic subtext to Basil’s infatuation.

Regardless of whether one prefers to interpret the connection between Dorian and Basil as an artist’s obsession or an enamored man’s homosexual attachment, it definitely impacts the protagonist. After the portrait is finished, Dorian suddenly spans angrily at the painter, claiming that he is no more to Dorian than a bonze figurine (Wilde). It already happens after Dorian’s first conversation with Lord Henry, and one might suggest that it is an early result of the wicked aristocrat’s bad influence. Even the text seems to suggest this: Basil thinks to himself that it is “so unlike Dorian to speak like that” (Wilde). However, by Basil’s own acknowledgment, Dorian had a tendency to be “terribly thoughtless” about other people’s feelings even before meeting Lord Henry (Wilde). It may well be connected to the painter’s admitted tendency to flatter Dorian excessively – which, the young man appears to have perceived as his just due. Thus, the relationship between Basil and Dorian, whether artistic, implicitly homosexual, or both, demonstrates that Dorian was a narcissist capable of cruelly disregarding other people’s feelings even prior to meeting Lord Henry.

That being said, Lord Henry is still one of the central characters in the novel and, perhaps, the most significant influence on Dorian through the entirety of its plot. It is hard to categorize the relationship between these two as friendship, love, or even obsession with either beauty of innocence. Rather, the hedonistic aristocrat poses as a self-proclaimed mentor for Dorian and aims to shape the young man in his image. The very first time Lord Henry encounters Dorian, he immediately begins to preach his hedonistic creed: “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it” (Wilde). The fact that some of the more exquisite pleasures are frowned upon, if not outright forbidden, by the society, does not mean much to Lord Henry: he even refers to these social restrictions as “monstrous laws” (Wilde).  This drive to pursue sexual pleasures, regardless of any “discrepancy with social regulation and social expectation,” is what the cynical aristocrat is trying to teach Dorian (Jiansheng 52). Since Dorian indeed spends the greater part of the novel pursuing and satisfying his desires, Lord Henry appears to be a successful mentor.

Just as with Basil, only one interpretation of the relationship between Dorian and Lord Henry would not suffice – and, just as Basil, Lord Henry poses as an artist perceiving Dorian as an aesthetic object. Apart from being a corrupting mentor, the satiated aristocrat seems to fancy himself creator making art pieces of art of other people’s souls and lives. Lord Henry expresses his desire to meet Dorian soon after Basil says: “He is all my art to me now,” thus awakening the aristocrat’s own artistic interest (Wilde). Later, he likens talking to Dorian to “playing upon an exquisite violin,” further solidifying the latter’s role as an art object (Wilde). Finally, when Dorian has an existential crisis and decides to change for the better, Lord Henry’s reaction is rather telling: “You are quite perfect. Pray, don’t change” (Wilde). Viewing the Dorian as his masterpiece – and a perfect one at that – Lord Henry is infuriated by the latter’s decision to change without his consent. Hence, the corrupted aristocrat has a twofold power over Dorian: first as a mentor over his student, and then as an artist over his creation.

Yet the extent of this power deserves due consideration, as it appears that Lord Henry only controls Dorian because the young man wants and allows him to. Admittedly, at first sight, the aristocrat’s control over Dorian may seem absolute: he corrupts him with a single short speech as if his words have magical power. As Stern rightfully noted, Lord Henry’s effect on Dorian’s personality indeed appears to the reader as “immediate and direct” (759). However, there is a clear indication that corruption occurs only because Dorian is already willing to accept the change. Upon hearing Lord Henry’s preaching, Dorian admits to himself that they “seemed… to have come really from himself” and touched something deep within him (Wilde). This willingness to live solely for one’s pleasures is already within Dorian and ready to spring to life – Lord Henry is not the one to put it there. As innocent and pure as he appears to Basil, deep down, Dorian is already prepared to fall down morally, and his mentor only succeeds in corrupting him because he finds a willing apprentice.

Dorian’s relationship with Sibyl, the only woman he actually claims to love in the entire novel, also contributes to the idea that he is mainly responsible for his own downfall. When he meets Sibyl, he is enamored with not only with her beauty and feminine grace but, first and foremost, with her acting abilities. He explicitly enjoys having seen her “in every age and in every costume,” suggesting it is Sibyl’s ability to assume many faces that attracts him (Wilde). However, the actress falls so deeply in love with him that, instead of performing her roles consciously, she is now “merely acting out her own personality” (Li 565). Disappointed beyond measure by Sibyl’s loss of actin ability, Dorian breaks up with her, and the ensuing despair drives her to suicide.

The story of this relationship illustrates that Dorian is already corrupt even before he openly adopts Lord Henry’s lifestyle. When he proclaims Sibyl is the love of his life, Lord Henry criticizes those who cling to one romantic interest for “their lack of imagination” (Wilde). According to him, one should never limit oneself to a single partner when there is more to be had. Dorian is initially angered that his mentor perceived him as unfaithful. However, his subsequent breakup with Sibyl reveals that he valued her ability to act out different personalities rather than the one true Sybil behind them all. It is her “flowing among multiple identities” that satisfies Dorian’s desires, and once she is not acting anymore and stays faithful to her own personality, she is of no more interest to her love (Zhang 378). Thus, even as Dorian indignantly rejects Lord Henry’s ideas of romantic unfaithfulness, he already acts in full accordance with them. By desiring varied sensual experiences provided by different women rather than a steady union with just one, Dorian shows that he lived the creed Lord Henry even before openly succumbing to him.

There is no apparent causality between Dorian’s interactions with his portrait and the character’s moral downfall – the portrait is the means of falling rather than the reason behind it. Still, the portrait as a narrative tool already establishes Dorian’s narcissist preoccupation with himself. When seeing Basil’s completed work for the first time, Dorian is overcome with bitter sadness at the idea that he will once lose his beauty and youth. He exclaims: “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young” (Wilde). This rumination leads him to the idea that having the portrait aging and becoming ugly instead of himself would be great. Dorian is unable to see neither the value of the painting as an object of art nor the admiration Basil has poured into it. He remains blind to anything that is not him and his beauty and only perceives a marvelous piece of art as a tool to further his interests.

This approach applies to the people as well, as Dorian’s inherently hedonistic sensibilities prompt him to value other people only insofar as they are conducing to his pleasure. One again, the portrait reveals Dorian’s true attitude to those around him and his eerie indifference to their suffering unless removing it may make himself better. After breaking Sibyl’s heart and returning home, Dorian eventually decides to reconcile with the girl and make her happy. However, the only reason why he does this is seeing “a touch of cruelty” on the lips of his once-perfect portrait, which he wants to remove by setting things right (Wilde). Closer to the end of the novel, Dorian resolves to lead a virtuous life – but only to “expel every sign of evil passion” from the portrait, as it has become too unbearable to look at (Wilde). Even when Dorian decides to do something good, whether in the beginning or at the end of his journey, it is only to make himself feel better and satisfy his narcissist self-perception.

As one can see, there are multiple parties involved in Dorian’s moral downfall, but, ultimately, he is the one responsible for his degradation. Dorian’s relationship with Basil reveals that he already perceived flattery as his just due and could be utterly indifferent to the suffering of the others, even without anyone’s corrupting influence. The protagonist’s interactions with Lord Henry strengthen this assumption even further. Although the latter influence him as a mentor and, in a sense, creator, this influence only happens because Dorian is ready to accept it. Even the brief relationship with Sibyl shoes that Dorian adheres to Lord Henry’s hedonistic values even before openly acknowledging them. Lastly, the character’s interactions with the eponymous portrait reveal that he only attempts to do good things to promote his narcissist sense of self-worth. Considering this, one may safely assume that Dorian Gray already bore his own destruction within his soul before the events of the book.






Works Cited

Grech, Leanne. Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetic Education: The Oxford Classical Curriculum. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Jiansheng, Yan. “Art Regression: On Unconsciousness Trend of The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Canadian Social Science, vol. 13, no. 5, 2017, pp. 50-53.

Li, Hao. “Vision and Self-Consciousness in The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, vol. 44., no. 3, 2017, pp. 565-578.

Stern, Simon. “Wilde’s Obscenity Effect: Influence and Immorality in The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The Review of English Studies, New Series, vol. 68, no. 286, 2017, pp. 756–772.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Project Gutenberg, Accessed 9 Apr. 2020.

Zhang, Yan. “From Self-Identification to Self-Destruction –A Mirror Image Interpretation of Dorian Gray’s Psychic Transformation.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research, vol. 7, no. 2, 2016, pp. 377-381




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