We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. . . . Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.
Lord Henry begins his seduction of Dorian’s mind with these words in Chapter Two. Lord Henry advocates a return to the “Hellenic ideal,” to the sensibilities of ancient Greece where the appreciation of beauty reigned. He strikes a contrast between those glory days and the present mode of living, which, he believes, is marked by a morality that demands self-denial. The outcome of denial, he goes on to say, is only a stronger desire for that which has been denied. This passage is a bold challenge to conventional and restrictive Victorian morality; it dismisses the notion of sin as a figment of the imagination. Interestingly, if sin is relegated to the mind, as Lord Henry would have it, then it should follow that the body is free from the effects of sin. According to this line of thinking, Dorian’s tragedy, then, is that he is unable to purge his “monstrous and unlawful” acts from his conscience. One must remember, however, that Lord Henry has failed to put his philosophy to the test. Although he is a great advocate of sin, he is hardly a sinner, and his understanding of the soul—sickened or otherwise—never incorporates the knowledge that Dorian gradually acquires.
“To be good is to be in harmony with one’s self,” he replied, touching the thin stem of his glass with his pale, fine-pointed fingers. “Discord is to be forced to be in harmony with others. One’s own life—that is the important thing. As for the lives of one’s neighbours, if one wishes to be a prig or a Puritan, one can flaunt one’s moral views about them, but they are not one’s concern. Besides, Individualism has really the higher aim. Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.”
As Dorian prepares, in Chapter Six, to escort Lord Henry and Basil to the theater to see Sibyl Vane perform, Lord Henry chastises Dorian for dismissing, in the face of love, all of his “wrong, fascinating, poisonous, delightful theories.” Here, Lord Henry expounds on the virtues of individualism, which dictate that one develop according to one’s own standards. His outlook relies on Darwinism, a fashionable theory at the time that asserted that an organism’s development would be altered or impaired if it were made to adjust to the standards of another organism. Lord Henry fancies that he and Dorian are creatures that require different standards than the masses in order to develop fully. Thus, he readily rejects modern morality, which governs the many, in favor of a self-determined morality that applies only to himself. Although far from a prig or a Puritan, Lord Henry does spend an inordinate amount of time worrying over Dorian’s development. Contrary to the principle of individualism he takes the time to relate, he not only does his best to insinuate himself between Dorian and Sibyl, but he also takes up Dorian’s proper social development as his pet cause.
Yes: there was to be, as Lord Henry had prophesied, a new Hedonism that was to re-create life, and to save it from that harsh, uncomely puritanism that is having, in our own day, its curious revival. It was to have its service of the intellect, certainly; yet it was never to accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience. Its aim, indeed, was to be experience itself, and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they might be. Of the asceticism that deadens the senses, as of the vulgar profligacy that dulls them, it was to know nothing. But it was to teach man to concentrate himself upon the moments of a life that is itself but a moment.
This passage from Chapter Eleven describes how Dorian, adjusting to the strange privilege that his portrait affords him, devotes himself to acquiring as many experiences as possible. Here, in order to discover “the true nature of the senses,” Dorian studies rare musical instruments, the arts of jewelry and embroidery, and the psychological effects of perfume. In addition to these pursuits, he begins to devote his time to more sordid affairs, the nature of which is never perfectly clear. We learn, from Basil’s subsequent confrontation, that Dorian is connected with the downfall of numerous youths, all of whom have been brought to shame (and some even driven to suicide) by their associations with Dorian. Whether the outcome of these experiences is “sweet or bitter” is not the point of the philosophy by which Dorian lives; on the contrary, the experience itself is what matters. This “new Hedonism” is a form of resistance against the conventional morality that Lord Henry spends so much of his time criticizing.
Society, civilized society at least, is never very ready to believe anything to the detriment of those who are both rich and fascinating. It feels instinctively that manners are of more importance than morals, and, in its opinion, the highest respectability is of much less value than the possession of a good chef. And, after all, it is a very poor consolation to be told that the man who has given one a bad dinner, or poor wine, is irreproachable in his private life. Even the cardinal virtues cannot atone for half-cold entrées, as Lord Henry remarked once, in a discussion on the subject; and there is possibly a good deal to be said for his view. For the canons of good society are, or should be, the same as the canons of art. Form is absolutely essential to it. It should have the dignity of a ceremony, as well as its unreality, and should combine the insincere character of a romantic play with the wit and beauty that make such plays delightful to us. Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.
This passage, taken from Chapter Eleven, is important because it contains the novel’s only lapse into first-person narration. Here, Wilde appears from behind the scenes to comment on civilized society. He asks the reader if the insincerity necessary to conduct oneself in polite society is “such a terrible thing,” and admits that, in his opinion, it is not. He points, rather unapologetically, to the surface nature of the society in which he lives and repeats a favorite epigram that he also includes in his play Lady Windermere’s Fan: “manners are of more importance than morals.” Indeed, The Picture of Dorian Gray fully supports the observations that Wilde makes in this paragraph. Despite the corrupt nature of Dorian’s soul and despite his utter lack of an acceptable moral code, he continues to be welcomed into society merely because he looks good.
“[Y]ou poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that. Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to anyone. It does harm.”
“My dear boy, you are really beginning to moralize. You will soon be going about like the converted, and the revivalist, warning people against all the sins of which you have grown tired. You are much too delightful to do that.... As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”
This exchange between Dorian and Lord Henry takes place in Chapter Nineteen, as Dorian, flayed by his conscience, pledges to live a reformed life. Reflecting on the course of his past twenty years, he confronts Lord Henry, whom he believes is responsible for leading him astray. Dorian criticizes the yellow book that, years before, had such a profound influence over him, claiming that this book did him great harm. This accusation is, of course, alien to Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism, which holds that art cannot be either moral or immoral. Lord Henry says as much, refusing to believe that a book could have such power. While there is something seductive in his observation that “the world calls immoral . . . books that show the world its own shame,” Lord Henry’s words here are less convincing than other statements to the same effect that he makes earlier in the novel. In the latter stages of the novel, we know of Dorian’s downfall, and we know that he is anything but “delightful.” At this point, Lord Henry’s praising of Dorian makes Lord Henry seem hopelessly naïve, the victim of a philosophy whose consequences elude him.
In the end of the book, when Dorian stabs his cursed picture: Does it mean his soul is pure again, for his dead body now endures his age and sins while the picture that represented his soul is young again, or it's just about his curse being broken?
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