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.
At the Vane household, Sibyl Vane is deliriously happy over her romance with Dorian Gray. Mrs. Vane, her mother, is less enthusiastic, and she alternately worries over Dorian’s intentions and hopes that her daughter will benefit from his obvious wealth. Sibyl’s brother, James, is also rather cautious regarding the match. As a sailor preparing to depart for Australia, James arrives to say his good-byes and warns his mother that she must watch over Sibyl. Mrs. Vane assures him that admirers such as Dorian Gray are not uncommon to actresses, and that there is no reason not to “contract an alliance” with one so wealthy. Impatient with his mother’s “affectations,” James takes Sibyl on a walk. Rather than discuss her Prince Charming, Sibyl chatters on about the adventures James is certain to find in Australia. She imagines him discovering gold but then, thinking this life too dangerous, states that he will be better off as a quiet sheep farmer.
James cannot shake the feeling that he is leaving his sister at an inopportune time. He doubts both Dorian’s intentions and his mother’s ability to protect Sibyl from them. Finally, James asks Sibyl about her suitor. He warns her against Dorian, and Sibyl carries on about the ecstasy of her new love. As the two sit and watch “the smart people go by,” Sibyl sees Dorian pass in an open carriage. She points him out, but he is gone before James sees him. James swears fiercely that if Dorian ever wrongs her, he will track down her “Prince Charming” and kill him. Sibyl pledges undying devotion to Dorian. Later that night, James confronts his mother, asking her whether she was ever married to his father. Mrs. Vane answers no, and James begs her not to let Sibyl meet the same fate. Before departing, James again pledges to kill Dorian should Sibyl ever come to harm by him.
That evening over dinner, Lord Henry announces to Basil Dorian’s plan to marry Sibyl. Basil expresses concern that Dorian has decided to marry so far beneath his social position. Lord Henry claims that he himself cannot pass such judgment and that he is simply interested in observing the boy and his experiences, regardless of the outcome. Basil doubts that Lord Henry would be so cavalier if Dorian’s life was, in fact, “spoiled,” but Lord Henry insists that “no life is spoiled but one whose growth is arrested.”
Dorian enters, and he relates the story of his engagement, which was precipitated by his seeing Sibyl play the Shakespearean heroine Rosalind (in As You Like It). Dorian, in a state of tremendous excitement, remarks that his love for Sibyl and his desire to live only for her have shown him the falsehood of all of Lord Henry’s seductive theories about the virtues of selfishness. Lord Henry, by no means discouraged by Dorian’s speech, defends his point of view by claiming that it is nature, not he, who dictates the pursuit of pleasure. The three men make their way to a theater in the slums where Sibyl Vane is to perform that night.
Critical reception of The Picture of Dorian Gray was mixed, with many readers condemning the novel as decadent or unmanly. The relationship between Lord Henry and Dorian, as well the one of Basil and Dorian, is clearly homoerotic, and must have shocked readers who valued Victorian respectability. Although Wilde stops short of stating that Basil and Lord Henry have sexual feelings for Dorian, the language he uses to describe their devotion to Dorian is unmistakably the language of deep, romantic intimacy. Wilde’s language of irony facilitates dodging direct statements; in one scene, for example, although the ostensible topic of conversation is Dorian as a subject for portraits, the exchange between Basil and Lord Henry betrays the romantic nature of Basil’s feelings:
[Lord Henry:] “Tell me more about Mr Dorian Gray. How often do you see him?”
[Basil Hallward:] “Every day. I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him everyday. He is absolutely necessary to me.”
Men do have relationships with women in the novel—Dorian falls in love with Sibyl and Lord Henry himself is married—but the novel’s heterosexual relationships prove to be rather superficial and short-lived. If the novel is homoerotic, it is also misogynistic. Victoria Wotton, like most of the women in the novel, is depicted with no real depth: she is briefly (and not kindly) introduced, never to be heard from again. The most significant female character in the novel is Sibyl, who seems to fulfill Lord Henry’s observation that “[w]omen are a decorative sex.” There is precious little substance to Sibyl’s character, as becomes clear in following chapters when she so easily gives up her greatest talent in order to pursue a relationship with Dorian. In this section, as she strolls through the park with James, she emerges as a rather foolishly romantic young woman. She is perfectly content to fall in love with a stranger whom she knows only by the fairy-tale name with which she has christened him. Indeed, Sibyl is little more than a placeholder in a prefabricated romance. Dorian says nearly as much when he describes the thrill of seeing her placed “on a pedestal of gold . . . to see the world worship the woman who is mine.” This sentiment confirms Lord Henry’s ego-driven philosophy of women as ornaments as well as the male-centered focus of Wilde’s narrative gaze: men—particularly their relationships and the influence they bring to bear upon one another—matter most in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
More important than Lord Henry’s philosophy of the role of women, however, is his insistence on the necessity of individualism. As a mode of thinking, individualism took center stage during the nineteenth century. It was first celebrated by the Romantics, who, in the early 1800s, decided that free and spontaneous expression of the self was the true source of art and literature. The Romantics rejected the eighteenth-century sensibility that sought to imitate and reproduce the classical models of ancient Greece and Rome, which were perceived as too stylized to allow for the expression of anything genuine or relevant. Holding the self as the center of creation, Romanticism inevitably emphasized personal freedom, sensory experience, and the special status of the artist. By the time Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, however, the romantic belief that man could realize these things in himself by returning to nature had largely faded. Indeed, Wilde’s novel marks an interesting shift in the changing philosophy of the times. For although the residue of the Romantic movement can be seen in Dorian’s story—Lord Henry advocates that nothing should hinder the freedom of the artistic individual’s development—the means by which that development occurs in the story is noticeably different. In the world of The Picture of Dorian Gray, art is to be made by submerging oneself in society rather than escaping from it.
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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