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Yes: there was to be . . . a new Hedonism that was to re-create life, and to save it from that harsh, uncomely puritanism. . . .
The next day, Basil comes to offer his condolences to Dorian, but Dorian dismisses the memory of Sibyl lightly and easily, remarking, “What is done is done. What is past is past.” Horrified at the change in Dorian, Basil blames Lord Henry for Dorian’s heartless attitude. Indeed, in discussing Sibyl’s death, Dorian uses many of the same phrases and arguments that Lord Henry favors and evokes a similar air of unaffected composure. He claims that Sibyl’s death elevates her “into the sphere of art.” Dorian asks Basil to do a drawing of Sibyl so that he has something by which to remember her. Basil agrees and begs Dorian to return to his studio for a sitting. When Dorian refuses, Basil asks if he is displeased with his portrait, which Basil means to show at an exhibition. When Basil goes to remove the screen with which Dorian has covered the painting, Dorian’s composure cracks. Dorian insists that the work never appear in public and pledges never to speak to Basil again should he touch the screen. Remembering Basil’s original refusal to show the painting, Dorian asks why he has changed his mind. Basil confesses that he was worried that the painting would reveal his obsession with Dorian. Now, however, Basil believes that the painting, like all art, “conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him.” Basil again asks Dorian to sit for him, and Dorian again refuses. When Basil leaves, Dorian decides to hide his portrait.
Once Basil is gone, Dorian orders his servant, Victor, to go to a nearby frame-maker and bring back two men. He then calls his housekeeper, Mrs. Leaf, whom he asks for the key to the schoolroom, which sits at the top of the house and has been unused for nearly five years. Dorian covers the portrait with an ornate satin coverlet, reflecting that the sins he commits will mar its beauty just as worms mar the body of a corpse. The men from the frame-maker’s arrive, and Dorian employs them to carry the painting to the schoolroom. Here, Dorian muses, the painting will be safe from prying eyes, and if no one can actually see his deterioration, then it bears no importance. After locking the room, he returns to his study and settles down to read a book that Lord Henry has sent him. This yellow book is accompanied by a newspaper account of Sibyl’s death. Horrified by the ugliness of the report, Dorian turns to the book, which traces the life of a young Parisian who devotes his life to “all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own.” After reading a few pages, Dorian becomes entranced. He finds the work to be “a poisonous book,” one that confuses the boundaries between vice and virtue. When Dorian meets Lord Henry for dinner later that evening, he pronounces the work fascinating.
Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.
Sibyl’s death compels Dorian to make the conscious decision to embrace Lord Henry’s philosophy of selfishness and hedonism wholeheartedly. The contrast between Dorian’s and Basil’s reactions to Sibyl’s death demonstrates the degree to which Lord Henry has changed Dorian. Dorian dismisses the need for grief in words that echo Lord Henry’s: Sibyl need not be mourned, he proclaims, for she has “passed . . . into the sphere of art.” In other words, Dorian thinks of Sibyl’s death as he would the death of a character in a novel or painting, and chooses not to be affected emotionally by her passing. This attitude reveals one way in which the novel blurs the distinction between life and art. Dorian himself passes “into the sphere of art” when his portrait reflects the physical manifestations of age and sin. While it is usually paintings that never age and people who do, it is the other way around with Dorian, as he has become more like a work of art than a human.
Basil’s declaration of his obsession with Dorian is in many ways a defense and justification of homosexual love. In 1895, five years after Dorian Gray was published, Wilde was famously convicted of sodomy for his romantic relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde defended homosexual love as an emotion experienced by some of the world’s greatest men. He insisted that it had its roots in ancient Greece and was, therefore, fundamental to the development of Western thought and culture. In his trial, when asked to describe the “love that dare not speak its name,” Wilde explained it as
such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. . . . It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.
This testimony is strikingly similar to Dorian’s reflection upon the kind of affection that Basil shows him:
[I]t was really love—[it] had nothing in it that was not noble and intellectual. It was not that mere physical admiration of beauty that is born of the senses, and that dies when the senses tire. It was such love as Michael Angelo had known, and Montaigne, and Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself.
Basil translates these highly emotional and physical feelings into his art; his act of painting is an expression of his love for Dorian. This romantic devotion to Dorian becomes clear when he admits his reason for not wanting to exhibit the painting: he fears that people will see his “idolatry.”
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