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.