Art has no influence upon action. . . . The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.See Important Quotations Explained
Several weeks have passed, it seems, and Dorian visits Lord Henry. Dorian claims that he wants to reform himself and be virtuous. As evidence of his newfound resolve, Dorian describes a recent trip to the country during which he passed up an opportunity to seduce and defile an innkeeper’s innocent daughter. Lord Henry dismisses Dorian’s intentions to reform, and he turns the conversation to other subjects—Alan Campbell’s recent suicide and the continued mystery of Basil Hallward’s disappearance. Dorian asks if Lord Henry has ever considered that Basil might have been murdered. Lord Henry dismisses the idea, noting that Basil lacked enemies. Dorian then asks: “What would you say, Harry, if I told you that I had murdered Basil?” Lord Henry laughs and responds that murder is too vulgar for a man like Dorian.
The conversation drifts away from Basil. Lord Henry then asks Dorian, “‘[W]hat does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose’—how does the quotation run?—‘his own soul’?” Dorian starts nervously; Lord Henry explains that he heard a street preacher posing this question to a crowd. He mocks the man in his typical fashion, but Dorian cuts him short, insisting that the soul is very real. Lord Henry laughs at the suggestion, wondering aloud how Dorian has managed to remain so young after all these years. He wishes he knew Dorian’s secret and praises Dorian’s life as being “exquisite.” He commends Dorian’s mode of living and begs him not to spoil it by trying to be virtuous. Dorian somberly asks his friend not to loan anyone else the “yellow book,” which has had such a corrupting effect upon his own character, but Lord Henry discounts his “moraliz[ing]” and remarks that “[a]rt has no influence upon action. . . . The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” Before leaving, Lord Henry invites Dorian to visit him the next day.
That night, Dorian goes to the locked room to look at his portrait. He hopes his decision to amend his life will have changed the painting, and he considers that perhaps his decision not to ruin the innkeeper’s daughter’s reputation will be reflected in the painted face. But when Dorian looks at his portrait, he sees there is no change—except that “in the eyes there was a look of cunning, and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite.” He realizes his pitiful attempt to be good was no more than hypocrisy, an attempt to minimize the seriousness of his crimes that falls far short of atonement. Furious, he seizes a knife—the same weapon with which he killed Basil—and drives it into the portrait in an attempt to destroy it.
From below, Dorian’s servants hear a cry and a clatter. Breaking into the room, they see the portrait, unharmed, showing Dorian Gray as a beautiful young man. On the floor is the body of an old man, horribly wrinkled and disfigured, with a knife plunged into his heart. It is not until the servants examine the rings on the old man’s hands that they identify him as Dorian Gray.
The contrast between Lord Henry and Dorian in Chapter Nineteen is instructive. When the novel begins, Lord Henry appears as a figure of worldly wisdom who seduces the naïve Dorian with fawning compliments and a celebration of selfishness and hedonism. Now that Dorian has actually lived the philosophy that Lord Henry so eloquently champions, however, he stands as proof of the limitations—indeed, even the misguided notions—of that philosophy. In the novel’s final pages, Dorian is world-weary and borne down by the weight of his sins, while Lord Henry seems almost childishly naïve as he repeats his long-held but poorly informed beliefs. When Dorian all but confesses to Basil’s murder, Lord Henry flippantly dismisses him, since his worldview holds that “[c]rime belongs exclusively to the lower orders.” Only Lord Henry, who has never actually done any of the things he has inspired Dorian to do, could have the luxury of this thought. By keeping himself free from sin, even as he argues the virtues of sinning, Lord Henry lacks the terrible awareness of guilt and its debilitating effects. While the street preacher’s rhetorical question about earthly gain at the cost of spiritual loss (from the New Testament, Mark 8:36) haunts Dorian, it holds no real meaning for Lord Henry.
At this stage, however, not even truthful self-awareness is enough to save Dorian. In his final moments, he attempts to repent the murder of Basil, the suicides of Sibyl Vane and Alan Campbell, and his countless other sins by refraining from seducing and ruining a naïve village girl. The discrepancy between the enormity of his crimes and this minor act of contrition is too great. Furthermore, he realizes that he does not want to confess his sins but rather have them simply go away. The portrait reflects this hypocrisy and drives him to his final, desperate act. He decides it is better to destroy the last evidence of his sin—the painting of his soul—than face up to his own depravity. The depravity he seeks to destroy is, in essence, himself; therefore, by killing it, he kills himself.
The end of the novel suggests a number of possible interpretations of Dorian’s death. It may be his punishment for living the life of a hedonist, and for prizing beauty too highly, in which case the novel would be a criticism of the philosophy of aestheticism. But it is just as possible that Dorian is suffering for having violated the creeds of aestheticism. In other words, one can argue that Dorian’s belief that his portrait reflects the state of his soul violates the principles of aestheticism, since, within that philosophy, art has no moral component. This reading is more in keeping with Wilde’s personal philosophies and with the events of his life. In fact, elements of The Picture of Dorian Gray have an almost prophetic ring to them. Like Basil Hallward, Wilde would meet a tragic end brought about by his unrestrained worship of a beautiful young man. Additionally, like Alan Campbell, whom Dorian blackmails with vague threats of exposed secrets, Wilde would be punished for sexual indiscretions. Given the public nature of Wilde’s trial and entire life—he was, in many ways, the first celebrity personality—it is impossible to ignore these parallels while reading The Picture of Dorian Gray. In De Profundis, Wilde’s long letter to his lover, written from prison, he admits the limitations of the modes of thought and living that structured his life:
I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy; a man of fashion. . . . Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others, I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has someday to cry aloud on the house-tops. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.
The philosophy that The Picture of Dorian Gray proposes can be extremely seductive and liberating. But Wilde’s words here reveal that society, conscience, or more likely both together ultimately make living that philosophy extremely difficult and even painful.