The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde
Summary

Chapters Nineteen–Twenty

Summary Chapters Nineteen–Twenty

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.