Under the influence of the “yellow book,” Dorian’s character begins to change. He orders nearly a dozen copies of the first edition and has them bound in different colors to suit his shifting moods. Years pass. Dorian remains young and beautiful, but he is trailed by rumors that he indulges in dark, sordid behavior. Most people cannot help but dismiss these stories, since Dorian’s face retains an unblemished look of “purity” and “innocence.” Dorian delights in the ever-widening gulf between the beauty of his body and the corruption of his soul. He reflects that too much of human experience has been sacrificed to “asceticism” and pledges to live a life devoted to discovering “the true nature of the senses.” Always intellectually curious, Dorian keeps up on the theories of the day—from mysticism to antinomianism to Darwinism—but he never lets these theories dominate him or interfere with his experiences. He devotes himself to the study of beautiful things: perfumes and their psychological effects, music, jewelry, embroideries, and tapestries.
Dorian continues to watch the painted image of himself age and deteriorate. Sometimes the sight of the portrait fills him with horror, while other times he reflects joyfully on the burdens that his body has been spared. But he fears that someone will break into his house and steal the painting; he knows many men who whisper of scandal behind his back and would delight in his downfall.
On the eve of his thirty-eighth birthday, Dorian runs into Basil on a fog-covered street. He tries to pass him unrecognized, but Basil calls out to him and accompanies him home. Basil mentions that he is about to leave for a six-month stay in Paris but felt it necessary to stop by and warn Dorian that terrible rumors are being spread about his conduct. Basil reminds Dorian that there are no such things as “secret vices”: sin, he claims, “writes itself across a man’s face.” Having said these words, he demands to know why so many of Dorian’s friendships have ended disastrously. We learn that one boy committed suicide, and others had their careers or reputations ruined. Basil chastises Dorian for his influence over these unfortunate youths and urges him to use his considerable sway for good rather than evil. He adds that he wonders if he knows Dorian at all and wishes he were able to see the man’s soul. Dorian laughs bitterly and says that the artist shall have his wish. He promises to show Basil his soul, which, he notes, most people believe only God can see. Basil decries Dorian’s speech as blasphemous, and he begs Dorian to deny the terrible charges that have been made against him. Smiling, Dorian offers to show Basil the diary of his life, which he is certain will answer all of Basil’s questions.
In the eighteen years that pass over the course of these two chapters, Dorian undergoes a profound psychological and behavioral transformation, though he remains the same physically. Although his behavior is, in part, a function of the Gothic nature of Wilde’s tale—his mysterious, potentially dangerous behavior contributes to the novel’s darkness—Dorian does not simply devolve into a villain. Though he exhibits inhuman behavior as he carelessly tosses aside his protégés (and his sins are only to become worse), he never completely sheds his conscience. This divide further manifests itself in that when Dorian looks at the painting of his dissipated self, he “sometimes loath[es] it and himself,” while at other times he is overwhelmed by “that pride of individualism that is half the fascination of sin, and smil[es] with secret pleasure at the misshapen shadow that had to bear the burden that should have been his own.” This tension points to the conflicted nature of Dorian’s character.
We might consider Dorian’s search for artistic and intellectual enlightenment—much of which is catalogued in Chapter Eleven—an attempt to find refuge from the struggle between mindless egotism and gnawing guilt. Indeed, Dorian lives a life marked by fear and suspicion. He finds it difficult to leave London, giving up the country villa he shares with Lord Henry for fear that someone will stumble upon the dreaded portrait in his absence. One can argue that Dorian turns to the study of perfumes, jewels, musical instruments, and tapestries as a source of comfort.
Certainly Dorian’s greatest reason for indulging in the studies that Wilde describes at length is his disenchantment with the age in which he lives. Commonly referred to as the fin-de-siècle (French for “end of the century”) period, the 1890s in England and Europe were marked by a world-weary sensibility that sought to free humanity from “the asceticism that deadens the senses.” In art, this so-called asceticism referred primarily to artistic styles known as naturalism and realism, both of which aimed at reproducing the world as it is and ascribed a moral purpose to art. Dorian, taking the teachings of Lord Henry and the mysterious yellow book as scripture, believes that hedonism is the means by which he will rise above the “harsh, uncomely puritanism” of his age. This philosophy counters “any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience,” which echoes the Preface’s insistence that artists should not make distinctions between virtue and vice. According to this line of thinking, an experience is valuable in and of itself, regardless of its moral implications. Certainly, as Dorian lives his life under the rubric of aesthetic philosophy, he comes to appreciate the seductive beauty of the darker side of life, feeling “a curious delight in the thought that Art, like Nature, has her monsters, things of bestial shape and with hideous voices.”
A possible seed of Dorian’s undoing might be his intellectual development. Dorian is supposedly the personification of a type—a perfect blend of the scholar and the socialite—who lives his life, as Lord Henry dictates, as an individualist. Indeed, we are told that “no theory of life seemed to him to be of any importance compared with life itself.” But, paradoxically, even the tenets of Dorian’s “new Hedonism” prove constricting. It appears that he may have allowed himself to be too strongly influenced by Lord Henry and the yellow book, and that the philosophy of hedonism, meant to spare its followers from the conformities of dulling Victorian morality, may have simply become another, equally limiting doctrine.