That evening, Dorian goes to a dinner party, at which he flirts with bored noblewomen. Reflecting on his calm demeanor, he feels “keenly the terrible pleasure of a double life.” Lady Narborough, the hostess, discusses the sad life of her daughter, who lives in a region of the countryside that has not witnessed a scandal since the time of Queen Elizabeth. Dorian finds the party tedious and brightens only when he learns Lord Henry will be in attendance.
During dinner, after Lord Henry has arrived, Dorian finds it impossible to eat. Lord Henry asks him what is the matter. Lady Narborough suggests that Dorian is in love, though Dorian assures her that she is wrong. The party-goers talk wittily about marriage, and the ladies then leave the gentlemen to their “politics and scandal.” Lord Henry and Dorian discuss a party to be held at Dorian’s country estate. Lord Henry then casually asks about Dorian’s whereabouts the night before; Dorian’s calm facade cracks a bit and he snaps out a strange, defensive response. Rather than join the women upstairs, Dorian decides to go home early.
Once Dorian arrives home, he retrieves Basil’s belongings from the wall compartment and burns them. He goes to an ornate cabinet and, opening one of its drawers, draws out a canister of opium. At midnight, he dresses in common clothes and hires a coach to bring him to a London neighborhood where the city’s opium dens prosper.
As the coach heads toward the opium dens, Dorian recites to himself Lord Henry’s credo: “To cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.” He decides that if he cannot be forgiven for his sins, he can at least forget them; herein lies the appeal of the opium dens and the oblivion they promise. The coach stops, and Dorian exits. He enters a squalid den and finds a youth named Adrian Singleton, whom rumor says Dorian corrupted. As Dorian prepares to leave, a woman addresses him as “the devil’s bargain” and “Prince Charming.” At these words, a sailor leaps to his feet and follows Dorian to the street. As he walks along, Dorian wonders whether he should feel guilty for the impact he has had on Adrian Singleton’s life. His meditation is cut short, however, when he is seized from behind and held at gunpoint. Facing him is James Vane, Sibyl’s brother, who has been tracking Dorian for years in hopes of avenging Sibyl’s death. James does not know Dorian’s name, but the reference to “Prince Charming” makes him decide that it must be the man who wronged his sister. Dorian points out, however, that the man James seeks was in love with Sibyl eighteen years ago; since he, Dorian, has the face of a twenty-year-old man, he cannot possibly be the man who wronged Sibyl. James releases him and makes his way back to the opium den. The old woman tells James that Dorian has been coming there for eighteen years and that his face has never aged a day in all that time. Furious at having let his prey escape, James resolves to hunt him down again.
When Lord Henry alludes to the “[f]in de siècle” (or “end of the century”) in Chapter Fifteen, he refers more to the sensibilities that flourished in the 1890s than the chronological time period. In this decade, many people in continental Europe and England felt an unshakable sense of discontent. The values that once seemed to structure life and give it meaning were apparently lost. Two main reasons for this disenchantment were linked to the public functions of art and morality, which, in Victorian England, seemed inextricably connected. Art, it was thought, should function as a moral barometer; to the minds of many, this dictum left room for only the most restrictive morals and the most unimaginative art. The term “fin de siècle” therefore came to describe a mode of thinking that sought to escape this disenchantment and restore beauty to art and reshape (and broaden) public understandings of morality.
In a way, though Dorian lives a life very much in tune with fin-de-siècle thinking, he rejects Victorian morals in favor of self-determined ethics based on pleasure and experience, and he retains—and is tortured by—a very Victorian mind-set. Indeed, by viewing the painting of himself as “the most magical of mirrors,” Dorian disavows the tenets of aestheticism that demand that art be completely freed of its connection to morality. The picture becomes the gauge by which Dorian measures his downfall and serves as a constant reminder of the sins that plague his conscience. If we understand Dorian as a victim of this Victorian circumstance, we can read his drastic course of action in a more sympathetic light. Indeed, by Chapter Sixteen, he is a man desperate to forget the sins for which he believes he can never be forgiven. As he sinks into the sordidness of the London docks and their opium dens, he reflects:
Ugliness was the one reality. The coarse brawl, the loathsome den, the crude violence of disordered life, the very vileness of thief and outcast, were more vivid, in their intense actuality of impression, than all the gracious shapes of Art, the dreamy shadows of Song.
Here, Dorian’s thoughts echo French poets like Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, who believed that the description of intense experience was the key to true beauty, even (or perhaps especially) when the experience itself was something sordid, ugly, or grotesque. Indeed, in this trip to the opium den, Dorian intends to do nothing less than “cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.”
Of course, what Dorian finds in the opium den has a far less curative effect than he hopes. The presence of Adrian Singleton, a young man whose downfall and subsequent drug addiction is at least partially Dorian’s fault, pains Dorian’s conscience and makes it impossible for him to “escape from himself.” The reintroduction of James Vane makes this idea of escape quite literal. The avenging brother is, admittedly, a rather weak (albeit convenient) plot device that Wilde added to his 1891 revision of the novel. If Dorian fears and wishes to escape from himself, we can consider James the physical incarnation of that fear: James exists to precipitate the troubled Dorian’s final breakdown.