The Picture of Dorian Gray

by: Oscar Wilde

Chapters Fifteen–Sixteen

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.