Summary: Chapter Seventeen
A week later, Dorian entertains guests at his estate at Selby. He talks with Lord Henry, the Duchess of Monmouth, and her husband; they discuss the nature and importance of beauty. The duchess criticizes Lord Henry for placing too great a value on beauty. The conversation turns to love; Lord Henry maintains that love, like life, depends upon repeating a great experience over and over again. Dorian agrees and excuses himself from his company. Lord Henry chastises the duchess for her flirtations. Soon, they hear a groan from the other end of the conservatory. They rush to find that Dorian has fallen in a swoon. At dinner, Dorian feels occasional chills of terror as he recalls that, before fainting, he saw the face of James Vane pressed against the conservatory window.
Summary: Chapter Eighteen
The following day, Dorian does not leave the house. The thought of falling prey to James Vane dominates him: every time he closes his eyes, the image of James’s face in the window reappears. He begins to wonder, though, if this apparition is a figment of his imagination. The idea that his conscience could assert such fearful visions terrifies Dorian and makes him wonder if he will get any rest.
On the third day after the incident, Dorian ventures out. He strolls along the grounds of his estate and feels reinvigorated. He reflects to himself that the anguish that recently kept him in bed is completely against his nature. He has breakfast with the duchess and then joins a shooting party in the park. While strolling along with the hunters, Dorian is captivated by the graceful movement of a hare and begs his companions not to shoot it. Dorian’s companion laughs at Dorian’s silliness and shoots at the hare. The gunshot is followed by the cry of a man in agony. Several men thrash their way into the bushes to discover that a man has been shot. Having taken “the whole charge of shot in his chest,” the man has died instantly. As the hunters head back toward the house, Dorian shares his worry with Lord Henry that this episode is a “bad omen.” Lord Henry dismisses such notions, assuring Dorian that destiny is “too wise or too cruel” to send us omens.
Attempting to lighten the mood, Lord Henry teases Dorian about his relationship with the duchess. Dorian assures Henry that there is no scandal to be had and utters, quite pathetically, “I wish I could love.” He bemoans the fact that he is so concentrated on himself, on his own personality, that he is thus unable to love another person. He entertains the idea of sailing away on a yacht, where he will be safe. When the gentlemen come upon the duchess, Dorian leaves Lord Henry to talk to her and retires to his room. There, the head keeper comes to speak to Dorian. Dorian inquires about the man who was shot, assuming him to have been a servant, and offers to make provisions for the man’s family. The head keeper reports that the man’s identity remains a mystery. As soon as he learns that the man is an anonymous sailor, Dorian demands to see him. He rides to a farm where the body is being kept and identifies it as that of James Vane. He rides home with tears in his eyes, feeling safe.
Analysis: Chapters Seventeen–Eighteen
Lord Henry’s belief, uttered after the fatal hunting accident, that “[d]estiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that,” contrasts with Dorian’s experience. In many ways, Basil’s portrait of Dorian illustrates how destiny shapes Dorian’s life, for while Dorian himself remains immune to the effects of time, his ever-deteriorating likeness in the portrait is indeed an undeniable herald of his ultimate downfall. The picture interrupts the pleasant reality of Dorian’s life to remind him of his soul’s dissipation. Although the aestheticists believed that art existed for its own sake, Dorian’s experience demonstrates the limitations of that view. The painting becomes almost immediately a physical manifestation of conscience; it shows Dorian what is right and what is wrong in a very literal sense, and he frequently inspects the painting after committing an immoral or unethical act to see exactly how his conscience interprets that act. Ultimately, then, and in contrast to Lord Henry’s philosophies, The Picture of Dorian Gray emphasizes the relationship between art and morality.
In addition to complicating the reader’s understanding of art, which, as the novel draws to its close, becomes complex and somewhat paradoxical, Wilde demonstrates his characteristic flair for comedy and biting social satire. In Chapter Seventeen, Dorian’s conversation with the Duchess of Monmouth and Lord Henry testifies to one of the skills that made Wilde the most celebrated playwright of his day. His brilliantly witty dialogue is responsible for his status as one of the most effective practitioners of the comedy of manners. A comedy of manners revolves around the complex and sophisticated behavior of the social elite, among whom one’s character is determined more by appearance than by moral behavior. Certainly, by this definition, Lord Henry becomes something of a hero in the novel, as, even by his own admission, he cares much more for the beautiful than for the good.
Given the increasing seriousness of Dorian’s plight and the ever-darkening state of his mind, the bulk of Chapter Seventeen serves as comic relief, as the dialogue between the duchess and Lord Henry is light and full of witticisms. Their exchange points to the relatively shallow nature of their society, in which love and morality amount to an appreciation of surfaces: as another lady of society reminds Dorian in Chapter Fifteen, “you are made to be good—you look so good.” Here, morality is a function not of action or belief but of mere appearances.
Lord Henry’s dismissive conception of England as a land founded on beer, the Bible, and repressive, unimaginative virtues serves as biting commentary of traditional, middle-class English morality. According to Lord Henry, a population whose tastes run to malt liquor and whose morality is determined by Christian dogma is doomed to produce little of artistic value. His sentiments align with the aesthetics’ desire to free themselves (and art) from the bonds of conventional morality and sensibilities. Sympathetic as Wilde himself was to Lord Henry’s opinions, he provides here a vital counterpoint to these opinions: the duchess’s criticism that Lord Henry values beauty too highly begs us to ask the same question of Dorian and the aesthetic philosophy that dominates his life.