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.