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The Novel of Dorian Gray

Updated on March 5, 2014

Dorian Gray begins to change after reading, obsessing over, his little yellow book. It’s described as a “poisonous book,” a smear on the line between vice and virtue. Dorian's mood and behaviour slip in accordance with this book, whispered tales and hushed tones weaving a cloak of rumours around his shoulders, and all the while he is further corrupted by his secret deeds. Or, rather, he would, if secret deeds had any corrupting power to speak of.

A secret deed is still done. Evil is not determined by witnesses. In truth, the only hazard introduced by secrecy is the threat of capture. Dorian is corrupted, so they say, by his book; and yet, as Wilde points out, “all art is quite useless.” In that case, what function did this book, this work of art, serve for Dorian? Introduced to a new idea, one either accepts or rejects it. This is not an option, nor is it change; it's a matter of compatibility, congruence with previously instilled ideas or something even baser. The book did not change Dorian, it merely uncovered him for what he truly was. In this way, it is an earlier glimpse into Dorian's soul than his picture.

Dorian spends his life feeling invulnerable, freed from repercussion as his portrait rots. The portrait, however, is not the lightning rod he wishes it to be. He begins to realize this after killing Basil. Even though the act is performed silently, and there are no witnesses, it eats away at him the next day. Basil reintroduces Dorian to guilt, but Dorian is able to put Basil off his mind. James Vane, though, is much harder to ignore: He reintroduces Dorian to consequence. Phantoms of his past, the aftermath of actions he committed years ago, actions that pale in comparison to his later deeds, come to haunt him with a vengeance, and after his scare with James, Dorian wishes to embrace virtue, to fix his portrait.

This is Dorian's error: Wishing only to fix the portrait. It belies that Dorian, the introspectively inept man that he is, is only capable of seeing his sin by way of the portrait, only when it is explicitly on display. Kept secret, all a deed does is create disparity between how one is and how one is perceived. Failure to recognize this, as on Dorian's part, turns morality into a social construct, one that attempts to measure the evil of an act by its ramifications. Social judgment, the explicit display of sin that Dorian found in his portrait, gives him a moral quantification of his actions, and he isn't compelled to look any further. He is content to live with his transgressions, suffering nothing from them but a haze of speculative notoriety over his reputation: Seeing evil as he does, he doesn't fret over his actions because of how minimal the consequences were. He is convinced that his picture would die for his sins, so to speak.

As I said, the picture was no scapegoat for Dorian. James shows that Dorian himself will be held responsible for his actions. However, Dorian still sees his picture as a scale, as a judge. He figures that he can counterbalance the weight of his wickedness with acts of good. This fails drastically in practice, only adding to his horrible picture the smirk of a hypocrite. Dorian by now realizes what the picture is. Not a fall guy, not a scale, but rather an honest mirror. This is a moment of stunning reflection. Dorian is overwhelmed by emotions one could only hazard a guess at. Anger at his portrait that refuses to cooperate? Frustration that he cannot change it? Hatred for himself, now that he truly understands what he is? Perhaps he realizes that though he can't hide his actions from his portrait, they are not what it seeks to reflect; his actions only help the picture to better portray his soul.

These emotions, whichever precisely they are, overtake Dorian, and he stabs the portrait, and is later found dead, so hideous that he must be identified by the rings on his fingers. He is discovered as he is, as he truly was all along.


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