The soul is thought to be an immaterial entity coexisting with our bodies which is credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion. It is the part of our body which is believed to live on after the body dies. In Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the main character, Dorian Gray, destroys the innocence of his soul and becomes corrupt. He becomes corrupt by failing to live a life of virtue but of sin. The main reason for his transformation can be attributed mostly to a portrait painted of him which capture the true essence of his innocence. This portrait is the personification of his soul. At the beginning of the book Dorian makes a wish that inevitably changes his life forever. His wish is that, “If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!” (Wilde, 40) As Dorian’s wish of staying young and beautiful forever come true so does the fact that he has given his soul away to the devil. Another contributing factor to the perversion of Dorian’s soul comes from his supposed friend, Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry fills Dorian’s head with his outrageous philosophies such as, “.youth is the one thing worth having. . You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it” (34) and “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.” (30) Not only do Lord Henry’s ideas influence Dorian but a book that he gives Dorian also changes the man’s life forever. A book of “spiritual ecstasies of some medieval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner.” (175) Dorian believes that “.indeed, the whole book seemed to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it.” (177)All of Lord Henry’s actions and ideas are main contributors to the decay of the innocence of Dorian Gray’s soul.There is evidence of corruption in Dorian’s soul as he slowly transforms into a homosexual. In this century it is not considered to be a felony or social outrage to be a homosexual, however, this book was written in the nineteenth century during the Victorian period when homosexuals were looked down on as outcasts. In Dorian’s time homosexuality was considered immoral and illegal. The men who took part in such atrocious behaviour were considered to be truly evil.Dorian’s “abnormal” relationships with young men prove he is no longer a true heterosexual male. His slow transformation into a true creature of evil, or homosexual, is what ultimately corrupts him in the end. It is believed that all living beings possess a soul and that this entity is the personification of ones self. Dorian Gray possesses one of these souls which transforms from being innocent to vile and corrupt.
“He had uttered a mad wish that he himself might remain young, and the portrait grow old; that his own beauty might be untarnished, and the face on the canvas bear the burden of his passions and sins.” (126) The portrait of Dorian Gray which was meant to be a masterpiece ended up as a seductive instrument of destruction. This instrument is what Dorian uses to justify his most horrid actions and crimes committed in his search for “new sensations”. Dorian, unchanging in outward appearance, “lives the dissolute life reflected in the secreted, corrupting portrait.” (Weintraub, 229) When Dorian inevitably discovers the secret of the picture he considers praying for forgiveness of his sins but then decides otherwise. He feels that “not one blossom of his loveliness would ever fade. Not one pulse of his life would weaken . He would be safe. That was everything.” (Wilde, 148-149) This belief remains until an uncontrollable paranoia causes him to act strangely. The reason for Dorian’s apprehensiveness can be attributed to the fact that he does not want any living being to know of the portrait’s transmutation.Dorian becomes suspicious that his loyal servant, is staring at the transformed portrait. This scares Dorian because he believes that his servant will tell others or try to blackmail him for money. After much stress Dorian finally decides to move the picture from his bedroom to the attic. He calls on a frame maker, also a friend, to move the painting for him because it is much too large to do on his own. While his friend is moving the portrait a sudden overwhelming feeling of fear comes over Dorian that the frame maker will unveil and see the painting even though it is covered. Dorian “felt ready to leap upon him and fling him to the ground if he dared to lift the gorgeous hanging that concealed the secret of his life.” (172) His distrustful behaviour increases to such a point that he will not even leave town for more than a few days for fear that some individual may discover his secret.
After many years have passed the portrait becomes sordid and hideous. The man standing in the picture no longer resembles in anyway the Dorian Gray of present who remains still as beautiful and as young as ever. During the allotted time that the picture has existed Dorian has learned to love it and hate it. Sometimes he takes pleasure in staring at himself in the mirror and then comparing himself with the portrait. Other times he looks at the picture and becomes quite depressed. It is in these moments that Dorian creeps out of his house late at night to later end up at “the Docks”. This is a place where the slum of the city wander and the smell of opium swirls in the air. A place where “there were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new.” (256) These are the types of institutions Dorian eludes to in order to find escape from the loathsome picture he knows to be his true identity. It is here that he can “cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.” (256) It is the opium that helps Dorian forget his most heinous crimes and come to terms with his devious self. The opium plays but only a small part in the total corruption of Dorian Gray but yet is the result from the effects of the portrait. This truly evil painting not only causes Dorian to ingest horrible substances (opium) but to also commit immoral acts of crime.
It is because of the portrait that Dorian kills one of his best friends, Basil Hallward. Basil is but one of the many victims of his own creation. It was Basil Hallward who had initially painted the lovely portrait of Dorian revealing the innocence of the child Dorian was at the time. It is this picture that later becomes the representation of Dorian’s vile and corrupt soul. After years have passed and the portrait has withered and become grotesque with the lines of age, Basil asks for it back so that he may place it in one of his exhibitions. Unaware of the changes occurring to the portrait Basil goes to Dorian’s house and asks to borrow it for a show. Dorian refuses, however, Basil persists and demands an explanation. It is then that Dorian decides that it is better that the creator of such a monstrosity should have the opportunity to see his own creation. In hopes of having another person to share the secret with Dorian, he brings Basil up to the attic. Basil’s only exclamation was “It has the eyes of a devil.” (218) When Hallward exclaims this “Dorian glanced at the picture, and suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him, as though it had been suggested to him by the image on the canvas, whispered into his ear by those grinning lips.” (220) Unable to hold back his feelings of hatred Dorian grabs a knife and plunges it into the painters neck resulting in a slow painful death. The most unexpected death of Basil has merely added another disfigurement to Dorian’s portrait.
It is throughout all of these acts committed for the search of “new sensations” that has totally altered the appearance of Dorian’ s counterpart. Dorian begins to resent the last eighteen years of his life and wishes to better himself in hopes that the portrait will return to its original form. In his pursuit for self-recovery Dorian makes a self-sacrifice thinking it will alter the painting. He falls in love with a country girl who he woes and then leaves. Dorian breaks off the engagement to Hetty, the country girl, in hopes to “leave her as flower-like as he had found her.” (293) On his return home he finds the picture unchanged and then realizes that what he did was in vain and that it was only part of his search for “new sensations”. It is this horrible portrait that leads to Dorian’s fatal end. He comes to the conclusion that it is hopeless and that he can never become the man he used to be and so in the heat of the moment plunges the same knife he killed Basil with into the heart of the man standing in the portrait. This action of Dorian’s proves to be a most unwise gesture for the result is his own doom. The portrait of Dorian returns to its original form and the man who had stayed young forever turned into what the picture used to resemble, but with a knife in the heart.
The corruption of Dorian’s soul and his inevitable death is laid at the hands of the portrait painted by Basil Hallward. It is through the many years of Mr. Gray’s life that he has destroyed the only part of him that is believed to live on after death. He sells himself to the devil for a “pretty face”. “For every sin that he committed, a stain would fleck and wreck its fairness.” (128) and in the end it is life that imitates art.
From the moment that Dorian Gray is introduced to Basil Hallward’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton, also known as Prince Paradox, he is influenced to look at the world through the eyes of a truly corrupt and cynical man. Lord Henry is a man of many philosophies and of much charm and wit. He lures Dorian into believing every word he utters. Dorian’s life and personality are remade for the likes of Lord Henry who “would seek to dominate him – had already, indeed, half done so. He would make that wonderful spirit his own” (54) Lord Henry accomplishes this by continuously uttering nonsense such as “youth is the only thing worth having.” (34) Lord Henry leads him to believe that it is imperative to be young and beautiful to achieve absolutely anything and that is what causes Dorian to make the wish that changes his life forever. The insanity of Lord Henry’s thoughts soon become Dorian’s problem. Without acknowledging it, Dorian begins to speak and think like Henry. One night at a dinner party Basil advances on Dorian and remarks that “you talk as if you had no heart, no pity in you. It is all Harry’s influence, I see that.” (152) Further and further does our tragic hero fall under the influences of Lord Henry. The more he is drawn into Lord Henry’s clutches the less chance he has of escaping true corruption. It is because of Lord Henry that Dorian has forgotten how to love. He appears to have ” lost the passion, and forgotten the desire.” (285) Henry is also responsible for Dorian’s ignorance and indifferent attitude towards the suicide of Sybil Vane.
Sybil Vane is the object of Dorian’s affection. He walks down to the theater she acts in and watches her perform every night. Dorian holds her on a pedestal above the stars until she becomes a different person. Sybil realizes her love for Dorian and ceases to be an amazing actress, and object of Mr. Gray’s love. Dorian took it upon himself to degrade her for loving him so much and breaks off their engagement. Sybil, who is heartbroken, kills herself in the heat of passion that night because she no longer wants to live without the love of Dorian Gray. The next morning that Dorian discovers what has happened to Sybil and he is thrown into a state of guilt and sorrow. Later that morning non other than Lord Henry shows up at the doorstep trying to console Dorian for what has happened. Henry implies that Sybil only would have brought misery on his life and made him completely “wretched”. Lord Henry actually interprets this scene as being a good experience. “I wish that I had ever had such an experience. It would have made me in love with love for the rest of my life.” (141) In some obscure way, Lord Henry, has been able to turn a moment of sadness and grief into an educational and pleasant experience. It is through these means that Dorian is able to come to terms with Sybil Vane’s death and go to the opera the very same night. For the rest of his life, Dorian will treat women as objects and as means for “new sensations” because as Lord Henry would say “I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else.” (143) Lord Henry has the ability to fill Dorian’s mind with senseless drivel such as “The only horrible thing in the world is ennui,” or “You have only a few years in which to live, really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it.” (35) that causes him to fall into a wicked way of thinking. Dorian is “taken over by words which impose on him an identity he will henceforth live as his own.” (Freidman, 185)
Not only does Lord Henry influenced Dorian directly through his verbal musings but also through reading material he provides for him. At the event of Sybil Vane’s death Dorian asks Henry if he would be able to send him something to occupy his mind. A book that is sent over not only holds Dorian’s interest but later becomes his “Bible.” “Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed,” (Wilde, 175) through this wondrous book. The book became to him a kind of prefiguring type of himself. He felt that “the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it.” (177) The book is about a young Parisian who travels from country to country in search of passions and new modes of thought. It is a book that troubles the brain, containing “metaphors as monstrous as orchids, and as subtle in colour.” (177) One of Dorian’s most favorite joys of the novel is knowing the Parisian has lost what is most valued to him, his beauty. Dorian takes pleasure in this because he knows for a fact that his face will never grow old and that he does not need to fear the chance of a reflection from a mirror or a polished metal plate. He becomes so involved with the book that he has nine more copies made and put into different coloured covers to suit his moods. Over and over again he reads the same chapter. It speaks of all the historical characters that the young Parisian, and Dorian, can relate to. They spoke of figures who were corrupt themselves and had committees crimes. There was “Filippo, Duke of Milan, who slew his wife, and painted her lips with a scarlet poison that her lover might suck death from the dead thing he fondled.” (202) Dorian has a fascination with them all.These are the type of men that Dorian is able to identify himself, thus proving he is a most psychopathic person. The book that contained no plot but yet described life in terms of “mystical philosophies” has corrupted Dorian’s soul. The fact that Dorian can relate to so many different people signifies that he does not really know who he is or what type of person he is which makes the influence of this truly evil book much greater. This book is merely a catalyst in a chain of events which have all helped to contribute to the total annihilation of the goodness that is in Dorian Gray’s soul.
Lord Henry who is “not at all surprised that the world says that he is a extremely wicked man,” (248) plays an important role in destroying the one essence of Dorian’s being that will remain after death. He not only plants nefarious ideas into Dorian’s head but he also gives him a copy of a most sinful book. It is because of these that Dorian’s soul becomes perverse.
Back in the Victorian period, when the book was written, it was considered immoral and unscrupulous to be a homosexual. Homosexuality is also considered to be sinful in the Christian religion and blasphemous in many others. It is Dorian’s decent into homosexuality that degenerates his entire being. Unlike many of the other characters in the novel, Dorian possesses a flare for fashion and an interest in feminine things. Dorian becomes obsessed with the finer things in life. He collects jewels, tapestries, and instruments. “These glittering trappings and millineries of which he was so much enamoured, point perhaps to a feminine trait in him.” (Woodcock, 199) Months at a time he spends collecting his precious jewels or staring at his exquisite tapestries. He is a man infatuated with the details of correctly knotting a tie or making sure he is always in fashion. Dorian is simply a fop at the height of fashion. Young gentlemen would “try to copy his style, mode of dressing. Young men tried to reproduce the accidental charm of his graceful, though to him only half-serious fopperies.” (Wilde, 147) Dorian would even go to such lengths as to put perfume on his kerchief. Not only does he act feminine but he also, on occasions, would wear female attire.
There is a scene in the novel in which he dresses as Anne de Joyeuse in a costume covered with five hundred and sixty pearls. “This taste enthralled him for years, and, indeed, may be said never to have left him.” (203) Dorian’s physical traits are described as being beautiful and “wonderful to look at” which are perfect grounds for him to attain any type of partner. It might be argued that Dorian is not a homosexual but that he is a heterosexual because of his relationship with Sybil Vane, however, this can be proven otherwise. It can be proven that he is a bisexual man and not a heterosexual. Bisexual men are mostly attracted to young men and young girls who are around the age of twelve. It is Dorian who falls in love with Sybil because “she looked such a child.” (138) Sybil Vane was a very young girl who was not yet been fully developed. Dorian not only falls in love with her for these reasons but also because she dresses like a boy. As an actress it is her career to portray different characters, sometimes being of a different sex. It is at these moments that Dorian enjoys watching her perform most of all. “You should have seen her! When she came on in her boy’s clothes she was perfectly wonderful . She had never seemed more exquisite.” (106) Dorian’s fascination does not only lay in young girls but also in young boys. This is evident because the only reason he finds the Roman Catholic communion worthy of himself is that he enjoys looking at the alter boys who “in flowers, had their lace and scarlet, tossed into the air like great gilt flowers, had their subtle fascination for him.” (185) His interests may vary from man to woman, but in the midst of all Dorian’s “play” he has ruined the lives of others.
It was known that in the Victorian period anyone caught having an affair with the same sex would immediately be tried and exiled. Most unfortunately, the young men acquainted with Mr. Dorian. They have all either mysteriously disappeared or committed suicide for fear of being shunned. Dorian would entertain “the fashionable young men of his own rank who were his chief companions,” (196) and would invite them, to stay for weekends at a time, up at his house in the country. Soon it was discovered by Basil Hallward that most of the men Dorian came into contact with would always disappear. Basil would so often ask “why is it that so many gentlemen in London will neither go to your house nor invite to theirs?” (208) It is obvious that because Dorian has earned the reputation of a dangerous and seductive man. It is because he has “filled them with a madness for pleasure,” and has led them “down into depths” which they have not been able to recover from. Dorian has destroyed the lives of many including the lives of Adrian Singleton and Alan Campbell. Adrian Singleton who used to be a prominent young lord now resides in the opium houses down by the Docks. The opium houses are where he spends his time living in a synthetic reality to escape the pressures of society. Alan Campbell who was also a very prospective chemist and physician kills himself in an effort to avert the Dorian’s clutches. It is obvious that both these and other men were lured to “that indefinable attraction that Dorian seemed to be able to exercise whenever he wished, and indeed exercised often without being conscious of it.” (230) Dorian’s decent into homosexuality has truly debauched his soul and destroyed the souls of others.
Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray, clearly deals with the theme of corruption. It is in this novel that a man by the name of Dorian Gray is slowly and completely debauched by the end of the novel. His soul is transformed from innocence to pure evil. The vile crimes and acts which make this transformation possible are mainly to be blamed on the portrait that changes as his soul changes, his companion, Lord Henry Wotton, and Dorian’s slow decent into homosexuality. It is evident by the conclusion of the novel that Dorian has become a dissolute and perverse man who cannot understand that vanity and the thrill of “new sensations” are not what run the world.
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Freidman, Jonathan (edited). Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1996.
Pearson, Hesketh (edited). Essays By Oscar Wilde. New York: Books For Libraries Press, 1972.
Ransome, Arthur. Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study. London: Mr. Martin Secker, 1913.
Weintraub, Stanley (edited). Literary Criticism of Oscar Wilde. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.
Woodcock, George. The Paradox of Oscar Wilde. London-New York: T.V. Boardman and Co., Ltd., 1950.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Denmark: Wordsworth Editions Limited, Reprinted 1992.