The Picture of Dorian Gray: the Seven Deadly Sins, and Exploring the Duplicity
In the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, there is a tension between the internal lives of the characters and the facades they project to the outer world. “The idea of a double life – of outwardly playing a respectable role while inwardly pursuing an existence that crossed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray: art, ethics and the artist: Greg Buzwell) This is a Victorian novel and therefore the Christian motifs of sin and redemption are ever-present. Wilde uses the painting of Dorian Gray to represent accumulated sins in Dorian’s life. Dorian’s character throughout the novel evolves, and so does his painting. As Dorian loses his innocence and progresses in his sins, the painting is marred to reflect these changes. Though the novel is not structured around the seven deadly sins, we see that on closer inspection, they provide a useful lense through which to view Dorian’s moral collapse. Therefore, we can use the seven deadly sins and their companion seven cardinal virtues to shed light on Oscar Wilde’s perception of Victorian mores.
Much like the story of Adam and Eve, where the primordial couple were placed in the Garden of Eden in a state of innocence, Dorian Gray is initially quite innocent. When Eve eats the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and shares it with Adam, their innocence was lost. This “sin” was a disobedient choice against God’s explicit command. The price paid was expulsion from paradise and that mankind could now suffer and die. In Dorian Gray, Dorian starts out in the beginning of the book as an innocent, young man, unencumbered by things of the world. He has a pure curiosity of things around him and is inexperienced regarding earthly sins and pleasures. Basil, the man who paints him, sees the purity and innocence in Dorian, and wants to protect it as if he was a rare, precious diamond.
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“Don’t spoil him. Don’t try to influence him. Your influence would be bad. The world is wide, and has many marvellous people in it. Don’t take away from me the one person who gives to my art whatever charm it possesses: my life as an artist depends on him…” (chapter 1)
Basil spoke this referring to his friend Lord Henry Wotton, who he worried would have a negative impact on Dorian. Henry, gained much satisfaction by influencing the young Dorian,“he felt intensely interested. He was amazed at the sudden impression that his words had produced.” (Chapter 2) He would watch the impact he was having on Dorian’s mind and take pleasure in it.
“He had known Basil Hallward for months, but the friendship between them had never altered him. Suddenly there had come some one across his life who seemed to have disclosed to him life’s mystery. And, yet, what was there to be afraid of?” (Chapter 2)
Dorian felt the effect Henry had on him, and as it is said in this passage, felt afraid of it. It was completely new to him to have someone influence him and alter as Henry did.
We can see that Dorian Gray is aptly named since he appears to be in a tug-of-war between his two companions; Basil Hallward representing light or goodness and Lord Henry representing darkness or evil. Here is where Oscar Wilde really begins his critique of Victorian society. Lord Henry is a pure hedonist, out for pleasure for the sake of pleasure. However, Basil (a Greek name meaning: royal, kingly) has no title. So is Basil the more truly noble character? Is Wilde accusing the Victorian Aristocracy of being hedonistic at heart while preaching Victorian restraint to the masses? Oscar Wilde was very likely aware of a real member of the English House of Commons whose name was Sir Henry Wotton. He is often quoted as saying “An ambassador is an honest gentlemen sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” Wilde would likely choose such a name to speak volumes regarding the difference between the inner self and one’s public image. This is a major theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
We can tease out the true identities of the various characters by a close reading of their words and actions. There is reference multiple times in the novel, where Lord Henry, is described to be eating or drinking strawberries. “Basil, let us have something iced to drink, something with strawberries in it.’ (Chapter 2) Upon closer examination, we see Henry as the character that is sinful, and a negative influence on Dorian, and he is consuming something that represents purity. The meaning behind the strawberry is sacred to the Virgin Mary, and plays a prominent role in Marian Theology, and in medieval Christian art and folklore, the strawberry symbolizes spiritual purity, decency, righteousness, and perfect nobility of spirit. Lord Henry consumes such purity. He sucked it out of the strawberries and throughout the novel, he will suck it out of Dorian. This was a reflection of irony Wilde seemed to use to also represent projection, versus reality.
We can now trace the demise and corruption of Dorian Gray as he engages in a series of choices between the seven deadly sins and the seven cardinal virtues. We must remember to the outside world Dorian remains young and handsome because he has made a deal with the devil to have his picture suffer the consequences of his sins. “Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!’ (Chapter 2)
The first sin/virtue to examine is sloth and diligence. Sloth means the desire for ease. To put forth no effort, to be unproductive. Dorian had a lust for trivial things. Though it seemed like a minor thing, Dorian refused to pose for a portrait after his eyes were open to Henry’s new ideas. It made the idea of sitting in a closed room, still for hours seem dull and meaningless. “…it is horribly dull standing on a platform and trying to look pleasant.” (Chapter 2) His new lust for life brought forth new meaning to him, and putting forth effort into something that that was possibly helping someone and being productive seemed meaningless. He showed no diligence and throughout the novel, he puts his focus on leisurely things such as music and art. The one time you see him make any sort of sacrifice for someone else, is when he is posing for Basil to paint in the beginning of the book.
The second pair of sins/virtues we will examine is envy and kindness. When Dorian has the realization for the first time that he wishes to remain forever young, this marks the active beginning of his demoralization in the novel. He is envious of the painting and its youth. .’I am jealous of everything whose beauty does not die. I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose? Every moment that passes takes something from me and gives something to it…” (Chapter 2)
There is no thought given to consequences. “I” is mentioned three times and “me” twice in the above quote. How such things might affect others is not in consideration here. Passive sloth has turned to an active disregard of others.
The third pair of sins/virtues to look at is that of greed and charity. Dorian wants to remain young and beautiful. His greed for youth engrossed his mind and heart. He yearns for power to avoid degradation and old age. In the scene involving the innkeeper’s daughter, Hetty Merton, Dorian may be at his most charitable. ‘It is because I am going to be good,’ he answered, smiling. ‘I am a little changed already.’ (Chapter 19) Dorian mentioned this in regard to the innkeeper’s daughter during a conversation with Henry. He believes that since he did not take advantage of this young woman, he might go find his portrait somewhat improved. “As he thought of Hetty Merton, he began to wonder if the portrait in the locked room had changed…” (Chapter 20) He is, of course, mistaken. “He could see no change… The thing was still loathsome—more loathsome, if possible, than before.” While it is ostensibly “good” that he did not seduce the innkeeper’s daughter, this does nothing to erase his past sins. In fact, his portrait is marred even further because of his motive. Simply put: not sinning is not to be confused with right conduct. His non-seduction had nothing to do with concern for her well-being but only his self judgment. “Had it been merely vanity that had made him do his one good deed? Or the desire for a new sensation…” (Chapter 20)
The fourth pair of sins/virtues with which to deal is lust versus chastity.
“Your rank and wealth, Harry; my brains, such as they are—my art, whatever it may be worth; Dorian Gray’s good looks—we shall all suffer for what the gods have given us, suffer terribly.’ (Chapter 1)
Do all gifts carry their own curse, or particular temptation? Dorian Gray’s good looks engage Basil’s gift in painting and the painting leads to his selling of his soul. After the death of Sibyl, Dorian spends eighteen years pursuing lust and vice.
“when the passion for sin, or for what the world calls sin, so dominates a nature that every fibre of the body, as every cell of the brain, seems to be instinct with fearful impulses.” (Chapter 16)
The fifth pair of sins/virtues we will investigate is gluttony and temperance. The critical concept here is what does Dorian choose to consume or refrain from consuming? Lord Henry gives Dorian a yellow book. The color yellow is particularly important since the book seems to be moral poison to Dorian. Yellow is the complexion of a patient suffering from jaundice. Here, Lord Henry is presenting Dorian with something to consume that will leave him jaundiced, as in covetous or resentful.
“It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own…” (Chapter 10)
It seems clear that Dorian identifies with the young Parisian but is it possible Wilde identifies with Dorian? “Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book. There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful.” (Chapter 11)
Another example of the choice to embrace his gluttony and disregard temperance was Dorian’s experience in the opium den. Since we are addressing things thematically rather than chronologically, I will leave the events immediately preceding the opium den to my section on wrath/forgiveness.
“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.” (Chapter 16)
It is safe to say we can see an escalation in “sin-seeking” behavior. Regardless of the fact that the painting suffers the consequences of Dorian’s bad choices there is a momentum building.
“to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul. You are a wonderful creation. You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know.’ (Chapter 16). Lord Henry’s wisdom about hedonism reverberating to Dorian and becoming a mantra.
The sixth pair of sins/virtues is pride and humility. “The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation.” (Chapter 2) Dorian Gray seems to have a particular weakness in regard to pride. He would look in the mirror at himself and then at the painting and be proud of who he was versus what the painting was becoming. Wilde seems to save some of his best artistry in regard to pride and the vanity that accompanies it.
“He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul. He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age. He would place his white hands beside the coarse bloated hands of the picture, and smile. He mocked the misshapen body and the failing limbs.”(Chapter 10)
However this is a private revelry because Dorian covers his painting with a purple and gold tapestry that signifies nobility. Purple is classically the color of royalty and gold represents wealth. Is Wilde saying that when we look out at the world and we see nobility and wealth, that we should assume there is something mysterious behind this facade?
If we return to the analogy of the Garden of Eden, were wealth and nobility really Victorian fig leaves covering some unseemly parts of life? Adam and Eve hid from God just as Dorian hides the painting that bears the effects of his sins.
“Upon the walls of the lonely locked room where he had spent so much of his boyhood, he had hung with his own hands the terrible portrait whose changing features showed him the real degradation of his life, and in front of it had draped the purple-and-gold pall as a curtain.” (Chapter 11)
Pride is also at the heart of the entire episode with Sibyl Vane. Her last name is a homophone of the word vain. Her first name coming from the Greco-Roman world meaning fortune teller or prophetess. So as a love interest for Dorian she becomes a prophetess of vanity.
Dorian falls in love with her for her artistry at acting. Dorian takes Basil and Lord Henry to her performance and she performs terribly. “…the staginess of her acting was unbearable, and grew worse as she went on.” (Chapter 7) The reason that she is terrible is that she is distracted by her true love for Dorian. Is there a connection between truth and love? Is the fact that Dorian fell in love with her because he assumed she was so like himself, the fact that she could put on a false face the way Dorian does? She embarasses him in front of his friends and his pride and vanity are exposed. He didn’t love her. He only loved her artistry and how it reflected on him.
“Without your art, you are nothing. I would have made you famous, splendid, magnificent. The world would have worshipped you, and you would have borne my name. What are you now? A third-rate actress with a pretty face.’ (Chapter 7). She commits suicide because of his vanity. We cannot touch on the issue of pride and avoid Wilde’s comparison to the fall of Satan.
“Choice is taken from them, and conscience is either killed, or, if it lives at all, lives but to give rebellion its fascination and disobedience its charm… For all sins, as theologians weary not of reminding us, are sins of disobedience. When that high spirit, that morning star of evil, fell from heaven, it was as a rebel that he fell.” (Chapter 16)
I believe this passage is placed here to remind us that Dorian Gray is clearly in a tug-of-war. But here Wilde is being more explicit than just “light and dark” or “good and evil.” I think Lord Henry and his hedonism is clearly being cast in the role of Satan. This puts Basil in the role of God. This leaves Dorian like humanity, may be said to be caught in between.
The seventh pair of sins/virtues to look at is wrath and forgiveness. “Dorian, deny them! Can’t you see what I am going through? My God! don’t tell me that you are bad, and corrupt, and shameful.’ (Chapter 12) Dorian should be looking for forgiveness, but chooses wrath.
The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also. I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.’ (Chapter 13)
Dorian feels extreme hate and rage toward Basil after Dorian exposes the painting to him. Basil urges Dorian to repent of his sins. ‘It is never too late, Dorian. Let us kneel down and try if we cannot remember a prayer. Isn’t there a verse somewhere, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them as white as snow’?’ (Chapter 13) Dorian refuses his urging, but instead it causes him to hate Basil.
“Dorian Gray 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. The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than in his whole life he had ever loathed anything.” (Chapter 13)
Dorian kills Basil, therefore this signifies the ending of the tug-of-war that had been happening throughout the novel between the good and bad influences on Dorian. Lord Henry’s influences have won. Dorian bore responsibility for Sibyl’s death indirectly. Now he is directly responsible for Basil’s death. Having murdered the force of light in his life he is now fully immersed himself into the darkness. “peering down into the black seething well of darkness.”(Chapter 13) Though this passage is referring to a stairwell, it is an accurate representation of the events that had just taken place.
Dorian Gray now has a major problem to solve: he has a dead body. So Dorian blackmails a chemist he knows, named Alan Campbell, to dispose of Basil’s corpse. Alan later kills himself over the deed. This is the third death for which Dorian bears some responsibility.
To escape the guilt over Basil’s murder, Dorian seeks out the opium den described above under gluttony and temperance. There he meets James Vane, seeking vengeance on the “Prince Charming” that caused his sister Sibyl’s suicide. Dorian’s perpetual youth saves him for the moment. “…for the face of the man he had sought to kill had all the bloom of boyhood, all the unstained purity of youth.” (Chapter 16) James Vane, later on is killed in a hunting accident. This is the fourth body that can clearly be linked with the sins of Dorian Gray.
Dorian has now run the gamut of sloth, envy, greed, lust, gluttony, pride, and wrath. Clearly, the self-indulgent hedonism of Lord Henry has some serious flaws. Where can Dorian turn? His duplicity failing him, he decides to come to grips with the truth.
“He knew that he had tarnished himself, filled his mind with corruption and given horror to his fancy; that he had been an evil influence to others, and had experienced a terrible joy in being so; and that of the lives that had crossed his own, it had been the fairest and the most full of promise that he had brought to shame. But was it all irretrievable? Was there no hope for him?”(Chapter 20)
‘By the way, Dorian,’ he said after a pause, ”what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose—how does the quotation run?—his own soul’?’ (Chapter 19) Henry asked Dorian this, but there is irony in this statement. Because in the beginning of the novel, it is strongly implied that Dorian gave his soul to the devil, here Henry is referencing it as a jest, yet it holds truth to Dorians life.
“Then he loathed his own beauty, and flinging the mirror on the floor, crushed it into silver splinters beneath his heel. It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had prayed for. But for those two things, his life might have been free from stain. His beauty had been to him but a mask, his youth but a mockery. What was youth at best? A green, an unripe time, a time of shallow moods, and sickly thoughts. Why had he worn its livery? Youth had spoiled him.
‘It was the living death of his own soul that troubled him. Basil had painted the portrait that had marred his life.’” (Chapter 20)
But for most of the novel it could more accurately be said that Dorian lived the life that marred the portrait that Basil painted. So Dorian takes the the same knife he used to murder Basil and plunges it into the picture. Dorian’s servants enter the room to find an old corpse on the floor wearing their master’s jewelry and a pristine painting of the youthful and handsome Dorian Gray.
“When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage.” (Chapter 20)
Is the stabbing of the painting a confession? A retraction of Dorian’s selling of his soul? I believe it to be Dorian being willing to reconcile himself with the truth. Dorian the man was old and burdened by many sins. The painting was originally a work of art that could, at best, capture a moment in time. Perhaps that is the point…beauty is fleeting. Beauty may be breathtaking precisely because it doesn’t last. Attempting to cling to youth or beauty is a pointless exercise.
There is a lot for a student in the age of social media to learn from the Picture of Dorian Gray. You can be duplicitous and try to live two lives. Your “online persona” and your real life are going to come into conflict at some point. Who has the energy to maintain a double life like that? Plus, is your online persona a true representation or some ideal projected to win followers.
I think Oscar Wilde created a lasting work of art that exposed some of the hypocrisy of Victorian England. Gentlemen with titles could act like brute beasts while a much less prosperous artist could exemplify true nobility. However, it’s no fairy tale. Your duplicity can cause real and lasting damage. We can clearly see this in reference to Basil Hallward, Sibyl and James Vane, and Allen Campbell. You can project whatever image you want, but ultimately you cannot transfer the sin, you have to bare it.