The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Chapter 16 | Summary

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Summary

As Dorian rides to the opium den, he thinks back on what Henry told him the first day they met, about curing the soul by means of the senses and the senses by means of the soul. This seems right and indicates that opium can solve his problem and calm his nerves. The ride to the opium den seems to take forever, and Dorian finds himself repeating Henry's line about soul and senses over and over. Eventually they arrive. The opium den is dirty and decrepit, and the people there are desperate. Dorian recognizes one man, Adrian Singleton. Dorian invites him to the bar for a drink. Women approach them. Dorian pays them to leave the two men in peace.

After they talk, Dorian leaves. The woman who had taken Dorian's money talks to him as he leaves, calling him the "devil's bargain" and "Prince Charming." This wakes a drowsing sailor, who follows Dorian. Dorian is walking through the rain, thinking about how he was not responsible for Adrian's ruined life despite Basil's accusation. Suddenly a man grabs him from behind and pulls a gun on him. It's James Vane. James blames Dorian for his sister Sibyl's death, and years ago he swore he'd kill Dorian if he ever got the chance. However, he didn't know Dorian's name and had no way of finding him until he heard the woman in the opium den call him "Prince Charming." James is about to kill Dorian when Dorian asks how long it has been since his sister was killed. When James says it has been 18 years, Dorian asks him to look at his face. James does and immediately sees that Dorian looks barely 20 years old. He apologizes, and Dorian lectures him about how wrong he was to take vengeance into his own hands.

Once Dorian leaves, James stands on the street, horrified over what he had almost done. The same woman from the opium den approaches James and asks why he didn't kill Dorian. James says it was a mistake: it was impossible for Dorian to be the person he was looking for because he was too young. The woman laughs bitterly and says Prince Charming ruined her 18 years ago. James doesn't believe it, but the woman swears it is true.

Analysis

It has been many years since Henry woke Dorian to his own beauty and spouted his witticism about curing the senses and the soul. For Dorian to remember that quip now—in a time of crisis and after he's just killed someone—shows how completely Henry has influenced Dorian. It also shows the shallowness of Henry's witticism, or at least Dorian's application of the quip. The idea that using drugs is a way to heal your soul, or the best thing to do after you've killed someone, is short sighted indeed. Wilde underscores this by the scene he reveals at the opium den. This is a disgusting place, full of people who have wasted their lives or are essentially dead.

This chapter also shows the complexity of Wilde's novel, however. Although his point about drug use and degradation seems completely conventional, this chapter also presents—and then thwarts—a classic scene of karmic justice. In a series of plot twists that seem more at home in myths or fairy tales, James Vane suddenly appears to confront the man who ruined his sister. This is so unlikely as to be impossible. Even if James is now a drunk or an opium addict, there were multiple opium dens and bars in London at this time. For James to be in the same one Dorian visits, at the same time, would not be credible in a realistic novel. The coincidence is too great. However, Wilde pulls this off through his control of the narrative and specifically through the fantastic world he evokes. This is a world in which paintings age and people don't; in such a world "Prince Charming" may logically encounter his enemy. But Wilde doesn't stop his complications there. For Dorian to escape justice through the magic of his ageless face negates any sense that vice is always punished in the end.

Despite Dorian's escape, this chapter does indicate that the end of the novel, and his campaign of vice, is near. More people are learning of his secret, and there's a sense that the situation is unraveling.

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