The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Chapter 17 | Summary

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Summary

A week later Dorian is sitting in the conservatory (greenhouse) of his country estate and chatting with the Duchess of Monmouth. She is one of a dozen guests, and more are expected to join the group the next day. When Henry joins the conversation, he and the duchess exchange witty flirtation, touching on beauty and ugliness, among other topics. The duchess suggests that Henry thinks of ugliness as one of the seven deadly sins, and he replies it is one of the "seven deadly virtues." The conversation touches on many subjects, eventually turning to Dorian. Henry mentions Dorian used to be called "Prince Charming." Dorian protests being reminded of the title. They move on quickly to discuss relationships. Dorian leaves, going to the far end of the conservatory to get the duchess some flowers. On their own, she and Henry return to their fast-paced conversation. Henry chides the duchess about how she is flirting with Dorian and lets her know she has a rival. They are talking about the war between the sexes when they hear a groan from the other end of the room. Dorian has fainted because he's seen James Vane peering in through the window.

Analysis

In this chapter Wilde supports the theme of pleasure versus virtue. As part of his spirited exchange with the duchess, Henry says, "Romance lives by repetition, and repetition converts an appetite into an art ... Each time that one loves is the only time one has ever loved ... We can have in life but one great experience at best, and the secret of life is to reproduce that experience as often as possible."

This makes all of life into a process of consciously managing experiences. Following the path Henry describes will lead to pleasant, but ultimately sterile, repetition.

Henry's statement applies directly to Dorian's life, and Dorian's life to it. When he loved Sibyl, Dorian was young, naive, even foolish. But his love for her was unlike any other love in his life. In the time since, he's clearly been involved with many partners, but never with the intensity that he felt for Sibyl. And Henry's path is so self-centered it becomes extreme narcissism. In fact Henry makes it sound as though the identity of the other person doesn't matter at all. It is one's own passion that defines romance. If that's the case, any partner is as good as any other. All dreams of soul mates, or even of mutual respect, dissolve. Only the lover's experience remains. As Dorian himself testifies, this philosophy results in pleasure but not happiness. And the world it creates is ultimately vulnerable: the sight of one face from the past that's associated with genuine wrongdoing (James Vane) can make Dorian pass out.

Two other aspects of this chapter deserve notice. The first is that Dorian says he always agrees with Henry and that Henry is never wrong. This means that although Dorian appears to be living a life of his own creation, he is in some sense dancing to Henry's tune. For all of his experiences, he's never come up with a new idea of his own. All is pleasure.

The second noteworthy aspect of the chapter is that Dorian's "Prince Charming" title returns again to haunt him. Like the return of James Vane in the previous chapter and at the end of this one, this signals his magical deal with time is coming to an end. Dorian can appear to live outside of time, but he can't escape it. His past is catching up with him.

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