The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Chapter 19 | Summary

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Summary

Not long after, Henry and Dorian are talking. Dorian tells Henry he's changing his life: he's going to be good. In fact he's already started. He was making romantic overtures to a woman and decided to "leave her as flower-like as I had found her." Henry begs him not to change and dismisses the idea that this woman will be content after experiencing someone like Dorian. Dorian complains about Henry mocking everything he says. He changes the subject, asking about the gossip. Though he mentions his own divorce and Alan Campbell's suicide in passing, Henry tells him everyone is talking about Basil's disappearance. They talk about what might have happened, and Dorian asks if Henry ever considered that Basil might have been killed. Henry literally yawns in response as he dismisses the idea because of Basil's dullness. Dorian then asks what Henry would do if Dorian admitted he'd killed Basil. Henry dismisses this idea too: it is vulgar and Dorian doesn't have it in him to commit violent crime.

The conversation moves on. Henry notes that Basil's painting hadn't been as strong in the last 10 years as it had before and asks Dorian if that's why Dorian and Basil hadn't been as close. He asks what Dorian did with Basil's portrait of him, and Dorian claims he doesn't remember. They are discussing art when Henry asks Dorian an unexpected question, "What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose ... his own soul?" Dorian's startled, and inquires why Henry asks this; Henry says he heard a street preacher say it. Dorian then responds seriously, saying that each human has a soul and they can damage or improve it. Henry rejects this as well, precisely because Dorian is sure about it.

From here Henry shifts to delivering long statements on how radically he has changed since the two men met but Dorian hasn't. Dorian is, Henry tells him, perfect. Life worships him and always has. Dorian agrees his life has been wonderful but says Henry doesn't know everything about him, and things will change. Henry rejects this idea again, calling for Dorian to come to the club to meet a young man who has asked for an introduction. When he compliments Dorian's piano playing, saying it is the best it has ever been, Dorian says it is because he has already changed. After further discussion, Dorian agrees to meet Henry at the club at 11.

Analysis

This chapter is extremely complicated for one so short. Throughout the section Henry argues for the pleasure side of the pleasure versus virtue theme. As is always the case in the novel, Henry is witty, striking, and informed. It would be easy to believe him, and pleasant to do so. However, Henry's words ultimately ring false; in light of the reader's knowledge of Dorian in contrast with the characters' understandings, they provide an example of dramatic irony. The chapter provides support for the theme of art versus life when Henry says, "Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile." Art may be sterile—Dorian produces nothing, does not marry, and has no children—but it is sterile precisely because it has such a profound influence upon action. Basil's painting of Dorian functions as an externalized and omniscient conscience. At the very least art immediately reveals what people have done. At the most it trumps reality, at least temporarily, changing the way biology and physics work around Dorian.

In their own way Henry's arguments are as independent of time and traditional physical reality as Basil's picture of Dorian. He was there for Dorian's interaction with Sibyl Vane. He knows the theater played a major role in their love and that Sibyl's bad acting played an active role in breaking the spell she had on Dorian. He even left the performance because he could not stand the bad art he was experiencing. Therefore, Henry knows art has an active influence on emotion, psychology, and his own action. To believe otherwise is to engage in willful fantasy.

Once again Henry proves himself not much of a friend to Dorian, as he punctures his desire to change. He also shows the distance between them, and perhaps his own shallowness, by mentioning his divorce so briefly. It matters only as a marker for how public attention is spent. This shallowness is underscored by his rejection of Dorian's question about the possibility that he killed Basil. Henry says, "All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime." What he's missing is that Dorian is extremely vulgar. Dorian is also as shallow as Henry. When Henry mentions Allan Campbell's suicide, Dorian does not even react, even though he'd known the man intimately and left him broken. He just looks pretty. Wilde provides a damning statement on the aesthetic movement, delivered in the most aesthetically pleasing fashion possible.

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