The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Chapter 20 | Summary

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Summary

As Dorian walks home, enjoying the pleasant evening, he hears people talking about him. This leads him to think about how he used to enjoy being talked about, and how the girl he had been romancing had an innocence he'd lost. Once he gets home, he settles in the library and continues thinking—focusing now on what Henry said about how Dorian couldn't change. He longs for his lost innocence. As he thinks over various memories, he gets angry and breaks a mirror Henry had given him years ago.

Dorian thinks of all the people whose lives he has ruined or damaged. He resolves to put the past behind him and to change. When he thinks of Hetty Merton, the girl he intentionally did not spoil, he wonders if his magic portrait still looks as terrible as it used to. He goes to look at it and finds it is as macabre as ever. It might even be more horrible, because, in addition to all the past sins, Dorian can now see hypocrisy in the portrait's face. He wonders if Basil's murder will haunt him his whole life. The painting is, Dorian decides, the last piece of evidence, and so he must destroy it. He looks around and sees the knife he used to stab Basil. He plunges the blade into the painting. There is a terrible cry and a crash. His servants hear the sounds, as do people on the street outside. Entering the locked room by way of the window, they find the beautiful portrait of Dorian as a young man hanging on the wall. Below the painting lies an ugly and withered old man, a knife plunged into his heart.

Analysis

Chapter 20 brings the entire surreal tale to a close. Wilde had been wrapping up the various loose plot threads in the previous chapters. In this one he brings the various themes to a full resolution. If there is an imbalance between appearance and reality, this chapter says, it is temporary.

Reality will always break through to win in the end. The clash between art and life is more complicated. Dorian's actual sins do catch up with him in the end. However, the magical powers the portrait gave him are a major factor allowing him to sin the way he did. If Dorian looked the way his portrait does at the end of the novel, men and women would not have fallen in love with him, people would have believed all of the dark rumors about him, and so on. Art enabled his loathsome life, even as it hid it.

Throughout the novel Dorian had enjoyed using a mirror to inspect his face for (absent) signs of change. When he did not find any, he was reassured. In this chapter, though, he breaks a mirror, symbolizing the end of his extended self-contemplation. As soon as he is no longer content to look at his own beauty, his death is sure to follow quickly, as indeed it does.

This last chapter adds another layer to Wilde's complex consideration of art in this novel. Dorian has repeatedly shown himself to be extremely shallow and self-centered. He misses the impact of many of his actions. In Basil's portrait, though, he can immediately see a single line of hypocrisy after his decision to not seduce Hetty Merton. This indicates that great art can lift even the shallowest of people to new insight. Dorian's reaction, though, damns him further. In his preface to the novel, Wilde wrote, "Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault." This, in the end, describes Dorian.

At last Wilde leaves it to the reader to determine whether Dorian in fact stuck the dagger into his own heart, or, whether, in slashing his portrait, he rendered a magical and mortal wound.

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