The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

The next day Lord Henry visits Lord George Fermor—his uncle—to learn more about Dorian Gray's background. Lord George explains that Dorian's mother—the beautiful Lady Margaret Devereux—ran off with a poor suitor years ago. When her husband was killed not long after, Lady Margaret also died, shortly after giving birth to Dorian. Dorian is quite wealthy.

Henry then goes to his Aunt Agatha's, thinking about the tragic yet romantic story of Dorian's parentage and of his great beauty. At lunch Henry joins a collection of important people (politicians and aristocrats). As they talk, Dorian's name comes up, and Henry lays claim to him, hoping Dorian will play piano for him. The conversation covers both larger topics (social change, politics) and more personal ones.

Analysis

Classical Greek drama sometimes used a deus ex machina to resolve difficult plot points: playwrights had an actor (the god) lowered onto the stage from a crane where he then resolved difficult situations in the plot. In Chapter 3 Wilde employs a deus ex machina in the form of Henry's uncle, Lord George. He appears in this chapter and never again. Lord George is a useful, if somewhat unlikely, fountain of information about Dorian's background. On the one hand it makes sense that an older aristocrat would know the gossip of his class. On the other hand, if Dorian is so beautiful and this scandal so extreme, why hadn't Henry known this before? In any case Dorian's romantic background contributes to the fairy tale nature of the plot. He's an orphan and has a history that's extremely dramatic.

The second half of the chapter, when Henry goes to his aunt's for lunch, might at first glance seem unrelated to the first half, or to the rest of the novel. However, the scene serves several functions. It further establishes Henry's character and the breadth of his knowledge, as he can dispense persuasive comments on any topic introduced. It reinforces his cynicism, and his role as an active combatant in the war of the sexes. Henry becomes aware of Dorian watching him and wants to "fascinate" Dorian. This shows Dorian's power in general and the novel's homoerotic tendencies more specifically. And finally Henry's advice to the duchess on how to become young again prefigures the action of the novel: Dorian can do whatever he wants precisely because he doesn't age. Because only his portrait ages, he is free to make the same mistake over and over.

Henry engages in an extended private contemplation about influence and its meaning: this long paragraph serves as a bridge between the two portions of this chapter. Henry has just recently spoken to Dorian about influence being undesirable because it is unnatural and displaces the originality of the person influenced. However, in this section Henry paints quite a different portrait of influence. He compares it to playing a violin, and makes it clear it is a satisfying art form in itself.

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