The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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Chapter 6

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 6 of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Picture of Dorian Gray | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

Henry and Basil meet for dinner. Henry shares the news that Dorian is engaged. The friends talk about how foolish a choice this is for Dorian, and how marrying an actress is beneath him. Basil asks Henry if he approves. Henry says he no longer approves or disapproves of anything, but in general he doesn't think much of marriage because it makes most people unselfish and dull.

Dorian enters. The older men congratulate him on the engagement. Henry asks to hear about how it happened. Dorian had watched her act (in Shakespeare's As You Like It) and went to talk to her afterward. She looked at him lovingly. They kissed. Dorian says their engagement is still secret from her mother. Henry asks if he actually proposed; Dorian is offended, saying that he didn't need to and they have an understanding. He loves her purely, and that's all that is needed. What's more, Dorian says, Sibyl's presence is so pure it lets Dorian reject all of Henry's cynical theories. Henry claims to be baffled by this mention of his theories and says pleasure is the only thing worth having a theory about. Even that, Henry says, is not his theory but nature's: happiness equals goodness equals being true to oneself. If you give in to outside forces, Henry argues, that's criminal. Basil suggests that people who live only for themselves have to pay in suffering. All three men talk more about the nature of pleasure, and then Dorian insists they go with him to the theater to see Sibyl. Henry and Dorian leave and Basil follows, but not before he reflects sadly on Dorian's impending marriage.

Analysis

The talk between Henry and Basil about Dorian's engagement further sharpens the distance and difference between the two friends. Though Basil is an artist, he is much more conventional and straightforward in his response to the news than Henry. And Henry's response is not just original, it inverts a number of commonly held beliefs, such as when he laments the fact that marriage makes people less selfish. One of the things that makes this novel so striking is that both men are right. As Basil argues, because Sibyl is quite a bit below Dorian (in class and money), it is a bad idea and likely to fail. In contrast Henry argues that the experience of marrying—and probably discarding—Sibyl would make Dorian a fascinating study. The men seem to disagree, but both arguments are true.

Once Dorian arrives, despite the influence Henry has exerted on him, he seems very pragmatic about adhering to social expectations. Dorian's assumption that he and Sibyl are engaged even though he never asked her to marry him, is, as Henry indicates, naive and romantic, but not functional.

In this chapter Wilde uses Henry and Basil to articulate the case for and against an aesthetic philosophy. Henry makes a sophisticated philosophical argument, saying, "Believe me, no civilized man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilized man ever knows what a pleasure is." There is a longstanding tension between nature and culture, with one of the paired terms taking precedence in some philosophies and the other in other schools. In this selection, by claiming this equation is not his but nature's, Henry erases this distinction and claims the upper hand in this debate. He goes on to say that "the important thing" is "one's own life" and that the lives of others are of no concern.

When Henry and Basil discuss the cost of living "merely for one's self," which Henry advocates, Basil suggests that people have to pay not only financially but also "in other ways" such as "in remorse, in suffering, in ... well, in the consciousness of degradation."

The plot of the novel gives Basil's less self-centered argument the last word, and his speech foreshadows Dorian's demise. Dorian's dedication to what seems like an ethereal rather than realistic vision of Sibyl, in contrast to Henry's observances of women, supports the novel's theme of art versus life.

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