The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

When the three men get to the theater, it is more crowded than usual. Henry is appalled by the crowd and surroundings, but Dorian promises Sibyl will transform everything. Basil enters the argument on Dorian's side, saying she must be wonderful to have the effect on audiences that Dorian has described. When Dorian's two friends see Sibyl as Juliet, they immediately agree that she is beautiful. Her acting, however, is unconvincing and leaden. Dorian's friends see it, Dorian sees it, and the crowd sees it. When the second act ends, Henry leaves, unable to bear her mediocre performance any longer. Dorian is upset and sends Basil out with Henry. Dorian watches the rest of the play. By the time it is over, half the audience has left.

Dorian goes backstage to see Sibyl. She greets him with a matter-of-fact comment on the poor quality of her performance. He tries to make an excuse, but Sibyl says she'll never act well again. She explains that, knowing nothing of life and love, she had wholeheartedly believed in the truth—the emotions—of each role she performed. Now, knowing Dorian and his love, she sees the hollowness, the falseness, of acting and the theater. She can no longer act because acting would profane her love. Dorian says she's killed the love he had for her. He heaps abuse on her, saying that he had loved her because "you had genius ... you realized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art." Crying that she has "thrown it all away," he declares, "You are nothing to me now."

She tries to convince him that everything will be okay, but he regards her with contempt and leaves her weeping silently.

After wandering the streets blindly all night, Dorian goes home. Glancing at his portrait, he sees a faint line of cruelty around his mouth. He looks at himself in the mirror, but that line isn't there. He remembers his wish for the painting to grow old while he stays young, and then drifts into a remembrance of the scene with Sibyl and his actions toward her. Dorian goes back and forth in his consideration of the painting and whether it changed or not, alternating with thoughts of Sibyl. He eventually decides he should return to her and try to love her.

Analysis

Chapter 7 is profound, cruel, and fantastical. Throughout history people have put forth theories about where art comes from. One theory is fairly straightforward: art is a kind of escape from reality. People create art to escape their surroundings and create a better world. That's what Sibyl was doing with her acting until she met Dorian. Trapped in poverty and without much real hope for escape, she acted to briefly experience other realities. Wilde presents a tremendous example of situational irony, in which reality contradicts expectation, as Sibyl's tragedy is revealed. Falling in love with Dorian improves Sibyl's life, as she now experiences real emotion. Her love for Dorian, however, reveals the artificiality of her theatrical career and she is no longer able to act. This spells disaster by destroying Dorian's fascination with—and love for—her.

This chapter's cruelty comes from Dorian's response. Wilde shows just how shallow Dorian is by the speed with which his love for Sibyl evaporates. He treats her no better than the rest of the audience who know her only as a performer. That means he really doesn't know her either. She's merely a performer to him and he has no real love for her as a person. Here Wilde creates dramatic irony, in which the audience has an awareness that the characters do not, since this situation runs parallel to how the world treats Dorian, loving him only for his beauty, not for his essence. In Dorian's case, however, the illusion remains unchallenged until the end of the novel.

The fantastical element that Wilde introduces here is, of course, at the dramatic heart of the novel: the portrait's ability to absorb Dorian's immoral actions and thus age in his place. This is the point where the novel shifts from being an intelligent but intellectual narrative to a kind of dark moral fantasy. That the painting reflects not just Dorian's aging, as his initial prayer might have suggested, but the ethical nature of his actions suggests the universe has a complex moral nature. Dorian's reaction at seeing the physical change in his portrait shows he is ill equipped to deal with the universe's absolute moral reality.

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