The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Chapter 8 | Summary

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Summary

Dorian sleeps in the next day and, as he has a late breakfast, studies the portrait again—trying to decide if he had imagined the changes. He's horrified by the idea that the portrait might really transform itself, but he is glad it showed him how badly he acted toward Sibyl. He eventually writes a letter begging Sibyl's forgiveness.

When Henry arrives, they talk about what Dorian will do now. When Dorian says he plans to marry Sibyl, Henry is confused. They talk, and Henry realizes Dorian doesn't know that Sibyl was found "lying dead on the floor of her dressing-room." It looks as if she killed herself. Henry urges Dorian not to get mixed up with the inquest into her death or the emotional upheaval surrounding it, and to accompany him to the opera for distraction. In a long speech Dorian expresses shock at Sibyl's death and remorse that he may be at fault. He wonders why he can't feel her death the way he should. This leads to Henry's reflecting on the nature of tragedy. He urges Dorian to let this become part of the past. He casts Sibyl's death as part of her identity as an actress. Just as the classic heroines she played had to die for the sake of their drama, so did Sibyl.

Dorian comes around to seeing what happened as a "marvelous experience." Henry promises Dorian will have many more, being as good-looking as he is. Dorian wonders what will happen if he ever loses his good looks, and Henry tells him then he'll have to fight for his victories. When Henry leaves, Dorian studies the painting again. He doesn't see any more changes. He thinks about Sibyl, and about what path his life should take. He concludes that his choice has already been made: pleasure. He thinks about praying for his strange relationship with the painting to end but decides otherwise, and he joins Henry at the opera.

Analysis

When Dorian's portrait transforms in response to how he treated Sibyl, the nature of the novel's universe changes. Chapter 8 provides a similar pivot, if a quieter one. Chapter 7 ended with Dorian showing the first signs of learning from the painting. On his own he had not been able to see the hatefulness of his actions toward Sibyl, but the visual evidence of cruelty depicted in his portrait gives a glimpse of how his actions may have changed him. He becomes remorseful and determines not to sin again.

However, this chapter shows Dorian's emotions leaning in the opposite direction—toward pleasure, even if sinful. Just as his earliest changes had come from talking with Henry, so does this one.

At other key moments in the novel, Dorian speaks with both Basil and Henry. This time he sees only Henry, who starts by being supportive and sympathetic. His cynical advice regarding the inquest into Sibyl's death supports the novel's theme of reputation versus character, as he tells Dorian, "There will have to be an inquest, of course, and you must not be mixed up in it. Things like that make a man fashionable in Paris. But in London people are so prejudiced. Here, one should never make one's debut with a scandal."

Henry soon transitions to a less conventional role and guides Dorian to see Sibyl's death aesthetically, as he does. This is, in many ways, horrific. Dorian, though, accepts the guidance, and fully embraces Henry's life path of pleasure.

Amid these moments of philosophy and shifting character, there are also details foreshadowing later events in the novel. After Henry invites Dorian to the opera, Dorian muses, "So I have murdered Sibyl Vane ... murdered her as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife." This romanticizes his actions. He didn't murder her. She killed herself.

Although he sees Sibyl's suicide as a murder by proxy, it does foreshadow an actual murder: Dorian will kill Basil a few chapters later. Chapter 20 will see another murder by proxy—though this time a decidedly surreal one—as Dorian kills himself by stabbing his portrait.

Both of these later deaths reflect in some way on Dorian the artistic creation: Basil painted his portrait, and that portrait frees Dorian to indulge his pleasures freely. Sibyl's death, too, is that sort of killing. In his mind Dorian creates Sibyl as the artistic embodiment of the heroines she portrays and abandons (symbolically kills) her when the reality of her everyday self is revealed.

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