"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also. You, Mr. Gray, you yourself, with your rose-red youth and your rose-white boyhood, you have had passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror, day-dreams and sleeping dreams whose mere memory might stain your cheek with shame -- "
"Stop!" faltered Dorian Gray, "stop! you bewilder me. I don't know what to say. (2.8)
Lord Henry suggests that even Dorian's pure, innocent young life is secretly full of hidden, shameful desires. That is to say, even Dorian isn't truly innocent.
"Sibyl? Oh, she was so shy and so gentle. There is something of a child about her. Her eyes opened wide in exquisite wonder when I told her what I thought of her performance, and she seemed quite unconscious of her power. I think we were both rather nervous. The old Jew stood grinning at the doorway of the dusty greenroom, making elaborate speeches about us both, while we stood looking at each other like children. He would insist on calling me 'My Lord,' so I had to assure Sibyl that I was not anything of the kind. She said quite simply to me, 'You look more like a prince. I must call you Prince Charming.'" (4.11)
Sibyl's innocence, like Dorian's own, is what makes her so very appealing.
Lord Henry Wotton
"I am not laughing, Dorian; at least I am not laughing at you. But you should not say the greatest romance of your life. You should say the first romance of your life. You will always be loved, and you will always be in love with love. A grande passion is the privilege of people who have nothing to do. That is the one use of the idle classes of a country. Don't be afraid. There are exquisite things in store for you. This is merely the beginning." (4.10)
At this early stage, Dorian still retains some of his boyish innocence – something that Lord Henry strives to take away from him.
Yet it was watching him, with its beautiful marred face and its cruel smile. Its bright hair gleamed in the early sunlight. Its blue eyes met his own. A sense of infinite pity, not for himself, but for the painted image of himself, came over him. It had altered already, and would alter more. Its gold would wither into grey. Its red and white roses would die. For every sin that he committed, a stain would fleck and wreck its fairness. But he would not sin. The picture, changed or unchanged, would be to him the visible emblem of conscience. He would resist temptation. He would not see Lord Henry any more -- would not, at any rate, listen to those subtle poisonous theories that in Basil Hallward's garden had first stirred within him the passion for impossible things. He would go back to Sibyl Vane, make her amends, marry her, try to love her again. Yes, it was his duty to do so. She must have suffered more than he had. Poor child! He had been selfish and cruel to her. The fascination that she had exercised over him would return. They would be happy together. His life with her would be beautiful and pure. (7.33)
At this important turning point, Dorian consciously decides that he will try and halt the downward slide of his soul. He realizes belatedly the value of his prior innocence, and of Sibyl's, and vows to attempt to return to that state.
Lord Henry Wotton
The girl never really lived, and so she has never really died. To you at least she was always a dream, a phantom that flitted through Shakespeare's plays and left them lovelier for its presence, a reed through which Shakespeare's music sounded richer and more full of joy. The moment she touched actual life, she marred it, and it marred her, and so she passed away. Mourn for Ophelia, if you like. Put ashes on your head because Cordelia was strangled. Cry out against Heaven because the daughter of Brabantio died. But don't waste your tears over Sibyl Vane. She was less real than they are." (8.17)
Sibyl's innocence is so complete it renders her life a kind of unreal experience. Here, Lord Henry tries to convince Dorian that because she was so inexperienced and ill-equipped for the world, Sibyl in fact never lived at all. This logic seems more than a bit dodgy to us.
Every moment of his lonely childhood came back to him as he looked round. He recalled the stainless purity of his boyish life, and it seemed horrible to him that it was here the fatal portrait was to be hidden away. How little he had thought, in those dead days, of all that was in store for him! (10.12)
The idea that the rotten portrait should dwell among the trappings of Dorian's destroyed innocence disturbs him. We feel a tinge of regret, or something like it, emanating from our protagonist.
Mind you, I don't believe these rumours at all. At least, I can't believe them when I see you. Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man's face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices. There are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even. (12.8)
Yet again, Dorian's appearance of youthful innocence keeps him out of trouble with gullible Basil – the painter can't conceive of a world in which people's sins aren't plain to see on their faces. Dorian's continuing outer beauty convinces him of his friend's continuing inner beauty.
"Ah, my dear," cried Lady Narborough, putting on her gloves, "don't tell me that you have exhausted life. When a man says that one knows that life has exhausted him. Lord Henry is very wicked, and I sometimes wish that I had been; but you are made to be good -- you look so good." (15.11)
This is kind of an old story by now – but here again, someone else (this time his friend, Lady Narborough), comments on how Dorian must be good and innocent, simply because of his good looks.
Was it really true that one could never change? He felt a wild longing for the unstained purity of his boyhood -- his rose-white boyhood, as Lord Henry had once called it. He knew that he had tarnished himself, filled his mind with corruption and given horror to his fancy; that he had been an evil influence to others, and had experienced a terrible joy in being so; and that of the lives that had crossed his own, it had been the fairest and the most full of promise that he had brought to shame. But was it all irretrievable? Was there no hope for him? (20.3)
In his moment of crisis, Dorian looks back on his long-gone days of innocence – he finally comes to terms with the havoc he's wreaked on the lives of others. But is this enough to save him? Can we ever erase the stains of sin from our souls?