Study Guide

The Picture of Dorian Gray Morality and Ethics

By Oscar Wilde

Morality and Ethics

Chapter 1
Basil Hallward

"I hate the way you talk about your married life, Harry," said Basil Hallward, strolling towards the door that led into the garden. "I believe that you are really a very good husband, but that you are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. You are an extraordinary fellow. You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose."

"Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know," cried Lord Henry, laughing. (1.11-12)

Here's the difference between Basil and Henry, in a nutshell – Basil believes that people are innately (perhaps secretly) good, and that his friend's cynicism is just a front. Henry, on the other hand, is more suspicious – especially of people who pretend to be totally upfront all the time.

Lord Henry Wotton

"I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world." (1.19)

Here, we see that Lord Henry's interests simply lie in being an observer of the world, and of humanity. He prefers to experiment with real people, rather than simply with words.

"I quite sympathize with the rage of the English democracy against what they call the vices of the upper orders. The masses feel that drunkenness, stupidity, and immorality should be their own special property, and that if any one of us makes an ass of himself, he is poaching on their preserves. When poor Southwark got into the divorce court, their indignation was quite magnificent. And yet I don't suppose that ten per cent of the proletariat live correctly." (1.18)

Lord Henry's half-serious, all-snobby comment on the difference in morality between the upper and lower classes demonstrates his overall belief: that morality and ethics are all arbitrary bunk.

Chapter 2
Lord Henry Wotton

"There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral -- immoral from the scientific point of view."

"Why?"

"Because to influence a person is to give him one's own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of some one else's music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly -- that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one's self. (2.8)

In Lord Henry's moral system, the only thing one must do is follow one's urges – or something. We're not entirely sure how much Henry really buys this self-centered philosophy, but it intrigues Dorian.

Chapter 3
Lord Henry Wotton

Lord Henry laughed. "I don't desire to change anything in England except the weather," he answered. "I am quite content with philosophic contemplation. But, as the nineteenth century has gone bankrupt through an over-expenditure of sympathy, I would suggest that we should appeal to science to put us straight. The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray, and the advantage of science is that it is not emotional." (3.12)

Here, Lord Henry addresses ethics for the first time. In his view, we should all be as emotionless and "scientific" as possible, which leaves very little room for altruism, sympathy, or human kindness.

Chapter 4
Lord Henry Wotton

Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name men gave to their mistakes. Moralists had, as a rule, regarded it as a mode of warning, had claimed for it a certain ethical efficacy in the formation of character, had praised it as something that taught us what to follow and showed us what to avoid. But there was no motive power in experience. It was as little of an active cause as conscience itself. All that it really demonstrated was that our future would be the same as our past, and that the sin we had done once, and with loathing, we would do many times, and with joy. (4.20)

We see more of Lord Henry's unconventional view of ethics and morality. He really is quite a cynic, and doesn't seem to believe that we have the power to change or make ourselves better people. Furthermore, he doesn't seem to think it would be important, anyway.

Chapter 5
Sybil Vane

"He is gone," murmured Sibyl sadly. "I wish you had seen him."

"I wish I had, for as sure as there is a God in heaven, if he ever does you any wrong, I shall kill him."

She looked at him in horror. He repeated his words. They cut the air like a dagger. (5.27-28)

Jim's ethical code is certainly more strict than those of the other characters we know – he believes in protecting his loved ones, regardless of whether the law deems it right or wrong.

Chapter 11

Society -- civilized society, at least -- is never very ready to believe anything to the detriment of those who are both rich and fascinating. It feels instinctively that manners are of more importance than morals, and, in its opinion, the highest respectability is of much less value than the possession of a good chef. (11.31)

Society, we see, is just as hypocritical as Dorian himself; though it prides itself on its morality, that very same morality falls to pieces in the face of wealth and status. This is Wilde's commentary on the inconsistent judgments of high society – one of the main rules of "civilized" people is that the wealthy and powerful never really suffer from scandal.

Dorian Gray

But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of a night, or for a few hours of a night in which there are no stars and the moon is in travail. Mysticism, with its marvellous power of making common things strange to us, and the subtle antinomianism that always seems to accompany it, moved him for a season; and for a season he inclined to the materialistic doctrines of the Darwinismus movement in Germany, and found a curious pleasure in tracing the thoughts and passions of men to some pearly cell in the brain, or some white nerve in the body, delighting in the conception of the absolute dependence of the spirit on certain physical conditions, morbid or healthy, normal or diseased. Yet, as has been said of him before, no theory of life seemed to him to be of any importance compared with life itself. He felt keenly conscious of how barren all intellectual speculation is when separated from action and experiment. He knew that the senses, no less than the soul, have their spiritual mysteries to reveal. (11.14)

Dorian's personal moral code can't be attributed to any other source – he believes only in his own experience of life, not in any theories or principles, like his mentor, Lord Henry. The codes and rules that apply to other men just don't seem to stick with him.

For these treasures, and everything that he collected in his lovely house, were to be to him means of forgetfulness, modes by which he could escape, for a season, from the fear that seemed to him at times to be almost too great to be borne. Upon the walls of the lonely locked room where he had spent so much of his boyhood, he had hung with his own hands the terrible portrait whose changing features showed him the real degradation of his life, and in front of it had draped the purple-and-gold pall as a curtain. For weeks he would not go there, would forget the hideous painted thing, and get back his light heart, his wonderful joyousness, his passionate absorption in mere existence. Then, suddenly, some night he would creep out of the house, go down to dreadful places near Blue Gate Fields, and stay there, day after day, until he was driven away. On his return he would sit in front of the picture, sometimes loathing it and himself, but filled, at other times, with that pride of individualism that is half the fascination of sin, and smiling with secret pleasure at the misshapen shadow that had to bear the burden that should have been his own. (11.25)

So, Dorian needs all his luxuriant comforts as a means of "forgetfulness" – which means that he does, in fact, feel some guilt and shame over the state of his soul. However, it's still mingled with the "fascination" and "pride" that he feels looking upon the true image of himself; any guilt he might feel is insignificant compared to his desire to keep his secret.

Chapter 16
Dorian Gray

"To cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul!" How the words rang in his ears! His soul, certainly, was sick to death. Was it true that the senses could cure it? Innocent blood had been spilled. What could atone for that? Ah! for that there was no atonement; but though forgiveness was impossible, forgetfulness was possible still, and he was determined to forget, to stamp the thing out, to crush it as one would crush the adder that had stung one. (16.4)

At this point, Dorian has given up any hope of redemption – he has enough of a sense of morality to know when he has broken the rules, but he doesn't think there's any way to balance the scales of right and wrong again. The best he can do is try to forget his crimes.