Study Guide

The Picture of Dorian Gray Mortality

By Oscar Wilde


Chapter 2
Dorian Gray

Dorian made no answer, but passed listlessly in front of his picture and turned towards it. When he saw it he drew back, and his cheeks flushed for a moment with pleasure. A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognized himself for the first time. He stood there motionless and in wonder, dimly conscious that Hallward was speaking to him, but not catching the meaning of his words. The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation. He had never felt it before. Basil Hallward's compliments had seemed to him to be merely the charming exaggeration of friendship. He had listened to them, laughed at them, forgotten them. They had not influenced his nature. Then had come Lord Henry Wotton with his strange panegyric on youth, his terrible warning of its brevity. That had stirred him at the time, and now, as he stood gazing at the shadow of his own loveliness, the full reality of the description flashed across him. Yes, there would be a day when his face would be wrinkled and wizen, his eyes dim and colourless, the grace of his figure broken and deformed. The scarlet would pass away from his lips and the gold steal from his hair. The life that was to make his soul would mar his body. He would become dreadful, hideous, and uncouth.

As he thought of it, a sharp pang of pain struck through him like a knife and made each delicate fibre of his nature quiver. His eyes deepened into amethyst, and across them came a mist of tears. He felt as if a hand of ice had been laid upon his heart […] "How sad it is!" murmured Dorian Gray with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. "How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. . . . If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that -- for that -- I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!" (2.25-26)

For the first time, Dorian feels the impending doom of his own mortality – he's never realized how beautiful he is before, and, now that he knows he has youth and beauty, he's prematurely worried about what will happen when they fade. This is clearly an immediate reaction to Lord Henry's influence. However, we just wish Dorian had thought this through a little more before he made this wish…

Chapter 8
Dorian Gray

"If I had read all this in a book, Harry, I think I would have wept over it. Somehow, now that it has happened actually, and to me, it seems far too wonderful for tears. Here is the first passionate love-letter I have ever written in my life. Strange, that my first passionate love-letter should have been addressed to a dead girl. Can they feel, I wonder, those white silent people we call the dead? Sibyl! Can she feel, or know, or listen? Oh, Harry, how I loved her once! It seems years ago to me now. She was everything to me. Then came that dreadful night -- was it really only last night? -- when she played so badly, and my heart almost broke. She explained it all to me. It was terribly pathetic. But I was not moved a bit. I thought her shallow. Suddenly something happened that made me afraid. I can't tell you what it was, but it was terrible. I said I would go back to her. I felt I had done wrong. And now she is dead. My God! My God! Harry, what shall I do? You don't know the danger I am in, and there is nothing to keep me straight. She would have done that for me. She had no right to kill herself. It was selfish of her." (8.16)

The young Dorian still has no real understanding of death – it seems to him like he's still at the center of the plot, even though it's Sybil who's actually suffered and died. He doesn't quite know how to process death, nor how to begin to understand what has happened.

Lord Henry Wotton

"Some one has killed herself for love of you. I wish that I had ever had such an experience. It would have made me in love with love for the rest of my life. The people who have adored me -- there have not been very many, but there have been some -- have always insisted on living on, long after I had ceased to care for them, or they to care for me. They have become stout and tedious, and when I meet them, they go in at once for reminiscences. That awful memory of woman! What a fearful thing it is! And what an utter intellectual stagnation it reveals! One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar." (8.17)

Whoa. Lord Henry seems to view the lives and deaths of others as irrelevant, as though every other person out there is just an expendable pawn in his personal game. Don't listen, Dorian!

Chapter 9
Dorian Gray

"There is something fatal about a portrait. It has a life of its own." (9.13)

Dorian's views on his portrait have clearly changed since it was new. He now thinks of it as a reminder of his own mortality, rather than a promise of his eternal youth. There is something disturbing about seeing his own image start to decay before his eyes.

Chapter 10
Dorian Gray

Hour by hour, and week by week, the thing upon the canvas was growing old. It might escape the hideousness of sin, but the hideousness of age was in store for it. The cheeks would become hollow or flaccid. Yellow crow's feet would creep round the fading eyes and make them horrible. The hair would lose its brightness, the mouth would gape or droop, would be foolish or gross, as the mouths of old men are. There would be the wrinkled throat, the cold, blue-veined hands, the twisted body, that he remembered in the grandfather who had been so stern to him in his boyhood. The picture had to be concealed. There was no help for it. (10.14)

Now that one change has revealed itself in the picture, Dorian feels its mortality growing more and more pressing. He feels doomed on its behalf, and terribly afraid of the changes that will come to pass. His fear of age and death is evident in this truly revolting description.

As the door closed, Dorian put the key in his pocket and looked round the room. His eye fell on a large, purple satin coverlet heavily embroidered with gold, a splendid piece of late seventeenth-century Venetian work that his grandfather had found in a convent near Bologna. Yes, that would serve to wrap the dreadful thing in. It had perhaps served often as a pall for the dead. Now it was to hide something that had a corruption of its own, worse than the corruption of death itself -- something that would breed horrors and yet would never die. What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted image on the canvas. They would mar its beauty and eat away its grace. They would defile it and make it shameful. And yet the thing would still live on. It would be always alive. (10.6)

The portrait appears to have taken on a kind of revolting, zombie-like quality – it's both deathly and alive at the same time. In Dorian's mind, it's both a reminder of his life (in a creepy way) and the slow, corrupt death of his soul.

Chapter 11
Dorian Gray

He used to wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence. To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion, and whose very flesh was tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead. He loved to stroll through the gaunt cold picture-gallery of his country house and look at the various portraits of those whose blood flowed in his veins. (11.32)

Dorian seems to view himself as a kind of accumulation of the identities of his long-dead ancestors – his rather morbid view of identity seems to be tied to his strong identification with both his own portrait and those of his family members. He feels a distinct connection to all of these ancestors, and feels like part of them lives on through him.

Often, on returning home from one of those mysterious and prolonged absences that gave rise to such strange conjecture among those who were his friends, or thought that they were so, he himself would creep upstairs to the locked room, open the door with the key that never left him now, and stand, with a mirror, in front of the portrait that Basil Hallward had painted of him, looking now at the evil and aging face on the canvas, and now at the fair young face that laughed back at him from the polished glass. The very sharpness of the contrast used to quicken his sense of pleasure. He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul. He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age. He would place his white hands beside the coarse bloated hands of the picture, and smile. He mocked the misshapen body and the failing limbs. (11.4)

The visible embodiment of Dorian's mortality now delights him – in some odd way, he's kind of come to terms with the grotesque decay of his painted self. The contrast with his physical body is a source of endless pleasure to him, and in comparison to the disgusting man in the painting, his youthful beauty seems all the more vibrant.

Chapter 18
Dorian Gray

"I have no terror of death. It is the coming of death that terrifies me. Its monstrous wings seem to wheel in the leaden air around me. Good heavens! don't you see a man moving behind the trees there, watching me, waiting for me?" (18.15)

The moment of Dorian's death turns out to be what frightens him most – why might this be? Could it possibly be the fear of judgment?

THE next day he did not leave the house, and, indeed, spent most of the time in his own room, sick with a wild terror of dying, and yet indifferent to life itself. The consciousness of being hunted, snared, tracked down, had begun to dominate him. If the tapestry did but tremble in the wind, he shook. The dead leaves that were blown against the leaded panes seemed to him like his own wasted resolutions and wild regrets. When he closed his eyes, he saw again the sailor's face peering through the mist-stained glass, and horror seemed once more to lay its hand upon his heart. (18.1)

Finally, Dorian begins to feel his mortality directly – the threat of death at the hand of James Vane sends him into a tizzy. While death seemed impossibly distant when it was contained within the portrait, it now appears horrifying when seen up close.