How does Dorian Gray change throughout the novel?  Provide quotes to support your answer.

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akersel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When we first encounter Dorian, he is described in terms of his angelic appearance, with golden hair, blue eyes, and porcelain skin. "All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth's passionate purity."

Basil exalts Dorian's beauty as something sacred that transcends humanity and enters into the realm of art. It is to be understood that someone with such beauty cannot help but have a beautiful soul. This notion plays into the widely held Victorian belief that a person's character could be reflected in their appearance. However, Lord Henry then says to Dorian:

"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 cheeks with shame."

Lord Henry claims that despite Dorian's angelic beauty, he succumbs to the same sordid fantasies as anyone else. The implicitly sexual nature of these fantasies will cause him to blush, staining his cheeks, foreshadowing the damage that his future misdeeds will do to his painting. 

Dorian's decline most noticeably begins with his cruel treatment of Sibyl Vane. Enthralled with her performance, his love of Sibyl is the exalted love that one might have for an object of art. When she performs badly, Dorian says, "You have spoiled the romance of my life." His love for her has been brought from the sublime to the mundane.

Later, Dorian notices that his portrait has gained "a touch of cruelty in the mouth," the first sign that his sins will only show up on the picture's face. The picture will record every vice, every misdeed, and every act of cruelty that he ever does, causing him to wonder, "Would it teach him to loathe his own soul?"

It is in the contrast between the painting's decay and Dorian's permanently pristine appearance that Wilde examines the theme of human duality and Dorian's shift from an innocent boy to a man capable of unspeakable debauchery. His love for Sibyl is paradoxically redeemed by her suicide, becoming "one of the great romantic tragedies of the age." In the perceived poetry of Sibyl's final act, Dorian has regained his romantic ideals and escaped any visible consequence of his cruelty.

In the years following Sibyl's death, Dorian becomes a man who relishes the ability to indulge his vices without consequence. After he murders Basil, the portrait gleams with a "loathsome red dew on one of the hands, as though the canvas has sweated blood."

Despite the changes of the painting, Dorian escapes visible consequences of murder. All that is left of Basil is "a horrible smell of nitric acid." It is true that he does suffer some psychological upset and the fear that his crimes, Basil's murder and Sibyl's suicide, might catch up with him, but after James Vane—the only person to hold him responsible—is dead, these fears are allayed and, once again, Dorian continues to live "unspotted from the world."

Lord Henry goes as far as to say:

"You have drunk deeply of everything . . . Nothing has been hidden from you. And it has all been to you no more than the sound of music. It has not marred you. You are still the same."

Dorian has tasted every vice and pleasure that the world has to offer, and none has had any more effect on him than music. In Dorian, debauchery is brought to the same level as art. Exquisite pleasure, regardless of its immorality, has no effect on him. Pleasure exists for pleasure's sake. However, even Dorian ultimately cannot stand this. Although none of his sins are visible on his face, the painting exists as an eternal reminder. At the denouement of the novel, Dorian destroys the painting, and all the marks of depravity are transferred to him. In death, Dorian is unable to mask the duality of his nature, and everything that was hidden in life becomes apparent.

M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Dorian Gray pretty much was the typical dandy from the start of the novel. He was simply not yet awoken to the sins of pleasure that were put forward to him by Lord Henry.

Within this paradigm there are two major changes: First, his supposed "falling in love" with the poor actress Sybil Vane. Of course, this was merely caprice, but her suicide as a result of his abandonment made him more aware of how influential he was with people.

"I knew that I had come face to face with someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself." (Basil, about Dorian, ch1)

So from that moment on, he said to have had a form of rebirth where he want to experience the intensities of life through pleasure.

"There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realise his conception of the beautiful." (on Dorian, Ch 11)

Secondly, came his debauchery period. He would enter the slum district of East London and participate in all forms of deprived activities, attended opium dens, and it is understood between the lines (and quite on purpose by Wilde) that he was practicing homosexual activities as well. This is an interesting fact because by this time in Victorian England, this was a severely punishable crime. As this period got worse and worse, he would remain young, and his picture would reflect the malice and nastiness of his soul.

"You look exactly the same wonderful boy who, day after day, used to come down to my studio to sit for his picture. But you were simple, natural, and affectionate then. You were the most unspoiled creature in the whole world. Now, I don't know what had come over you. You talk as if you had no heart, no pity in you. It is all Harry's influence, I see that." (Basil, Ch 9)

The most important change came when he began to make every man in London lose his reputation when seen with him. Society began to shun him, and he even drove another man to suicide. When confronted, Dorian went to the ultimate moment of insanity by killing the very man who loved him the most, Basil. Basically, Dorian went from friend to foe, and from sane to insane. He also turned into a heart breaker, and cold blooded murderer. In the end Dorian killed himself, making the picture finally turn back to its normal self while in the floor laid a dead old horrible man.

"Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes."

Read the study guide:
The Picture of Dorian Gray

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