Of what importance are sin and redemption in the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Part of the reason why Victorians reacted so negatively to The Picture of Dorian Gray upon its first publication in story form in Lippincott's magazine is precisely because the novel challenged the idea of sin and redemption and, instead, embraced hedonism alone. Rather than have characters come full circle with life and its different circumstances by learning from them, the characters in Dorian only find a way out of problems through suicide, death, or by lingering in time not changing anything about themselves. We could argue that none of the characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray are dynamic, but they certainly show dynamic tendencies. However, in the end, there is no redemption in sight. 

Henry's manifesto is that

...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... The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly--that is what each of us is here for.

However, nobody really does that in the novel in its true sense. Lord Henry was not speaking of self-actualization, but of hedonism. He was not talking about growing up intellectually or spiritually, but of seeking and falling into temptations. Therefore, we find there too that redemption has a completely different meaning to Lord Henry than what the word is mean to be. Here are such instances:

  • Sybil Vane commits suicide upon realizing her obsession with Dorian and after the latter becomes disappointed in her and leaves her.
  • Alan Campbell commits suicide after having helped Dorian get rid of the body of Basil Hallward.
  • Dorian kills Basil in a rage just because Basil's observations about Dorian's life and because Basil is who painted the picture that now bears Dorian's sins.
  • Dorian, in the end, kills the portrait, and hence himself, in a moment when he faces the picture and all the sin it contained, and realized that his soul was forever lost.
  • Lord Henry Wooton never changes; he comes in an out of Dorian's life always predicting the same gospel. Nothing about Henry ever becomes better.
  • Even Basil never comes to fully understand the degree to which his fascination with Dorian has made him blinded to the fact that Dorian is dangerous; when he makes an attempt to make Dorian live respectfully he does it out of the same adoration that he feels for Dorian at the beginning of the story; he may have died still loving Dorian Gray.

Hence, the novel speaks of sin and sin alone. Redemption would be a symptom of having realized one's sin to perfection and without consequence.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray

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