Of what importance are sin and redemption in the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray
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.
The existing educator answer gives an excellent and thorough overview of the nature of sin in this novel, which does not offer any chance of redemption for its characters. I will supply some context as to why this was so troubling for Wilde's original Victorian audience.
In the original preface to his novel, Wilde pre-emptively challenges the Victorian concept of "what fiction means." As Miss Prism says in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, the Victorian concept of fiction generally required that "the good ended happily and the bad unhappily." In Dorian Gray, Wilde deliberately subverts this paradigm, stating in his preface—which sets the scene for the duality of the book to follow—that there is "no such thing as a moral or immoral book." Instead, his book represents, like much Gothic literature, a mirror held up to society in which it is forced to see its own sins.
It is notable that Wilde never actually tells us what Dorian Gray's sins are. There is a veil of ambiguity over what he does; we know, of course, that he kills Basil and then inadvertently kills himself by attacking the portrait in a scene meant to remind us that we and are sins are one—we cannot rid ourselves of the bad parts of ourselves and expect to keep only the good. However, whatever else Dorian was doing to make his soul darker and darker is never outright stated. After the publication of the novel, there was a general poor reception which implied strongly that Wilde's book meant to depict the vices that were then seen to be associated with homosexuality. In an open letter, Wilde challenged this: "Each man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray. What Dorian Gray's sins are no one knows. He who finds them has brought them."
This was, of course, an extremely provocative statement; there undoubtedly is a homoerotic undercurrent in Dorian Gray, particularly in the painter, Basil Hallward, and the aesthete Henry Wootton. But Wilde is right in that he did avoid stating outright what Dorian was doing in the symbolically veiled and darkened streets of London's underworld. What he was doing, society was forced to imagine for itself. What really goes on in the underworld of the greatest city of the British Empire? Left to its own imagination, what society pictured was very grim; holding up the mirror of Dorian Gray and forcing people to look into it was, then, perhaps Wilde's greatest moral trespass.