illustration of the upper-right corner of Dorian Gray's picture

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

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How does the portrait influence Dorian's perception of his beauty in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

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Dorian Gray's portrait influences his sense of his own beauty in The Picture of Dorian Gray at first by causing him to lament the inevitable decline of age. After he gets his wish of eternal beauty, the portrait acts as his license to indulge his weak character. As it grows uglier, the portrait becomes a more faithful representation of the evil in him. As such, the painting torments him until he destroys it and himself.

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Dorian's portrait does not influence his character so much as it enables it. At first, after Basil completes the painting, Dorian is filled with longing to remain as young and beautiful as he is in the portrait. True, he would not have felt this way were it not for Lord Henry's influence, which causes Dorian to prize beauty above virtue. But it is telling that Lord Henry has such a strong influence on so little acquaintance.

The Faustian bargain seems at first to Dorian to be his salvation. The painting does not, however, inherently corrupt him. He could have acted virtuously, and the portrait may have aged gracefully or it may have remained the same, with no corruption to depict. A truly virtuous person would not necessarily behave any differently in Dorian's position, but then such a person would not have made Dorian's wish in the first place. Since Dorian is vain and susceptible to temptation, the portrait acts as his license to indulge every whim without consequence.

As Dorian becomes inwardly monstrous, however, the portrait becomes a faithful record of his decline. In this way it acts as a tangible manifestation of his conscience and thus becomes a tormentor. Unlike everyone else, Dorian can't forget the things he's done because the portrait won't let him. Even by hiding it in the attic, Dorian is still tormented by its changing appearance, wondering how ghastly it has become in the dark.

Furthermore, the portrait foreshadows the real-world consequences coming for Dorian. He can't forever keep Basil from viewing his masterpiece, which culminates in the artist's murder. He then forces Alan Campbell to destroy the body, driving Alan to suicide. Apart from these incidents, Dorian gains a frightful reputation in the streets that his beauty can't hide. The poor recognize that he's sold his soul to keep his unnatural beauty.

The collective memory of the common people is a portrait that Dorian can't hide. For this reason, James Vane eventually finds him to avenge the sister, driven to suicide by Dorian's abandonment. While James does not succeed in killing Dorian, the fright drives Dorian to a self-interested attempt at reform. Once again, the portrait will not allow him to delude himself as it has only grown uglier. Finally, Dorian can't face seeing the ghastly truth about himself and stabs the portrait, leaving him bereft of his life, beauty, and soul.

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Dorian does not realize how beautiful he is until he sees his portrait. At this point:

The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation. He had never felt it before.

Dorian has heard people call him beautiful, but has always shrugged off the compliments as exaggerations. Now, however, he sees it is true.

Lord Henry has just been talking to Dorian about how fleeting youth is and how quickly we become old and decrepit. Lord Henry says that unlike flowers, people can not be reborn young again in the spring: we only have one shot at youth. All of these words run through Dorian's mind as he gazes on his portrait. He feels very pained that one day all this beauty will be gone. He thinks:

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 . . . 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.

Dorian finds it almost unbearable that his beauty will fade. At this point, he is completely, in a way, egoless about it: he is seeing himself as he would a beautiful flower that he doesn't want to fade and die. Nevertheless, a powerful longing overcomes him. He says he would trade his soul to keep his beauty as it is in the portrait. Of course, he does do this trade and comes to regret it very much.

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As the reader learns early in the novel, Dorian Gray is devastated to hear from the cunning Lord Henry how the tragedy of life is that the soul grows young, but the body grows old. Dorian absorbs Lord Henry's words and realizes in complete horror that his fate will be quite similar. As a result, he makes the wish that seals his fate forever:

“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young...If it were only the other way!.. For that—for that—I would give everything! ... I would give my soul for that!”

Although destiny somehow grants Dorian his wish of remaining young while his picture grows old, this grant does not come cheap; the picture not only shows age, but also the horrid looks of evil and sin. This is because both Dorian's age and soul are now trapped inside the picture while a soulless, haunted Dorian walks the streets of East London sampling the sins from the underbelly of a dark city.

As Dorian's persona becomes the vessel of pure sin, his portrait deforms into the face of a horrid creature that reeks of horror and havoc. Each time Dorian commits a sin, the picture shows it in its face. Yet, far from this serving as a lesson for him to change his ways, he turns even more sinful by admiring his flawless beauty and looking mockingly at the picture as if it were yet one more of his servants. This is all part of Dorian's excessive narcissism, as well as of the deep and negative influence that Lord Henry's canon has caused on Dorian.

Therefore, the way that the picture distorts, oozes, and transforms so horribly serves as ammunition to further feed Dorian's hedonistic and sinful behavior. It is precisely the credo of hedonism what Wilde intends to praise in this highly-aesthetic novel and it is through Lord Henry that he accomplishes this effectively.

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