Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray presents a keen question on morality: can one cleanse the senses by the means of the soul, and the soul by the means of the senses? Dorian Gray lives out this epigram of Lord Henry’s in an attempt to justify a life of hedonism and over-objectification of beauty.
Wilde introduces Dorian as a young man whose beauty rivals the “invention of the oil painting” itself (Wilde 7). Basil Hallward, the painter, claims that Dorian is “absolutely necessary” to him and showers Dorian in compliments as he paints him in Greek and Roman idealizations (7). Lord Henry tells Dorian that when his “youth” and “beauty goes,” he will discover there are “no triumphs left” for him (16). Because of his good looks, Dorian’s self-worth is inflated to a point where he believes that he should “give everything,” even his “soul,” in order to remain young and beautiful for the rest of his life (19). In sacrificing his soul for everlasting beauty, Dorian shows early in the text how little he values morality. In this Victorian era society, his beauty can excuse him from any evil deed and he takes advantage of this in his Epicurean pursuit of pleasure. Beauty gives Dorian an excuse to forever ignore morality and consequence.
The death of Sibyl Vane marks the first consequence of Dorian’s rejection of morality in favor of sensory experience. After Sibyl’s newfound love for Dorian causes her to put on a dreadful acting performance, Dorian loses all interest in the woman he previously professed to be “divine beyond all things” (59). If she no longer can act, she no longer pleases the senses of Dorian and his friends. He criticizes her for losing her “genius and intellect” and being “shallow and stupid” because she can no longer live the beautiful lives of Shakespeare’s heroines (63). If love “mars” her “art”, Dorian tells her, then she must know nothing of love (64). Upon arriving home, Dorian notices the physical disfigurement of his soul in his painting due to his treatment of Sibyl and claims, as his portrait is now a “visible emblem of conscience,” that he will change his ways by resisting temptation and not seeing Lord Henry anymore (67). He vows to “go back to Sibyl Vane, make amends, marry her, and try to love her again” (67). Dorian attempts to change his mode of life and forget his pursuit of pleasure in favor of moral soundness. It is in this moment that Dorian could been seen as repentant, as a man who recognizes his sins and would like to make amends for the sake of his own soul.
However, the next morning, while contemplating his guilt, Dorian reminds himself that there are “opiates for remorse, drugs that could lull the moral sense to sleep” (70). He writes a letter to Sibyl and feels “forgiven” for his harsh words (70). Lord Henry then arrives, and assuming that Dorian has already heard of Sibyl’s death, says that he’s relieved Dorian is not “plunged in remorse, and tearing that nice curly hair” of his (71). ...