The Picture of Dorian Gray By Oscar Wilde Summary and Analysis Chapter 2

Summary

The chapter begins as Basil and Lord Henry enter the studio. When Lord Henry meets Dorian, he notices that Dorian is very handsome and that "All the candor of youth was there, as well as youth's passionate purity."

Basil wants to finish the portrait of Dorian and asks Lord Henry to leave, but Dorian insists that he remain. Dorian has "taken a fancy" to Lord Henry.

Dorian is intrigued that Lord Henry might be a "very bad influence." Lord Henry responds prophetically with one of his aphorisms: "There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral" — that is, to influence someone is to alter his view of himself. In a key statement that echoes Wilde's personal philosophy, Lord Henry asserts, "The aim of life is self-develop-ment. To realize one's nature perfectly — that is what each of us is here for." He laments that humanity has lost courage, and he presents a monologue on courage, fear, living life fully, and the virtues of yielding to temptation.

Dorian senses "entirely fresh influences" at work on him and begs Lord Henry to stop his speech. Dorian wants to try not to think. After a few minutes of silence, Dorian and Lord Henry retire to the garden; Basil says he must finish up the portrait's background but will join them shortly.

In the garden, Lord Henry continues to influence Dorian. He tells the young man that only the senses can cure the soul just as the soul is the only remedy for the senses. Speaking at length on the virtues of youth and beauty, claiming that "Beauty is a form of Genius," he urges Dorian to be selfish with his youth while he has it and to seek a "new Hedonism," elevating the pursuit of pleasure to a dominating level. Youth and beauty are the finest of all treasures, and they should be cherished and guarded because they so quickly fade. In fact, he asserts, "There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth."

Dorian is frightened but stirred by Lord Henry's speech. Basil interrupts and asks the two to rejoin him in the studio so that he can finish the portrait.

When Dorian looks at the painting, he is quite moved, as if he sees himself for the first time. Recalling the words of Lord Henry, he first recognizes the extraordinary beauty and youth in the portrait and then is pained by the thought of losing it. He envies the figure in the painting, saying that he would give his soul to be young forever as the painting will be. Influenced by Lord Henry's words on youth and beauty, he is terrified of aging. He fears that he will lose everything when he loses his good looks. Impulsively vowing that he will kill himself when he grows old, he repeats his wish that the portrait might age while he remains young.

Basil accuses Lord Henry of causing all this turmoil, but Lord Henry says that he has merely brought forth the true Dorian. Basil decides to destroy the portrait rather than have it upset the lives of the three men, but Dorian stops him. "It would be murder," Dorian says.

After a sense of calm is restored, Lord Henry invites Dorian to join him at the theater that evening and offers the young man a ride home in his carriage. Basil protests but concludes that he will stay with "the real Dorian," the portrait. He reminds Lord Henry that he trusts him not to influence Dorian further. Lord Henry laughingly responds, "I wish I could trust myself."

Analysis

Chapter 2 is one of the most important chapters in the novel. First, it introduces the title character, Dorian. The reader is assured of his physical beauty, with his "finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair." Basil and Lord Henry are older, perhaps in their early thirties, but Dorian is past twenty and no child. Still, he has retained remarkable innocence and even "purity." He seems less mature than his years: He pouts; he is petulant; he acts spoiled. He blushes, becomes unreasonably upset, and cries.

Lord Henry, who enjoys manipulating people, spots Dorian's vulnerability immediately and goes to work. He soon has planted the seeds of terror in the young man, an unreasonable and immature fear of growing old and losing his youthful beauty. When Basil complains about Lord Henry's manipulating Dorian, Lord Henry responds that he is merely bringing out the true Dorian, and maybe he is.

Dorian is easily swayed by Lord Henry's seductive ideas, revealing that Dorian's true morals are vague, to say the least. At the beginning of the chapter, Dorian has no greater friend than Basil, but by the end of the chapter, he has abandoned Basil for Lord Henry after a very short afternoon. The reader might first attribute Dorian's weakness and fickle nature to youth, but the change in his nature occurs only after he has realized the importance of his own beauty, a very worldly attitude. In this short chapter, the reader not only meets the main character of the book; the reader also witnesses a complete transition in his nature from innocence to self-involved worldliness. Dorian's fall from grace takes place in just a few short pages.

Chapter 2 is also very important because it introduces the vehicle that propels the rest of the story — Dorian's wish that the painting show those horrible signs of age that he fears, leaving him forever young. Dorian's wish about the painting introduces the Faust theme, which Wilde develops throughout the book. (The Faust legend was well known to Wilde through popular culture.) Faust, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power. The Faust legend raises the question of eternal damnation due to the unpardonable sin of despair. Certainly it is a sin for the Faustian character to make a pact with the devil. However, he can escape, even at the end of his life, if he repents and asks for God's forgiveness. Usually, the character feels he is beyond God's help, which is an insult to God, who is all-powerful, according to Christian philosophy. Despair is the only unpardonable sin because it keeps the sinner from asking for God's help.

As Dorian's character evolves throughout the novel, the reader should keep in mind the Faust legend and how Oscar Wilde applies it to Dorian's character. In light of the Faust legend, the reader might ask at this point what Lord Henry's role is. If he is not the devil literally, he certainly seems to be playing the devil's part. More accurately, he plays the devil's advocate, leading Dorian into an unholy pact by manipulating his innocence and insecurity. Lord Henry's role in Dorian's downfall is implied rather than explicitly defined, and the reader need not conclude that Lord Henry is aware of his demonic role. However, he does enjoy controlling people and playing with their minds. In the context of the Faust theme, perhaps he is the devil's unwitting representative.

Glossary

Schumann Robert Schumann (1810–56) was a German composer.

moue French, meaning "pout."

Hedonism This ethical doctrine, accepted by many in the Aesthetic movement, advocates the intrinsic goodness of pleasure.

penitent feeling or expressing remorse for one's misdeeds or sins.

candor frankness, straightforwardness.

petulant unreasonably irritable.

paradox an apparently contradictory statement that yet may be true.

panegyric a formal expression of praise, sometimes for the dead.

Hellenic pertaining to the ancient Greeks or their language.

caprice something done impulsively or whimsically.

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