The Picture of Dorian Gray By Oscar Wilde Summary and Analysis Chapter 8

Summary

That afternoon, Dorian receives a letter from Lord Henry, but he sets it aside without opening it.

Later, Dorian wonders if his portrait has really changed like he thought. Surely not, he thinks of the portrait, hidden behind a screen. Finally, when he builds up his courage and looks at the portrait, he sees that the portrait has changed, just as he remembered. He speculates on the cause, fearing a "terrible reason."

The altered portrait forces Dorian to acknowledge his cruelty to Sibyl Vane. It is a "symbol of the degradation of sin" and will serve as his guide, his conscience. He composes a long letter to Sibyl in which he accuses himself of madness and begs her forgiveness. As he finishes writing the letter, Dorian feels absolved of his cruelty to Sibyl.

Lord Henry knocks on the library door and insists on speaking to Dorian. Lord Henry seems unusually consoling but advises Dorian not to dwell on the situation concerning Sibyl, which he explains is "dreadful" but not Dorian's fault. He asks Dorian questions about the previous night: Did Dorian meet Sibyl backstage? Was there a scene? He is pleased when Dorian says that he is not sorry for what happened.

Dorian, however, continues. He is not sorry because the matter has taught him a lesson. He tells Lord Henry of his plans to make amends and marry Sibyl.

Lord Henry, quite agitated, interrupts and asks if Dorian received his letter. Dorian admits that the letter did arrive but that he has not opened it. Lord Henry then tells Dorian the contents of his letter: Sibyl Vane is dead.

Dorian is in shock but asks to hear the whole story. Lord Henry reports that the death was clearly not an accident. About half-past midnight, Sibyl and her mother were leaving the theatre. Sibyl excused herself, saying she had left something upstairs. When she did not return, the people at the theatre checked and found her on the floor of her dressing room, dead from ingesting poison.

Lord Henry is concerned with keeping Dorian out of the scandal. He asks Dorian to spend the evening with him at the opera so that the unpleasantness of the suicide does not get on Dorian's nerves.

Lord Henry need not be concerned for Dorian's nerves. Dorian admits that he murdered Sibyl, "murdered her as surely as if I had cut her little throat," but he continues to say, in a detached manner, that the whole affair seems too "wonderful for tears." Instead of feeling remorse over Sibyl's death, Dorian muses that his first love letter was written to a dead girl. Within only a few seconds, he concludes that Sibyl's suicide was very selfish of her; it leaves him without the guidance that marriage to her might have provided.

Lord Henry offers several glib comments on marriage and specifically on what a disaster this marriage would have been. Dorian wonders why he "cannot feel this tragedy" as much as he thinks he should and wonders if he is heartless. The death of Sibyl seems like "a wonderful ending to a wonderful play" to Dorian. Lord Henry, "who found an exquisite pleasure in playing on the lad's unconscious egotism," is pleased to extend the simile. He assures Dorian that he is not heartless; the experience has been like a brilliant play, and Dorian should regard the whole matter as if he were a spectator at the theater.

Lord Henry approves that he is living in a century when "such wonders" as Sibyl's death could happen. When Dorian interrupts that he was "terribly cruel" to Sibyl, Lord Henry assures him that women "appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else."

Dorian confesses that he has felt everything that Lord Henry has said but was afraid to admit it, even to himself. Assured by his mentor that his "extraordinary good looks" will present him with a rich life, Dorian thanks the older man and calls him his "best friend."

After Lord Henry leaves, Dorian checks the portrait, which has not changed since earlier in the day. Apparently the portrait registers events as they happen. Dorian wishes that he could actually observe it changing. For a moment, he feels remorse toward Sibyl, but he brushes the feeling away. Vowing to go on, seeking "eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins," he briefly considers praying that the spell of the portrait be broken. However, he rationalizes that the spell is not his to control. Besides, who would not want eternal youth? He decides to enjoy the situation: "Not one blossom of his loveliness would ever fade." He again covers the painting with the screen. Within an hour, he has joined Lord Henry at the opera.

Analysis

In Chapter 8, Dorian struggles briefly with his conscience. Under Lord Henry's influence, it is no contest: By the end of the chapter, Dorian has dedicated himself entirely to the pursuit of pleasure and sin. He throws away the last scraps of his conscience and becomes a completely selfish being. By the time he goes to the opera with Lord Henry, he doesn't even feel protective about the portrait, which up to this point was the one thing that he still cared about. Lord Henry's sole concern is to protect Dorian's reputation and to urge him to get on with his life. He cares not a whit for the young Sybil and instead speaks superficially about fashion, women, and the convenience of Sibyl's death. He views the whole affair as a splendid artistic experience. His reaction is in line with the cynicism that the reader has observed in his character all along; Lord Henry's ability to make Sibyl's death a trivial matter in Dorian's mind demonstrates that his cynicism and his power to influence Dorian have reached new heights.

The flippant, carefree attitudes that Dorian and Lord Henry display in this chapter caused many people to accuse Oscar Wilde of writing an immoral book when The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published. However, the reader needs to distinguish between an author and his characters. Certainly Lord Henry and Dorian often behave like scoundrels, but continuing the Faust theme, Lord Henry is demonic and Dorian blindly does his bidding. He knows exactly how to appeal to Dorian's weaknesses, of which there are plenty. Still, these two are both despicable fellows. The reader might admire or envy parts of their lives, but at this point it is very difficult to like them.

Glossary

Sèvres an exquisite porcelain made in Sèvres, France.

Louis-Quinze Louis the Fifteenth (1710–74), king of France 1715–74; a fashion style named after him.

sanguine healthy looking; optimistic.

absolution formal remission of sin after confession; in the Roman Catholic church, it is a part of the sacrament of penance.

prussic acid hydrocyanic acid; a colorless, extremely poisonous solution of hydrogen cyanide (HCN).

Patti Adelina Patti (1843–1919), world-renowned Italian coloratura soprano.

dowdy shabby; lacking style or neatness.

nil a contraction of the Latin nihil, "nothing."

asphodel a Mediterranean plant that in Greek mythology is linked with death.

conjugal having to do with marriage.

felicity blissful happiness.

Desdemona a leading character in William Shakespeare's Othello.

Ophelia a leading character in William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Jacobean relating to drama or literature during the reign of James I of England (1603–25).

Webster John Webster (1580–1625), English dramatist and tragedian whom many rate second only to Shakespeare in the early seventeenth century.

Ford John Ford (c. 1586–1639), major English dramatist.

Cyril Tourneur (1575–1626), British dramatist and tragedian.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

According to Dorian, Basil is




Quiz