The Picture of Dorian Gray By Oscar Wilde Summary and Analysis Chapters 19-20

Summary

Approximately six months have passed. As Chapter 19 opens, Dorian and Lord Henry apparently have just dined at the older man's home. Despite recently having gone through a divorce, Lord Henry is his usual witty self. Dorian seems more pensive, even grave. They are discussing Dorian's vow to change his behavior.

Lord Henry says that Dorian is perfectly fine as he is. Dorian, however, says that he has done "too many dreadful things" in his life. He wants to reform. In fact, he began the previous day. He was staying alone at a small inn in the country and was seeing a young girl named Hetty Merton. She reminded him of Sibyl Vane in her beauty and innocence. A simple village girl, Dorian is fairly sure that he loved her. They were to run off together that morning at dawn, but he spared the child by leaving her "as flowerlike as I had found her."

Lord Henry brings up the disappearance of Basil; he also mentions his own divorce and Alan Campbell's suicide. Lord Henry allows that only death and vulgarity cannot be explained. He asks Dorian to play the piano. Dorian plays for a while but stops and asks Lord Henry if he ever thought that Basil might have been murdered. Lord Henry dismisses the idea with a quip. When Dorian asks what Lord Henry would say if Dorian claimed to be the murderer, Lord Henry states that the crime does not suit Dorian; it is too vulgar. Lord Henry then asks about Basil's portrait of Dorian. Dorian confirms that it was lost or stolen, but he never cared much for it anyway.

Lord Henry tells of walking through the park the previous Sunday and observing a group of people listening to a preacher who asked, "What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" (See Mark 8:36 in the New Testament for the precise language.) Lord Henry found this "uncouth Christian" to be "curious" and "hysterical." Dorian, however, is not amused.

Lord Henry has no interest in a serious discussion and indirectly asks Dorian to reveal the secret of his youth. To retrieve his youth, says the older man, "I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable." He wishes he could change places with Dorian, and he is pleased that the younger man has never actually "done anything." Dorian's life has been his art.

For once, Dorian is in no mood for flattery and says he wishes to retire early. The subject of the "yellow book" occurs to Dorian, and he asks Lord Henry never to lend the destructive volume to anyone else. They agree to meet the next morning.

Back home, Dorian wonders if he will ever really change. He reflects on Basil's death and Alan Campbell's suicide, but what really bothers him is the death of his own soul. He rationalizes that Basil painted the damaging portrait and said "unbearable" things to Dorian. Alan Campbell's suicide was the man's own doing, not Dorian's. They are nothing to him.

His own life is his only concern. Wondering if the portrait has changed since his virtuous behavior toward Hetty Merton, he creeps upstairs to see.

In the attic room, Dorian lifts the cloth off the portrait. If anything, the picture looks even more evil. Around the eyes there is "a look of cunning and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite." Blood has spread over the fingers, onto the feet, even to the other hand. Dorian shudders. He wonders if he should confess Basil's murder but dismisses the idea.

The portrait itself is the only evidence against him. He no longer enjoys its record of his debauchery. He worries that it will be discovered and decides to destroy it. The knife he used to murder Basil is still in the room. Using it to "kill the past," he grabs the knife and stabs the portrait.

The servants are awakened by a horrible scream and a crash. Two passersby outside are so alarmed that they summon a policeman. No one inside Dorian's house responds when the officer rings at the door.

After fifteen minutes or so, Francis ascends the staircase with two other servants. No one answers their knock on the attic door, and they cannot force it open. They climb to the roof, drop to the balcony, open a window, and go into the attic. There, they find an old and ugly man lying in front of their master's portrait. In the portrait, Dorian appears as beautiful and young as he had the day before.

Analysis

In the Faust legend, the main character ultimately confronts the loss of his soul but is incapable of seeking redemption through confession and absolution. He despairs and feels that he is beneath pardon or that there is no God or power strong enough to save him. In this sense, the Faust protagonist still suffers the sin of pride in that he sees his own case as so special that it is beyond God's help. Despair is the one unpardonable sin because the sinner is incapable of asking to be pardoned. Traditionally, despair is symbolized by suicide.

In the closing chapters of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian's behavior and attitude are consistent with this Faust tradition. Dorian has matured from the naïve, vain youth in Basil's studio. He has grown into a man who was at first despicable but in the end is almost likable. Perhaps he is more pitiable than likable. However, he cannot find salvation because he is incapable of setting aside his pride, confessing, and asking for absolution.

In Chapter 19, as the after-dinner scene opens at Lord Henry's, Dorian is bursting with pride because of a recent act of decency. He has returned Hetty Merton to her country life after winning her devotion. Unfortunately, instead of seeing this act as only one small step, Dorian expects instant reward. When he checks the portrait for some sign of his newfound virtue, he finds only a look of cunning about the eyes and a wrinkle of hypocrisy in the mouth. There seems to be fresh blood on the hands. Instead of redeeming his soul, his act of supposed redemption has tarnished his soul even more because the act was motivated by selfishness.

Dorian cannot redeem his soul because he is still primarily interested in himself. He dismisses the deaths of Basil and Alan Campbell. The first, he decides, was inevitable; the second made his own choice. In neither case does Dorian accept his own responsibility. Still, he is torn because he realizes that the "soul is a terrible reality." He thinks that a person should pray for punishment, but he fails to understand that the only way of absolving immoral responsibility is to pray for forgiveness.

In the novel's powerful final paragraphs, Dorian, in effect, commits suicide. He despises the figure in the portrait, but that is who he has become. When he slashes at the painting with the knife, appropriately the same knife that killed Basil, Dorian kills himself. The horrible cry, which awakens the servants and startles the men on the street, carries with it the agony of eighteen years of horror.

Glossary

idyll a scene or event of rural simplicity.

Perdita and Florizel lovers in William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.

Ophelia a leading character in William Shakespeare's Hamlet; she dies by drowning, although Shakespeare leaves unclear if her drowning is a suicide or an accident.

Scotland Yard headquarters of the London Metropolitan Police, housed at New Scotland Yard on the Thames embankment.

Burgundy a wine, usually red, produced in the Burgundy ("Bourgogne") region of southeastern France.

vinaigrette French, from Old French vinaigre, "vinegar"; a small, often decorated container used for aromatic restoratives, such as smelling salts or vinegar solutions.

Chopin Frédéric François Chopin (1810–49), Polish pianist and composer of works for piano and orchestra; resident of France from 1829 until his death.

Velasquez Diego Rodriquez de Silva y Velásquez (1599–1660), Spanish painter.

Seine the river that runs through Paris.

Like the painting of a sorrow, / A face without a heart from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 7, 108–09.

Jav an island of Indonesia.

scurf scaly or shredded dry skin.

nocturne a musical composition intended to evoke thoughts or feelings of night.

Majorca largest of Spain's Balearic Islands, in the Mediterranean Sea, about 120 miles southeast of Barcelona.

Apollo in Greek mythology, the god of the sun, music, and poetry; a young man of great physical beauty.

Marsyas in Greek mythology, he lost a music contest and his life to Apollo.

palate the roof of the mouth.

lilas blanc French, meaning "white lilac."

iniquities sins.

idolatrous excessively adoring.

visage facial expression; appearance.

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