Duality: What difference lies between Dorian and his portrait? Is there any difference between the body and the soul?
The portrait gives Dorian the horrible power associated with immortality; he can live a life of frivolity and danger (ie: promiscuous sex, drugs, and murder) without the signs of physical harm or aging. Instead, the portrait holds all of Dorian's sins, both physical and moral. Society sees the young, handsome, and immortal Dorian, one that is admired by all. The real Dorian lies in the painting, hidden away in an attic and out of sight from the real world. Dorian proves successful at keeping his real identity hidden. The ones who know his true identity (Basil, the Soho prostitute, Sybil Vane, and James Vane) wind up dead or silenced by their lack of credibility. Dorian murders Basil once he sets eyes on the painting. The Soho prostitute leads a life of sin and old age in the opium den, a place where only vagrants venture. Furthermore, Sybil Vane commits suicide after witnessing first hand Dorian's cruelty and lack of moral compassion or responsibility. Last, a man accidently shoots James Vane during a hunting excursion with Lord Henry and Dorian, thinking James was instead an animal. The people in Dorian's world seem charmed and even bewitched by his beauty and also appear victims of society's warped view of youth and appearance. One of Dorian's sexual conquests demonstrates adequately this reliance on society's standards of beauty: "He had told her once that he was wicked, and she had laughed at him, and answered that wicked people were always very old and very ugly" (184, Oxford). Victorian beauty aids Dorian in masking the darkness and ugliness of his soul.
Repression: What aspect of his unconscious does Dorian allow to surface? What other parts does he repress? What are the consequences of this choice?
Sigmund Freud proposed that an individual has three different parts of the unconscious psyche. The id is the hedonistic and animalistic half often repressed by the other two aspects of the psyche. The superego is the strict, rule abiding, moralistic facet, the opposite of the id. In between these two opposing forces of the unconscious lies the ego, the rational side that serves as a negotiator between the id and superego. The creation of Dorian's portrait spurs a revelation within Dorian, "A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognized himself for the first time...the sense of his beauty came on him like a revelation. He had never felt it before" (24, Oxford). Dorian's vanity overwhelms his ego, the sweet and rational aspect of his personality that Basil Hallward falls in love with, allowing his id to take over. Once this occurs, Dorian engages in animalistic, unabashed sexual and drug activity as well as murder in which he feels no regard for anyone but himself.
Gender: How is gender dealt with in this novel? Do we see a change at the end?
The ambiguous lines between male and female gender roles in the novel, as seen through the characters interactions with each other, emphasize the influence of Victorian social standards on the sexes. From these social expectations, one can assume the common male role in upperclass society is that of the aesthete: the intellectual, decadent, and worldly socialite. Dorian Gray, Lord Henry, and Basil Hallward all reinforce these male sterotypes and social expectations by living the life of the upperclass male socialite, including a permanent state of unemployment. However, lowerclass, working males contrast these stigmas by employing themselves in the labor market, such as James Vane. These men exhibit a more traditional masculine persona through their aggression, distrust of homosexuality, and protection of family or emotional ties. James Vane represents the masculine ideal of protector, which ultimately leads him to his death due to his overtly masculine actions. The female role, then, is that of the domesticate: emotionally-driven and intelligently innocent (or as Dorian claims, "absurdly melodramatic" (76)). Throughout the novel, female characters are viewed at home or in an underclass, labored environment; and men are seen at parties, operas, and other upperclass social situations. Sybil Vane embodies this underclass woman state by reverting to "inappropriate" displays of emotion and employment to make a living. Her reliance on an upperclass marriage overshadows the reality of her situation and she is forced to reckon with abandonment. The difference between lust, love, and infatuation becomes unclear to her and overwhelms her to the point of suicide. At the end of the novel, the differences in gender are unchanged, remaining fairly static to the situation. The best example lies in Dorian's death. In his attempts to abandon the upperclass aesthete role and move toward the lowerclass standard of masculinity, he also becomes overwhelmed and technically commits suicide.
Love: What does Sybil's death represent? Does Dorian truly love her, or only himself?
The first result of one of Dorian's many sins, Sybil's death represents the moral turning point for Dorian's soul as it pertains to the portrait's reflection because it is the first noticeable mark on the portrait "with the touch of cruelty in the mouth" (127, Broadview). It is only after noticing the portrait's transformation that Dorian begins to question his behavior towards Sybil, attempting numerous times to justify his attitude, even claiming she was "shallow and unworthy" (127, Broadview). The possiblity of his cruel actions reflecting back onto the portrait, a wish he had never dreamt of actually coming true, terrifies Dorian into searching for miniture resolvements to make the changes untrue. Yet, readers already know the changes are permanent and continue to grow worse, making Dorian's behavior appear selfish and judgmental. Dorian's selfishness and lack of true love for Sybil more fully emerges in his behavior after learning of her suicide, "She had no right to kill herself. It was selfish of her" (134, Broadview). The irony is bluntly stated, to Dorian, only other people's actions are selfish, his own are not. In his mind, it was not selfish of him to end their engagement simply because she acted poorly out of love for him. A few sentences prior Dorian refers to suddenly being afraid after a mysterious incident, most likely alluding to his portrait's change. Even Lord Henry seems confused at Dorian's anguish over his own soul's condition, rather than the condition of Sybil's, calling himself "heartless" (135, Broadview). Dorian's love for Sybil is made to appear selfish and based on appearances, he loved her for she represented the art of his aesthete; but, when she removed herself from the theatric art, he immediately rejects her. These attitudes and reflections increasingly support the notion Dorian's love was only for himself, not for poor Sybil.
Beauty: How do the characters each view beauty and its importance in nineteenth-century society?
The importance of beauty in the novel is apparent immediately. It is in Basil Hallward’s studio that we first meet the infamous portrait “of a young man of extraordinary personal beauty” (43). Dorian is repeatedly described in terms of this beauty and praised for it, emphasizing the value placed on beauty in the world of the novel and in nineteenth-century society. Lord Henry in particular is taken with his beauty, and discusses it so extensively with Dorian that it is eventually detrimental. To Lord Henry, beauty (and the youth that accompanies it) is of the utmost importance. He considers it Dorian’s gift, and encourages him to delve into the luxuries that the beautiful can afford while his youth still allows it. Dorian’s fateful wish to preserve his beauty is a clear indicator that he also recognizes the power with which his looks imbue him. When Lord Henry's diatribe about the importance of beauty soaks in Dorian is devastated, proclaiming that he is "jealous of everything whose beauty does not die" (66). The fear of losing his beauty with age is especially evident in this emotional tantrum. Basil’s choice to paint Dorian’s portrait is also suggestive of how beauty was valued in the nineteenth century. In this decision is the suggestion that the best subjects for portraiture were those were the most attractive.
Mortality: How is Dorian's view of sin reflective of his perspective on death and immortality?
As the novel progresses, Dorian is more and more positive that he has found 'eternal youth'. As the portrait grows uglier and more cruel, his physical appearance remains the same. In this, he takes pleasure. Dorian feels he is impervious to death and is immortal, until James Vane appears. Before Vane appears, Dorian has little fears and indulges himself in any sin he sees fit. Once James threatens to kill him, Dorian realizes that while his youth may be eternal, his life is not. Once his sin is too much to bare and Dorian no longer delights in the contrast between the portrait and himself, he stabs the portrait (in an attempt to kill the ugliness of his sin) and instead, kills himself. It is only when the magnitude of his sin becomes apparent to him and he seeks to destroy it (the portrait) does Dorian's youth, body, and soul perish.
Morality: How do each of the main characters incorporate the intrigue of morality in their lives?
To Lord Henry, a life of morality is entirely without intrigue. His over the top character is centered largely around this attitude, and it is this attitude that so influences the initially moral character of Dorian. Of the nineteenth century, Lord Henry proclaims: “It is so somber, so depressing. Sin is the only real colour-element left in modern life” (68). To him, a life of morality is flat and color-less. To play by the rules is to live life without really living it. Lord Henry is devoted to a self-indulgent lifestyle that values pleasure over morality. This world-view is quickly adopted by the naïve Dorian. Initially Lord Henry’s immoral suggestions shock him, but he quickly succumbs to a life of leisure and indulgence. Basil watches this fall to immorality with horror.
Truth: According to the novel, what truth is the best truth?
The element of deception is very important in the novel, and thus, the element of truth is as well. Manipulated by Lord Henry, Dorian comes to believe that the only truth that exists is that in beauty. Unfortunately, for Dorian, his beauty is only skin deep as it does not penetrate into his soul. Dorian thrives on his physical beauty instead of an inner one, which causes his death. The best truth is within the beauty of the soul, instead of physical appearance. Another important lesson that can be learned in the novel is that of being truthful to others. Dorian is deceitful, as is Lord Henry, and because of this, he betrays his friends and loses their trust. Basil, on the other hand, represents the truth of art. The portrait of Dorian is truthful to Dorian's soul because Basil captured Dorian's physicality and his inner soul. He is the most truthful of artists, and because of this, Dorian kills him (as Dorian represents deception).