The Moral of Dorian Gray

In both Dr. Jekyll and the Mr. Hyde and The Invisible Man individuals make use of an elixir vitae that promises invincibility or perfection, and ends in self-destruction. The other great Victorian tale with a similar moral is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), in which a young man trades his soul for immortality by means of an enchanted portrait which grows old as Dorian remains young. The picture, carefully hidden in an attic, also reveals all the corruption and vice of the protagonist’s life. It becomes a tableau of the man’s hidden sins, growing more hideous over time.

When Wilde’s story first came out, it was attacked for its “moral and spiritual putrefaction” and “effeminate frivolity.” These were barbed insinuations regarding the author’s bohemian sexual proclivities. Nevertheless, the author wondered privately how critics could “treat Dorian Gray as immoral,” since it has “a strong ethical lesson inherent in it.” It did not help, of course, that Wilde was infuriatingly flippant and ironic. His oft-quoted dictum (from the story’s preface) that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” is undermined in the story itself by a pointed reference to a “poisonous” yellow book given to Dorian by Lord Henry. It was a clear allusion to Huysman’s contemporary work of decadence, Against the Grain.

Huysman plunged the depths of fin de siecle wickedness, seeking ever new degradations. Fortunately, both he and Wilde recoiled from the horror of artistic nihilism and turned to Catholicism in the end. Dorian Gray is, in a way, a harbinger of this transformation. It contains a message of redemption only hinted at in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and utterly overlooked in The Invisible Man. Wilde’s references to traditional Christian practices and assumptions are rife, as when Dorian attends a Catholic mass. More important are the theological underpinnings of the tale.

The trite claims of genius, daring, or “senseless acts of beauty”—the inevitable excuses for depravity, which render vice attractive like Dorian’s purely superficial charm—are shown up in the malevolent portrait for the wretched things that they are. Somewhere in the pit of his soul, Dorian knows that it is “his duty to confess, to suffer public shame, and to make public atonement. There was a God who called upon to tell their sins to earth as well as to heaven. Nothing that he could do would cleanse him till he had told his own sin.” The price of acquittal is repentance. Unfortunately, this is a bargain the ageless youth refuses to make.

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