I will first deal with the role played by Lord Henry Wotton in Dorian’s life. Then I will look at Dorian’s shift from innocence to experience. Finally, I will dwell on the picture and the magical power or pact that it is linked to.
Before the beginning of the extract, Basil Hallward was working on the picture of a young friend of his, Dorian Gray, whose beauty and innocence of soul he worships. For a long time, he had avoided introducing Dorian to his other friend Lord Henry Wotton for fear that he might corrupt this purity. At last, he could not help showing Lord Henry the young man. While Basil was finishing his painting and Dorian was sitting for him, Lord Henry chatted to them. The two friends are therefore competing for the beautiful-looking young man’s friendship.
Dorian was struck by Lord Henry’s easy conversation and his clever, witty use of paradox and his nihilistic view of the world. For Lord Henry, nothing exists except the material world of appearances. As a consequence, there is no other satisfaction to be attained in life than the enjoyment of pleasurable and beautiful things. This places a paramount importance on Dorian’s own beauty, but at the same time turns life into a tragedy since matter is subjected to the law of transience and corruption, so this chief good only has a short-lived existence.
The effect of Lord Henry’s conversation on Dorian can be seen in his absent-mindedness: he is “as if awakened from some dream” line 13. This revelation of a new intellectual world marks a turning-point in his life: this is made clear by “Then had come LHW...” (my italics). Before this sea-change, Dorian was unconscious, innocent: “he had never felt...” After the conversation with LHW, he is no longer this innocent and spontaneous being, but he has become a conscious one.
This takes me to the second point, that of Dorian’s move from innocence to experience.
Now that LHW has opened Dorian’s eyes to the tragic transience of beauty, his view has changed completely. His beauty had no real existence for him: “he had never felt it before,” so that compliments had no effect on him: “they had not influenced his nature...” Words had no existence for him. Now he is sharply aware of his looks: when he finally discovers his portrait, his reaction is that of a modern-day Narcissus: “his cheeks flushed...”
In fact, the sight of this picture seems to complete the change, the initiation worked by LHW: “he had recognised himself for the first time.” Until he sees the picture, Dorian is “listless”, too troubled by LHW’s speech. The picture connects him to reality: “as he stood gazing...”
LHW has indeed taught him to fall in love with himself, while Basil was careful to protect and preserve his innocence. This awareness of his own beauty brings along with it a painful fear of growing old, of the passing of time: “Yes, there would be...”
As a matter of fact, Dorian has learnt to be sorry for himself: he cries when he thinks he will lose his good looks. Dorian has not only become narcissistic, selfish and sad, but also envious: he is already jealous of the picture’s unchanging beauty. At the end of the passage, we can finally see that he has lost his moral standards, since he places the beauty of appearances over everything else: He is ready to give everything, including his soul, to remain good-looking and young-looking while his picture would decay in his place.
Dorian is unaware of it yet, but this Faustian deal has indeed been made. Such is the third issue I will address.
Dorian’s words at the end of the extract are laden with tragic irony. Although he wishes for it, Dorian does not imagine that the picture will indeed “grow old” while he will “be always young”, in looks at least, and he has “give[n] his soul for that.” As he will discover some time later, the portrait will from now on bear all the signs of his own physical and moral decay while his own appearance “will never be older than this particular day of June.” We can already see the symbiosis or the confusion between Dorian and his portrait: when Lord Henry invites him to take a look at the picture, the likeness is so striking that he refers to the picture as “yourself”. Furthermore, as I already pointed out, the picture helps Dorian know himself and become himself.
It seems the picture’s magical power is the result of a balance of forces: as we have seen, there is a competition between Basil and LH for Dorian. At this precise point in the novel, their efforts seem to be equally strong and interact with each other. As Basil notices, Dorian has “sat splendidly”, but LHW adds it is “entirely due to [him]” because his words actually changed Dorian and his expression. He is responsible for Dorian’s looks, while Basil has the artistry to capture this beautiful image onto canvas. He writes his name on the picture while LH writes his own on Dorian’s soul.
The irony, of course, is that the picture will grow old and ugly, although it was Basil’s work, while Dorian, who is LH’s creation, will keep his good looks. Anyway, this shows the criss-cross interplay of the two men. Neither of them is more responsible than the other for the supernatural power of Dorian and his picture, and neither of them could have done it alone. Moreover, neither of them is aware of this fact.
While B was painting D, LH’s seductive words threw the young man into a sort of abstracted, trance-like state, from which he recovers only after the painting is finished. We can imagine that this was the key moment when LH and B, together, channeled his soul and put it into the picture.
To conclude, I wish to emphasize the tragic nature of Dorian’s story. At the end of the passage, he says he would give his soul to change places with the picture, that is to say to more or less become the picture. However, he doesn’t have a soul to give any longer, since his soul is now in the picture or the picture has already become his soul. The three elements: Dorian, the “buyer”, the picture, that is to say the object he wants to buy, and his soul, which is the “money” to buy the object, are fused. This places Dorian in an impossible situation.
Another tragic aspect of the passage is that, in retrospect, we can already see, even at this early stage of the novel when D may still appear pure and innocent, that the seeds of his corruption are already sown: he is already vain, self-absorbed, given to depression and immoral.Everything is in place, the tragedy merely has to unfold.