At first, I will study the careful staging of this scene by Oscar Wilde, which is mostly apparent in the first part, down to line 34. Then I will deal with the topic of Dorian’s image or images.
This scene is very dramatic. The narrator resorts to every means available to a stage director.
To begin with, he organizes space by dividing it into three rooms: a “hall of entrance,” a “library” and a “bedroom.” The latter is “octogonal,” in keeping with Dorian’s taste for sophistication. A door (l. 12) and a window (l. 22) help structure space. Then, he decorates this space with “oak-panell[ing],” a “huge gilt Venetian lantern,” “curious Renaissance tapestries,” “cream-coloured silk blinds,” furniture: a table (l. 6) and props: a hat and cape (l. 5-6), a buttonhole (l. 15) and a mirror “framed in ivory Cupids” (l. 31-2).
This setting is clearly meant to create atmosphere: the unusualness, the luxury and the sheer number of decorative elements places the reader in a typically aesthetic and decadent context. They reflect Dorian Gray’s taste, learnt from Lord Henry Wotton, for elaborate and original forms of beauty.
In addition, the movements of the only character are precisely recorded. The reader is also given some information about his clothes.
Not only does the narrator use space, decoration and costume, timing is also one of his tools. Most notably, in the first paragraph he delays the discovery of the change in the portrait first by Dorian, then by the reader, to heighten tension. When Dorian’s eyes meet the picture, the reader is informed that he “look[s] somewhat puzzled”: external narrative focus builds up expectation by making the reader wonder what is the matter.
Last but not least, lighting is also used to dramatic effect: the scene is at first dimly lit by a Venetian lantern. Such an atmosphere is of course perfect for mysterious, even fantastic events, so that Dorian may not believe that the picture has actually changed. By contrast, when Dorian draws up the blind (l. 22-4), the sudden flood of sunlight symbolizes the dispersion of illusion and the irruption of truth. Consequently, he can no longer doubt the change in the picture, which takes me to my second point.
Right from the beginning, the change in the picture is described not in pictorial but in psychological and moral terms: “a touch of cruelty in the mouth” (l. 21). Although the narrator specifies that there are “lines of cruelty rund the mouth” (l. 28), we are never actually given an objective, technical description. Indeed, there are “no signs of change” in the “actual painting” (l. 36-7). Still there is “no doubt that the whole expression [has] altered.” It seems that, a little as we find it much more difficult to describe objectively people we have known all our lives, there is a direct, even intimate form of communication between Dorian and his picture.
In order to make sure that the picture has actually changed, Dorian seizes a mirror given to him by his friend Lord Henry Wotton and compares the two images: the one in the picture and the one in the mirror. Then he remembers that when he was sitting for Basil to finish the painting, Lord Henry, whom he was meeting for the first time, awakened him to the idea that all beauty was destined to fade away, and when he saw the picture he wished his physical appearance would never change while the picture would grow old and corrupt. He therefore understands that his wish has been fulfilled and the picture reflects his soul whose characteristics do not show on his own face.
In other words, the images in the mirror and on the picture have changed places, which implies, since mirrors reflect things as they are, that Dorian has “become” his picture while the picture now reflects Dorian’s soul. Of course, this situation is laden with irony: the Henry-given mirror shows a perfect image, although Lord Henry is at the origin of Dorian’s corruption, whereas the Basil-painted picture shows the ugly soul that Lord Henry has shaped. Ultimately, this irony refers to the fact that both men’s roles are inseparable – and this crisscross relationship repeats that of the two images, the one in the mirror and that in the portrait.
Just as Dorian’s look moves from the image in the mirror to that on the picture, his thoughts shift from one mental self-image to another, the former good, the latter bad. The “lines of cruelty” on his portrait make him wonder (l. 54) “Cruelty! Had he been cruel?” However, the answer is at once ‘no’: “It was the girl’s fault,” who “had been shallow and unworthy.”
To a large extent, Sibyl too is treated by Dorian as an image of himself: the quality that he sees in himself he attributes to her. Although Dorian cannot help realizing “with what callousness he had watched her” (l. 60), he does so with a “but” (l. 62). “He had suffered also” because of Sibyl when on account of her terrible performance on stage he had been disappointed in her and humiliated in front of his friends. He becomes the victim and Sibyl the culprit. Once again, the irony is blatant in Dorian’s self-justification: although he is trying to convince himself that he is not wicked, the arguments he resorts to prove precisely the opposite of what he wants them to: “his life was well worth hers,” he argues. “Why should he trouble about Sibyl Vane?” Dorian would rather trouble about himself: “But the picture?”
Just as Dorian oscillates from one good image of himself to another, wicked one, his discovery puts him at a crossroads in his life, stated in the last paragraph. The picture may “teach him to loathe his own soul” because it “[tells] his story.” The story can be an improving one if Dorian takes care to learn from it. However, as I have shown, the ugliness in Dorian’s soul is already firmly settled, so there is no real choice.