I. Is there a lesson to be learnt from The Picture of Dorian Gray?
1. Fantastic elements in literature are usually metaphors. What is the picture a metaphor of?
The obvious answer is that it stands for Dorian’s “soul” and “conscience” (the words are used in the text).
A foremost theme in the novel is responsibility.
2. The end of the novel looks like the closing of a parenthesis and a return to normality. Dorian looks exactly like a man of his age and crimes while the portrait has its original look, as paintings usually do. What has happened in between no-one will ever know. Only Dorian and Basil have ever seen the degraded picture. However, other people have seen the other side of the picture: Dorian’s unfading good looks. We might even go as far as to say that, without knowing it, most people have seen the picture while only Dorian and Basil have seen the “true” Dorian.
So the novel tells us about illusion, individual (Dorian’s irresponsibility) and collective (society’s image of Dorian). About the former, the moral of the tale may simply be that “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” About the latter, it might as simply be that “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
II. Is there retribution in The Picture of Dorian Gray?
1. Is Dorian punished?
He dies, which is the most common and blatant form of retribution.
On the other hand, his wish has been granted: his picture has returned to its original state.
Still, he cannot enjoy it or anything else any longer.
2. If Dorian is punished, what for?
Is he punished for what he has done or for what he is?
Dorian stabs the portrait because it tells him and any other possible viewer of his crimes.
On the other hand, it is a picture of himself he wants to destroy.
3. Is Dorian redeemed?
Remember that in chapter 11, Dorian is said to “[see] in the prelude to that great work of art [Tannhäuser] a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul.”
One way of looking at Tannhäuser is to consider him as a romantic hero misunderstood and ill-judged by the narrow-minded conventionality of human society (embodied by the Pope), whose capacity for love is far less than his.
Another interpretation is that soul salvation is a free gift from God. No-one knows on whom (the elect) it will be bestowed on Judgement Day.
Do Dorian’s death and disfigurement mean that the pact has been broken? In other words, are they a punishment? Remember the social aspect of the novel: it does not end with the confrontation between Dorian and the picture but with other people discovering and laying eyes on them. Dorian’s ugliness is eventually exposed to the public eye.
Or, on the contrary, does the “regeneration” of his picture symbolise the redemption of his soul, like the Pope’s staff in bloom at the end of Tannhäuser? In this regard, it may be seen as the survival of his beauty (and of Basil’s masterwork) after his death.