Definitions (from Oxford Modern English Dictionary):


  1. liable to be called to account
  2. Morally accountable for one’s actions; capable of rational conduct.
  3. Of good credit, position, or repute; respectable; evidently trustworthy.
  4. (often followed by for) being the primary cause.


  1. The fact of having committed a specified or implied offence.
  2. Culpability.

3.      The feeling of this.


  1. A feeling of distress or humiliation caused by consciousness of the guilt or folly of oneself or an associate.
  2. A capacity for experiencing this feeling, esp. as imposing a restraint on behaviour (sense of shame).
  3. A state of disgrace, discredit, or intense regret.

Responsibility, guilt and shame are normally thought of as being linked to one another, causing one another: I am ashamed because I am guilty, I am guilty because I am responsible.

Dorian’s story is that of a man who is freed from responsibility by a magic picture. When Dorian is guilty (but not responsible), the picture is responsible (but not guilty): it bears the consequences by showing a guilty image of Dorian.

As a result, Dorian becomes morally corrupted, commits many crimes and corrupts many other people. However, it seems that, far from being freed from shame, he is overwhelmed by it. The less responsibility, the more shame? Who is responsible for corruption? What exactly is Dorian guilty of? What is the exact relationship between responsibility, guilt and shame?

Occurrences in the novel:

1.      “At least he would be alone when he looked upon the mask of his shame.” (ch. 8)

2.      “No eye but his would ever see his shame.” (ch. 10)

3.      “The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame: that was all.” (ch. 8)

4.      “What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted image on the canvas. They would mar its beauty and eat away its grace. They would defile it and make it shameful.” (ch. 10)

5.      “What was it to him how vile and full of shame it looked?” (ch. 11)

6.      “My God! don’t tell me that you are bad, and corrupt, and shameful.” (Basil, ch. 13)

Ø      The picture is associated with shame, almost identified to it (quotation n° 2). It is in the picture that Basil can see Dorian’s shame (quotation n° 6).

7.      “I cannot understand how any one can wish to shame the thing he loves.” (ch. 6)

8.      “Women who had wildly adored him, and for his sake had braved all social censure and set convention at defiance, were seen to grow pallid with shame or horror if Dorian Gray entered the room.” (ch. 11)

9.      “He [Lord Kent] seemed broken with shame and sorrow.” (Basil, ch. 12)

10.  “They say that you corrupt every one with whom you become intimate, and that it is quite sufficient for you to enter a house for shame of some kind to follow after.” (ch. 11)

11.  “I don’t care what shame comes on you.” (Alan Campbell, ch. 14)

12.  “He knew that he had tarnished himself, filled his mind with corruption and given horror to his fancy; that he had been an evil influence to others, and had experienced a terrible joy in being so; and that of the lives that had crossed his own, it had been the fairest and the most full of promise that he had brought to shame.” (ch. 20)

Ø      Wherever Dorian is, shame soon follows. Dorian behaves lawlessly and seduces others who take his lead. As a result, they bring shame upon themselves.

Ø      However, there is an unmistakably irrational/sacrificial twist to this logic: see quotation n° 10. Shame seems to pop up “out of the blue,” in the absence of any guilt.

Ø      There is a deep ambiguity in the transmission of shame by Dorian: see quotations n° 7 and 12. Could it be that, by polluting people with shame, he makes them a sort of gift? Moreover, if he degrades the purest beings, he is to be even more ashamed than before. Is therefore shame something that he shares with them?

13.  “Had the lover of Giovanna of Naples bequeathed him some inheritance of sin and shame?” (ch. 11)

14.  “The hero of the wonderful novel that had so influenced his life had himself known this curious fancy. In the seventh chapter he tells how, crowned with laurel, lest lightning might strike him, he had sat, as Tiberius, in a garden at Capri, reading the shameful books of Elephantis, while dwarfs and peacocks strutted round him and the flute-player mocked the swinger of the censer” (ch.11)

15.  “Sigismondo Malatesta, the lover of Isotta and the lord of Rimini, whose effigy was burned at Rome as the enemy of God and man, who strangled Polyssena with a napkin, and gave poison to Ginevra d’Este in a cup of emerald, and in honour of a shameful passion built a pagan church for Christian worship” (ch. 11)

Ø      In Dorian’s quest for new thrills, inspired by LH, shame can be a pleasurable experience or sight. It spices things up because it indicates that social conventions are being broken.

16.  “He [LHW] was brilliant, fantastic, irresponsible. He charmed his listeners out of themselves, and they followed his pipe, laughing.” (ch. 3)

Ø      Here, LH is clearly the model after which Dorian is fashioned, including in his role as Pied Piper. LH is irresponsible in that he lures others to their ruin, which means he is responsible for it, and for Dorian’s crimes.

17.  “He felt a terrible joy at the thought that some one else was to share his secret, and that the man who had painted the portrait that was the origin of all his shame was to be burdened for the rest of his life with the hideous memory of what he had done.” (ch. 12)

18.  “There was nothing evil in it [my ideal], nothing shameful.” (Basil, ch. 12)

Ø      Dorian thinks it unfair that he is to be ashamed although Basil, not Dorian, is ultimately responsible for his situation. Notice once again the deep identification between characters: just as Dorian keeps denying his responsibility throughout the novel (I didn’t kill Basil, Sibyl, Alan…), Basil denies his own.

19.  “Dorian Gray watched with listless eyes the sordid shame of the great city” (ch. 16)

20.  “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” (LHW, ch. 19)

Ø     Dorian is not responsible for the corruption that is at the heart of civilization. In that sense, he is a scapegoat if he is to be blamed for it.

21.  “Yet it was his duty to confess, to suffer public shame, and to make public atonement.” (ch. 20)

Ø      The key word in this sentence is of course “public”: it is used explicitly in the last two parts of the sentence, and implicitly in “confess” in the first part. It shows that there is a tension in shame. Being ashamed means imagining others’ look and fleeing from it. Dorian is ashamed, so he keeps his crimes secret, but he knows he should expose himself to society. (Public) shame is indeed part of the punishment.

22.  “There was no reason that the future should be so full of shame.” (ch. 10)

23.  “Summer followed summer, and the yellow jonquils bloomed and died many times, and nights of horror repeated the story of their shame, but he was unchanged.” (ch. 11)

Ø      Notice the tension between the tragic cycle and Dorian’s hope for redemption.


A few more remarks: