Objects get almost as much attention in Dorian Gray as people. Whole pages of Chapter XI are devoted to listing Dorian’s various materialist pursuits and passions; we often hear about what a character is wearing or lying down on; the material world is as important to the characters as the social and emotional ones. In fact, objects define the characters: Lord Henry’s cigarettes and expensive clothes display his vanity and opulence, the painting defines Dorian Gray. Objects – and objectification – are so important in Dorian Gray because they define the era, its interactions, and its people.
As Dorian becomes more and more corrupt, he collects more and more things: jewels, tapestries, all sorts of luxurious and expensive things. But the painting is the possession that Dorian values most and from which he can’t bear to be away, and eventually it is the painting that kills him.
In Dorian’s death scene, it is unclear who does the stabbing: whether Dorian stabs himself, the painting stabs Dorian, or Dorian stabs the painting and some metaphysical interaction winds up with the knife in Dorian’s heart. The pictures is Dorian’s possession; he is “in” it in that he possesses it and that his soul is inside it; and when he attempts to kill the possession, he kills himself.
Thinking of Basil Hallward’s murder, Dorian feels no need to confess. “Who would believe him? There was no trace of the murdered man anywhere. Everything belonging to him had been destroyed” (Wilde 211). By destroying both Basil’s body and his possessions, Dorian ensures his utter disappearance; the destruction of the possessions, the things that Basil owns, is more crucial to the death than Basil’s body. Basil’s life is in his possessions as well as his body, and only when both these things are destroyed can he really be dead.
Furthermore, as Dorian’s murderous instincts turn to the painting, he thinks “There was only one bit of evidence left against him. The picture itself – that was evidence. He would destroy it. . . . It had been like conscience to him. Yes, it had been conscience. He would destroy it” (Wilde 212). The painting is a “bit,” a physical thing; Dorian believes it is evidence against himself, despite the fact that no innocent observer would understand its significance having come upon it unawares. Dorian’s knowledge of the painting, his knowledge that it was slowly growing older and uglier, his memories of it which had marred his emotions, has acted as his conscience, reminding him of the evil he has done.
The painting as a material object acted as an emotional or mental part of Dorian’s self: an object has been part of Dorian’s entire identity. When Dorian stabs the picture, he himself is stabbed through the heart, and despite the vagueness of this actual event – how does the knife actually end up in Dorian? – the connection between physical self, intangible soul, and material painting is clear. Dorian’s soul is contained in the painting. When he tries to kill the soul, through the painting, he himself is killed.
The criticism of materialism inherent in this passage is clear: too much of Dorian is in the painting (as Basil Hallward feared too much of himself would go into it), and his attempt to destroy a material object ends in his own death. With this hindsight, all the objects in the book are thrown into a more menacing light; Lord Henry’s cigarettes and clothes, Sybil’s props, all the possessions and objects belonging to various characters throughout the book appear now as manifestations of selves, of identities trapped in material goods. The consumer society of the Victorian Era was dangerous and frighteningly superficial; through the connection between Dorian and his painting, Wilde reveals the worst possible outcome of placing too high a value on objects.
Dorian’s definition by objects is solidified in the last sentence of the novel. “It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was” (Wilde 213). At the last, Dorian’s material possessions – his rings – define his identity, not his appearance or his selfhood. Dorian himself is reduced to the material qualities of the things he owns; at his death, he too is an object, no longer possessed or possessing anything, and unable to be defined or even recognized by anything except the possessions left on his body.