Heaven and Hell in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

Dorian Gray’s decision to show Basil the truth of the portrait is motivated by the same self-serving assurance of acquittal that he has lived throughout the past years of his life. It is spurred on by the way he removes himself from accountability, as established within him when Lord Henry informs him of Sybil’s death. When Basil at last comes to Dorian to confront him about all the rumors, he begs Dorian to deny the truth of them – and says that he himself wouldn’t be able to really claim to know and defend Dorian until he knew the truth of his soul (129).

“There was a madness of pride in every word he uttered. He stamped his foot upon the ground in his boyish insolent manner. 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.

‘Yes,’ he continued, coming closer to him, and looking steadfastly into his stern eyes, ‘I shall show you my soul. You shall see the thing that you fancy only God can see.’” (129)

These lines are representative of the greater themes of the novel – mentioning both shame and the soul – as well as referencing the stagnation of Dorian’s character by describing his actions as “boyish” in unison with the more awful descriptions of his cruelty. His own inner monologue, as he decides to invite Basil into his secret, betrays him – his “terrible joy” at the thought of placing the burden of the “hideous memory” onto the man who painted the “origin of his shame”. These descriptions create an interesting dichotomy of consciousness. It is clear that Dorian is aware that he has things to be shamed for, that to reveal his secrets is to reveal “what he [has] done”. In the same thought he takes none of the responsibility for those actions – there is the “madness of pride” to terrify someone else with the knowledge that haunts him. Dorian says to Basil immediately before revealing the portrait to him: “You have chattered enough about corruption. Now you shall look on it face to face.” His is aware that his soul is corrupted by his choices.

There is also an irony that Dorian thinks Basil will be “burdened for the rest of his life” when he will be dead within minutes by Dorian’s own hand, in turn burdening himself with further corruption (of murder) and freeing Basil, in a sense, from carrying the knowledge of Dorian’s true soul with him. One fascinating thing to notice is the way that both Basil and Dorian mention God in these scenes. Throughout the novel itself there is a curious dismissal of the validity of religious ideology by characters such as Lord Henry and Dorian Gray and others in their circle of influence, while characters like Sibyl – who is considered to be a godlike creature – and Basil reference God freely.

Basil dismisses the idea of being able to see Dorian’s soul at all: “only God can do that”. Dorian scorns that, placing himself, and by association Basil, into a Godlike position, perhaps in yet another indication of Dorian’s arrogance. Yet, it was a prayer that caused the portrait to take on the visage of Dorian’s soul in the first place. “So you think that it is only God who sees the soul, Basil? Draw the curtain back and you will see mine” (131). Here Dorian’s mention of God again places Basil into a position where he assumes the responsibility of divinity: looking upon a soul. This could be another way that Dorian shrugs off accountability; alternatively, Dorian still views Basil as “good”, and places him into the corresponding role.

After the reveal of the painting, Basil begs Dorian to pray for forgiveness, to absolve himself of his sins. He claims that they both are being punished for worshipping Dorian too much (133). Basil also claims that the portrait has “the eyes of the devil”, and immediately after Basil appeals for Dorian to pray with him for forgiveness, Dorian is consumed by “an uncontrollable feeling of hatred [for Basil] … as though it had been suggested to him by the image on the canvas, whispered to him by those grinning lips” (133). Dorian is not in any way immune to being influenced – either by his own cruel habits, Lord Henry’s pretty wordplay, or by the devil manifesting in the portrait of his soul. As Dorian says to Basil: “Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him” (132).