The period of time known as the fin de siecle was marked by uncertainty and doubt, particularly about the role of people in nature. Ideas like natural selection and evolution called into question people’s beliefs about the world and how it came to be. This is often reflected in the literature, especially in the last scene of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
There are many things about this scene that are somewhat ambiguous, which reflects the contemporary doubt and questioning about the world, but there are also aspects that are more unambiguous. When Dorian is found dead, he is described as “withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage” (Wilde Chapter XX). What is not clear is how his face got this way when the curse of the portrait has kept his face young until now. Based on how the final scene is described, I think what happened when Dorian tried to ‘kill’ the portrait was that the portrait had grown in power, so it was able to move and deflect the blade so that it killed Dorian instead. Of course, there are other possible interpretations, including that Dorian got confused in his rush to destroy the painting and stabbed himself instead, but this doesn’t explain how he suddenly aged when he hadn’t been doing so. The fact that this is never fully explained and is mostly left to the reader’s interpretation can be seen as a reflection of the uncertainty of the time. Where most of Victorian England was questioning topics like the role of religion in their lives, Dorian’s friends are wondering how he’s not aging and wondering what happened when they find him with a knife in his chest and the roles of him and the portrait reversed. What is clear is that the painting is now “splendid” when before the subject was described as old and evil-looking. It’s also clear that Dorian now looks old instead of the painting.
In addition to reflecting contemporary feelings of doubt, the final scene also very effectively wraps up a commentary on the role of art. This is mostly done through the aforementioned ambiguity of the final scene. For example, all we know is that when Dorian is found, he was “a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart” and that they needed to “examine the rings” to determine who he was (Wilde XX). Again, it’s unclear if Dorian tried to ‘kill’ the portrait or if it killed him. We don’t know how the portrait became young again and Dorian became old. The fact that the switch happened seems to suggest that the portrait took Dorian’s place. Maybe the portrait was the real Dorian all along, because Dorian looked the same while the painting changed? Maybe the portrait was always trying to get rid of Dorian and it finally got the chance? Does that mean that art does have a life of its own, as Basil alluded to?