The Picture of Dorian Gray

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The Mortality of Beauty and Youth Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Mortality of Beauty and Youth Theme Icon
Surfaces, Objects and Appearances Theme Icon
Art and the Imitation of Life Theme Icon
Influence Theme Icon
Women and Men Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Mortality of Beauty and Youth Theme Icon

The trouble starts when Henry warns Dorian that his extraordinary beauty and youth will fade, and tells him to make the most of it. Dorian’s beauty is such that people are astonished by it and all of his advantages seem to come from it, even if he has got an interesting personality and wealth. With Henry’s words ringing in his ears, Dorian immediately views Basil’s portrait of him in a new light. Rather than immortalize him, the picture suddenly seems to mock him for not being immortal—the picture won't change, but Dorian himself will. Dorian then becomes aware of time, and aware of his own beauty as a thing that will fade. Before Dorian's realization, when his beauty seemed to him simply a part of him, he was only vaguely aware of it. But once he realizes that it is not something he can hold on to, that it will be taken from him by time, he wants desperately to keep it. In this way, mortality doesn't just destroy beauty and youth, it makes them things to treasure and obsess over because eventually they will be destroyed.

Throughout the novel, beauty and death are linked. Dorian loves Sybil because he gets to watch her die onstage in all her passion and then, miraculously, be alive backstage. Her art makes her immortal each and every night. Sybil's actual death by suicide is tragic, but it also gives her a kind of eternal beauty because she was never allowed to age. Dorian, meanwhile, is similarly saved from aging by the supernatural transformation of his portrait, but while his appearance is now beyond mortality this freedom seems to drive Dorian to try to experience every kind of excess, to not care about consequences, to destroy lovers and friends through his influence and callousness. In this way that novel suggests that while mortality will always destroy beauty and youth, that beauty and youth in fact need to be destroyed—that immortal youth beauty, such as is preserved in art, is in fact monstrous in the real world. And, in fact, as Dorian's soul shrivels and he begins to seek and admire ugliness, his own beautiful face comes to seem to him just a hateful reminder of the innocence he has lost.

The Mortality of Beauty and Youth ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Mortality of Beauty and Youth appears in each chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Mortality of Beauty and Youth Quotes in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Below you will find the important quotes in The Picture of Dorian Gray related to the theme of The Mortality of Beauty and Youth.
Chapter 2 Quotes

“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul”

Related Characters: Lord Henry Wotton (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Basil has now introduced Lord Henry to Dorian, who finds him extraordinary. They converse for a while, and later Lord Henry catches Dorian in the garden with his head buried in lilac blossoms, drinking in the scent as if it were wine. Lord Henry murmurs approvingly that sensual experience is the only cure for the soul. This moment can be seen as an example of Dorian's innocence before he becomes fixated with his own beauty and mortality; his soul is vibrant and healthy and he is sensually connected with the natural world around him. It is also a clear example of Lord Henry's almost teacherly relationship to Dorian, a relationship infused with flirtation. 

At the same time, Lord Henry's statement ominously prefigures the coming events in the novel. In contrast to Dorian's present innocent delight in the flowers, he will soon become insatiably hungry for carnal, sinful pleasures. In connecting the "cure" of the soul with the senses, Lord Henry foreshadows the fact that Dorian's soul will eventually be destroyed by submergence in vice. 

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“If it were only the other way! If it were I who was always young, and the picture that was to grow old!”

Related Characters: Dorian Gray (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Picture
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Having been warned by Lord Henry that his youthful looks will fade, and having seen the supernaturally beautiful portrait that Basil has now finished, Dorian becomes overwhelmed by the wish to stay young forever. This is a climactic moment in the narrative in which Dorian drastically alters his own fate. His sudden desperation and subsequent harsh words to Basil do not fit the innocent, charming image of Dorian we have seen so far; Wilde uses this dramatic transformation to show that the threat of mortality can have an extreme effect on people. 

This passage also highlights the exaggerated role of art in the world of the novel. Dorian is so astonished by the portrait of himself that he becomes jealous of it and the fact that it will remain the same while he himself ages and grows less attractive. While this might seem like a strange reaction, it demonstrates the importance of art, surfaces, and appearance to Dorian and the other characters. As the novel will show, this is a dangerous view, as investing too much in appearances leads to the corruption of one's personality. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

“So I have murdered Sybil Vane,” said Dorian Gray, half to himself, “murdered her as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife. Yet the roses are not less lovely for that.”

Related Characters: Dorian Gray (speaker), Sybil Vane
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Dorian has written a long letter to Sybil in an attempt to atone for his cruelty; however, Lord Henry then arrives and tells him that Sybil has committed suicide. Dorian is shocked and feels responsible, yet at the same time notices that the roses looks just as lovely as they always do. This passage shows Dorian's growing corruption, especially in contrast to the portrayal of Sybil's childlike innocence ("cut her little throat"). Although Dorian is highly disturbed by what has happened, he can't hep but observe that on the surface, things still seem as "lovely" as if nothing has happened. This directly corresponds to the fact that Dorian himself looks as pure and charming as ever; it is only the painting that is beginning to show his increasing moral corruption.

“The girl never really lived and so she never really died.”

Related Characters: Lord Henry Wotton (speaker), Sybil Vane
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:
Dorian is horrified by Sybil's death, and Lord Henry attempts to soothe him by arguing that––because Sybil lived through her acting––she did not live as normal people do and thus hasn't "really" died. On one level, this reveals Lord Henry's reverence for art and artists, confirming his belief that art transcends life. However, it could also be interpreted as rather callous. Lord Henry does not seem particularly moved by Sybil's death, thereby increasing the impression that he is careless and immoral. Furthermore, his disdain for the theatre and for women in general means that the statement "she never really lived" could also be interpreted as an elitist, sexist judgment that Sybil's life was unimportant and meaningless. 
Chapter 14 Quotes

What was that loathsome red dew that gleamed, wet and glistening, on one of the hands, as though the canvas had sweated blood?

Related Characters: Dorian Gray
Related Symbols: White and Red, The Picture
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

Having stabbed Basil to death in the room where the portrait sits, Dorian begs his former friend Alan Campbell to assist him with disposing of Basil's body. As Dorian opens the door, he is less horrified by the sight of Basil's corpse than by the change the portrait has undergone as a result of the murder: the image of Dorian now has lifelike blood on its hands. Once again, blood is closely linked to the symbol of redness, a visual manifestation of Dorian's sins. The description of the blood in this passage is significant for its grotesque vividness. The narrator's statement that the canvas "sweated blood" implies that the painting has literally become alive; if this is true, it suggests that Dorian might not be fully alive himself. 

Chapter 18 Quotes

If the tapestry did but tremble in the wind, he shook. The dead leaves that were blown against the leaded panes seemed to him like his own wasted resolutions and wild regrets.

Related Characters: Dorian Gray
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Dorian managed to escape being killed by James Vane, it's clear that he is becoming increasingly paranoid and tormented, to the point that he can no longer enjoy life or his lingering youth and beauty. He interprets everything around him as conspiring against him, imagining that the dead leaves blowing against the wind are like his "wasted resolutions and wild regrets." In a reversal of the thematic obsession with surfaces and appearances, the entire world now seems to reflect the tortured landscape of Dorian's soul. Significantly, two spheres that Dorian used to treasure––art, symbolized by the tapestry, and nature, symbolized by the leaves––seem to have turned against him, taunting him for the corrupt choices he has made. 

Chapter 20 Quotes

His beauty had been to him but a mask, his youth but a mockery. What was youth at best? A green, unripe time, a time of shallow moods and sickly thoughts.

Related Characters: Dorian Gray
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

Dorian has returned home, thinking morosely about his lost innocence and wishing that he had received punishment for his sins. For the first time, he begins to resent his youthful beauty itself, associating youth with "shallow moods and sickly thoughts." It is clear that Dorian now understands the danger that comes with an unchecked desire for immortality, beauty, and pleasure. He characterizes youth as a repulsive state, indicating through the mention of "green" and "sickly thoughts" that it is even a kind of illness. Indeed, the passage suggests that the problem lies in the obsession with appearances, which are inherently hollow and misleading. Dorian's beauty was a "mask," revealing nothing about his true self, and only terrible consequences have come from living according to "shallow moods." 

This passage confirms that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a didactic (teaching) novel with a clear moral message for its readers. Of course, this message stands in contrast to the views of the main didactic character in the novel, Lord Henry. In the final scene, Dorian is able to see through Lord Henry's corrupting influence and understand the mistakes he has made, but he cannot survive this realization; the novel ends with the final ironic flourish that Dorian's desire for immortality results in his death.