The Picture of Dorian Gray

by

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray: Irony 4 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Classical Allusion:

In Chapter 1, when Lord Henry first introduces Dorian, and the reader, to his take on hedonism, he references the ancient Hellenic, or Greek, world:

I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal—to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be.

Given that he associates the excesses of his personal philosophy with the supposed excesses of the classical world, it makes sense that many of the allusions he makes are to figures of Greek and Roman myth. When discussing Dorian’s beauty with Basil in Chapter 2, he repeatedly draws comparisons between Dorian and famously beautiful men of myth:

Upon my word, Basil, I didn’t know you were so vain; and I really can’t see any resemblance between you, with your rugged strong face and your coal-black hair, and this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves. Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus, and you—well, of course you have an intellectual expression and all that.

While both Adonis and Narcissus are perhaps most famous for their beauty, there is an element of irony to both these comparisons because both of these figures meet disastrous ends. According to his myth, Adonis, who is so good-looking that the goddess Aphrodite herself falls in love with him, dies in a horrible hunting accident—an accident not dissimilar from the one that ultimately leads to James Vane’s death later in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Narcissus, on the other hand, dies as a direct result of his beauty: falling in love with his own reflection, he famously wastes away in front of a pool of water. Although Henry’s invocation of both these figures is ostensibly a compliment to Dorian’s beauty, their mythic demises foreshadow the hedonistic chaos that will eventually lead to the death of James Vane, Basil Hallward, and Dorian himself—a chaos that begins because Dorian, like Narcissus, is unwilling to relinquish his own beauty.

Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Classical Allusion:

In Chapter 1, when Lord Henry first introduces Dorian, and the reader, to his take on hedonism, he references the ancient Hellenic, or Greek, world:

I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal—to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be.

Given that he associates the excesses of his personal philosophy with the supposed excesses of the classical world, it makes sense that many of the allusions he makes are to figures of Greek and Roman myth. When discussing Dorian’s beauty with Basil in Chapter 2, he repeatedly draws comparisons between Dorian and famously beautiful men of myth:

Upon my word, Basil, I didn’t know you were so vain; and I really can’t see any resemblance between you, with your rugged strong face and your coal-black hair, and this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves. Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus, and you—well, of course you have an intellectual expression and all that.

While both Adonis and Narcissus are perhaps most famous for their beauty, there is an element of irony to both these comparisons because both of these figures meet disastrous ends. According to his myth, Adonis, who is so good-looking that the goddess Aphrodite herself falls in love with him, dies in a horrible hunting accident—an accident not dissimilar from the one that ultimately leads to James Vane’s death later in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Narcissus, on the other hand, dies as a direct result of his beauty: falling in love with his own reflection, he famously wastes away in front of a pool of water. Although Henry’s invocation of both these figures is ostensibly a compliment to Dorian’s beauty, their mythic demises foreshadow the hedonistic chaos that will eventually lead to the death of James Vane, Basil Hallward, and Dorian himself—a chaos that begins because Dorian, like Narcissus, is unwilling to relinquish his own beauty.

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Explanation and Analysis—Lord Henry's Influence:

When Lord Henry first introduces his hedonistic philosophy to Dorian, while he sits for his portrait, Basil warns Dorian not to listen to Henry’s words and Dorian himself questions whether such self-serving ideation is a bad influence upon him. In a moment of irony, Henry responds,

There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view.

The irony here is that Henry's sole intention in speaking to Dorian is to influence him, and thus his words reveal either that he has no knowledge of his own immorality or that he has abandoned morality entirely. As it turns out, the man wishing to influence Dorian is all too aware of the dangers of such influence:

[…] to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of some one else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.

In this moment of reflection, Henry is darkly foreshadowing Dorian’s fall from grace that is still to come. Over the remainder of the novel, as Dorian succumbs to Henry’s self-serving ideology, he will become “an echo” of Henry’s philosophy—which, not coincidentally, Wilde frequently describes in terms of its “sweet music” and capacity to persuade like the sound of a beautiful instrument. It is darkly ironic that Henry should know everything about the dangers of influence and yet choose to barge ahead with his damaging speeches to Dorian. These passages would have been especially remarkable to a nineteenth-century reader of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, because outspoken critics accused the book itself of having an undue influence on its readers and driving them to immorality.

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Chapter 19
Explanation and Analysis—Basil's Murder:

Works of Gothic fiction often have no shortage of suspense, and this is certainly the case in The Portrait of Dorian Gray as the titular character grows increasingly erratic and unhinged. As a classic method to build tension in the reader and whisk the narrative toward its climactic finish, Wilde employs dramatic irony to keep things interesting in the aftermath of Basil’s murder by Dorian’s hand.

The scene finds Dorian with Henry, discussing Basil’s disappearance:

“What do you think has happened to Basil?” asked Dorian, holding up his Burgundy against the light and wondering how it was that he could discuss the matter so calmly.

“I have not the slightest idea. If Basil chooses to hide himself, it is no business of mine. If he is dead, I don’t want to think about him. Death is the only thing that ever terrifies me. I hate it.”

With Henry pontificating on the terror of death, and generally distracted by his own musings, Dorian is left to flirt at the very edge of revealing the reality behind Basil’s absence. Only the reader knows, of course, that Dorian has a very good idea of what happened to Basil and why.

Dorian said nothing, but rose from the table, and passing into the next room, sat down to the piano and let his fingers stray across the white and black ivory of the keys. After the coffee had been brought in, he stopped, and looking over at Lord Henry, said, “Harry, did it ever occur to you that Basil was murdered?”

There is almost no more effective way to use dramatic irony to build suspense than to have the murderer discussing the murder with an unsuspecting third party, and Wilde is no stranger to the strategy behind the incredible implementation of suspense. By allowing Dorian to draw ever closer to the truth in his conversation with Henry, Wilde keeps the reader on the edge of their seat and reveals the utter detachment with which Dorian is able to face his predicament.

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Chapter 20
Explanation and Analysis—Dorian's Death:

At the very end of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, as Dorian Gray lies dead on his floor, Oscar Wilde crafts a final moment of irony to close out the story:

When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.

The nature of Dorian's death is a classic example of situational irony. In attempting to destroy the painting, Dorian inadvertently kills himself due to the nature of the pact he made when he desperately wished to stay young forever. The knife that he drove through the painting winds up in Dorian’s own heart, and the painting’s destruction reverses the years of unnatural youthfulness in an instant. The character’s inadvertent suicide at the hands of the very painting that kept him young is a final twist in the story, and certainly the opposite outcome from what Dorian himself would have expected. As a final blow to the character, all the “loathsome” qualities that had appeared in the portrait over the years are finally reflected on Dorian’s actual face.

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