The Picture of Dorian Gray
By Oscar Wilde
For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence
of this book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say
that he never sought to free himself from it.
He procured from Paris no less than nine large-paper copies of
the first edition, and had them bound in different colours,
so that they might suit his various moods and the changing fancies
of a nature over which he seemed, at times, to have almost entirely lost control.
The hero, the wonderful young Parisian in whom the romantic
and the scientific temperaments were so strangely blended,
became to him a kind of prefiguring type of himself.
And, indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story
of his own life, written before he had lived it.
In one point he was more fortunate than the novel's fantastic hero.
He never knew--never, indeed, had any cause to know--that somewhat
grotesque dread of mirrors, and polished metal surfaces, and still
water which came upon the young Parisian so early in his life,
and was occasioned by the sudden decay of a beau that had once,
apparently, been so remarkable.
It was with an almost cruel joy--and perhaps in nearly every joy,
as certainly in every pleasure, cruelty has its place--that he used
to read the latter part of the book, with its really tragic,
if somewhat overemphasized, account of the sorrow and despair of one
who had himself lost what in others, and the world, he had most dearly valued.
For the wonderful beauty that had so fascinated Basil Hallward,
and many others besides him, seemed never to leave him.
Even those who had heard the most evil things against him--
and from time to time strange rumours about his mode of life
crept through London and became the chatter of the clubs--
could not believe anything to his dishonour when they saw him.
He had always the look of one who had kept himself unspotted
from the world. Men who talked grossly became silent when Dorian
Gray entered the room. There was something in the purity of his
face that rebuked them. His mere presence seemed to recall
to them the memory of the innocence that they had tarnished.
They wondered how one so charming and gracefu as he was could
have escaped the stain of an age that was at once sordid
Often, on returning home from one of those mysterious and
prolonged absences that gave rise to such strange conjecture
among those who were his friends, or thought that they were so,
he himself would creep upstairs to the locked room, open the door
with the key that never left him now, and stand, with a mirror,
in front of the portrait that Basil Hallward had painted of him,
looking now at the evil and aging face on the canvas, and now at
the fair young face that laughed back at him from the polished glass.
The very sharpness of the contrast used to quicken his sense
of pleasure. He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty,
more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul.
He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous
and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling
forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes
which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age.
He would place his white hands beside the coarse bloated hands
of the picture, and smile. He mocked the misshapen body and the
There were moments, indeed, at night, when, lying sleepless
in his own delicately scented chamber, or in the sordid
room of the little ill-famed tavern near the docks which,
under an assumed name and in disguise, it was his habit
to frequent, he would think of the ruin he had brought upon
his soul with a pity that was all the more poignant because it
was purely selfish.
But moments such as these were rare. That curiosity about life
which Lord Henry had first stirred in him, as they sat together
in the garden of their friend, seemed to increase with gratification.
The more he knew, the more he desired to know. He had mad hungers
that grew more ravenous as he fed them.
Yet he was not really reckless, at any rate in his relations to society.
Once or twice every month during the winter, and on each Wednesday
evening while the season lasted, he would throw open to the world
his beautiful house and have the most celebrated musicians of the day
to charm his guests with the wonders of their art.
His little dinners, in the settling of which Lord Henry always assisted him,
were noted as much for the careful selection and placing of those invited,
as for the exquisite taste shown in the decoration of the table,
with its subtle symphonic arrangements of exotic flowers,
and embroidered cloths, and antique plate of gold and silver.
Indeed, there were many, especially among the very young men, who saw,
or fancied that they saw, in Dorian Gray the true realization
of a type of which they had often dreamed in Eton or Oxford days,
a type that was to combine something of the real culture of the scholar
with all the grace and distinction and perfect manner of a citizen
of the world.
To them he seemed to be of the company of those whom
Dante describes as having sought to
"make themselves perfect
by the worship of beauty."
, he was one for whom
visible world existed."
And, certainly, to him life itself was the first, the greatest,
of the arts, and for it all the other arts seemed to be but
a preparation. Fashion, by which what is really fantastic
becomes for a moment universal, and dandyism, which, in its
own way, is an attempt to assert the absolute modernity
of beauty, had, of course, their fascination for him.
His mode of dressing, and the particular styles that from time
to time he affected, had their marked influence on the young
exquisites of the Mayfair balls and Pall Mall club windows,
who copied him in everything that he did, and tried to reproduce
the accidental charm of his graceful, though to him only
For, while he was but too ready to accept the position that
was almost immediately offered to him on his coming of age,
and found, indeed, a subtle pleasure in the thought that he might
really become to the London of his own day what to imperial
Neronian Rome the author of the Satyricon once had been, yet in his inmost heart he desired to be something more than a mere
arbiter elegantiarum, to be consulted on the wearing of a jewel,
or the knotting of a necktie, or the conduct of a cane.
He sought to elaborate some new scheme of life that would have
its reasoned philosophy and its ordered principles, and find
in the spiritualizing of the senses its highest realization.
The worship of the senses has often, and with much justice,
been decried, men feeling a natural instinct of terror about
passions and sensations that seem stronger than themselves,
and that they are conscious of sharing with the less highly
organized forms of existence.
But it appeared to Dorian Gray that the true nature of the senses
had never been understood, and that they had remained savage and animal
merely because the world had sought to starve them into submission
or to kill them by pain, instead of aiming at making them elements
of a new spirituality, of which a fine instinct for beauty was
to be the dominant characteristic.
As he looked back upon man moving through history, he was haunted by a
feeling of loss. So much had been surrendered! and to such little purpose!
There had been mad wilful rejections, monstrous forms
of self-torture and self-denial, whose origin was fear
and whose result was a degradation infinitely more terrible
than that fancied degradation from which, in their ignorance,
they had sought to escape;
Nature, in her wonderful irony, driving out the anchorite to
feed with the wild animals of the desert and giving to the hermit
the beasts of the field as his companions.
Yes: there was to be, as Lord Henry had prophesied, a new Hedonism
that was to recreate life and to save it from that harsh uncomely
puritanism that is having, in our own day, its curious revival.
It was to have its service of the intellect, certainly, yet it was
never to accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice
of any mode of passionate experience. Its aim, indeed, was to be
experience itself, and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter
as they might be.
Of the asceticism that deadens the senses, as of the vulgar profligacy
that dulls them, it was to know nothing. But it was to teach man to concentrate
himself upon the moments of a life that is itself but a moment.
There are few of us who have not sometimes wakened before dawn,
either after one of those dreamless nights that make us almost
enamoured of death, or one of those nights of horror and misshapen joy,
when through the chambers of the brain sweep phantoms more terrible
than reality itself, and instinct with that vivid life that lurks
in all grotesques, and that lends to Gothic art its enduring vitality,
this art being, one might fancy, especially the art of those whose
minds have been troubled with the malady of reverie.
Gradually white fingers creep through the curtains, and they appear to tremble.
In black fantastic shapes, dumb shadows crawl into the corners
of the room and crouch there.
Outside, there is the stirring
of birds among the leaves, or the sound of men going forth
to their work, or the sigh and sob of the wind coming down from
the hills and wandering round the silent house, as though it feared
to wake the sleepers and yet must needs call forth sleep from
her purple cave.
Veil after veil of thin dusky gauze is lifted,
and by degrees the forms and colours of things are restored to them,
and we watch the dawn remaking the world in its antique pattern.
The wan mirrors get back their mimic life. The flameless tapers
stand where we had left them, and beside them lies the half-cut book
that we had been studying, or the wired flower that we had worn at
the ball, or the letter that we had been afraid to read, or that we
had read too often. Nothing seems to us changed. Out of the unreal
shadows of the night comes back the real life that we had known.
We have to resume it where we had left off, and there steals over us
a terrible sense of the necessity for the continuance of energy
in the same wearisome round of stereotyped habits, or a wild longing,
it may be, that our eyelids might open some morning upon a world
that had been refashioned anew in the darkness for our pleasure, a world in which things would have fresh shapes and colours,
and be changed, or have other secrets, a world in which the past
would have little or no place, or survive, at any rate,
in no conscious form of obligation or regret, the remembrance
even of joy having its bitterness and the memories of pleasure
It was the creation of such worlds as these that seemed to Dorian
Gray to be the true object, or amongst the true objects, of life;
and in his search for sensations that would be at once new and delightful,
and possess that element of strangeness that is so essential to romance, he would often adopt certain modes of thought that he knew to be really
alien to his nature, abandon himself to their subtle influences,
and then, having, as it were, caught their colour and satisfied his
intellectual curiosity, leave them with that curious indifference
that is not incompatible with a real ardour of temperament, and that,
indeed, according to certain modern psychologists, is often a condition
It was rumoured of him once that he was about to join the Roman
Catholic communion, and certainly the Roman ritual had always
a great attraction for him.
The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices
of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection
of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of
its elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolize.
He loved to kneel down on the cold marble pavement and watch the priest,
in his stiff flowered dalmatic, slowly and with white hands moving
aside the veil of the tabernacle, or raising aloft the jewelled,
lantern-shaped monstrance with that pallid wafer that at times,
one would fain think, is indeed the "panis caelestis," the bread
of angels, or, robed in the garments of the Passion of Christ, breaking the Host into the chalice and smiting his breast for his sins.
The fuming censers that the grave boys, in their lace and scarlet,
tossed into the air like great gilt flowers had their subtle
fascination for him. As he passed out, he used to look with wonder
at the black confessionals and long to sit in the dim shadow of one
of them and listen to men and women whispering through the worn
grating the true story of their lives.
But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development
by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house
in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of a night,
or for a few hours of a night in which there are no stars and the moon is
Mysticism, with its marvellous power of making common things
strange to us, and the subtle antinomianism that always seems to accompany it,
moved him for a season; and for a season he inclined to the materialistic
doctrines of the Darwinismus movement in Germany, and found a curious pleasure
in tracing the thoughts and passions of men to some pearly cell in the brain,
or some white nerve in the body, delighting in the conception of the absolute
dependence of the spirit on certain physical conditions, morbid or healthy,
normal or diseased. Yet, as has been said of him before, no theory of life
seemed to him to be of any importance compared with life itself.
He felt keenly conscious of how barren all intellectual speculation
is when separated from action and experiment. He knew that the senses,
no less than the soul, have their spiritual mysteries to reveal.
And so he would now study perfumes and the secrets of their manufacture,
distilling heavily scented oils and burning odorous gums from the East.
He saw that there was no mood of the mind that had not its counterpart
in the sensuous life, and set himself to discover their true relations,
wondering what there was in frankincense that made one mystical,
and in ambergris that stirred one's passions, and in violets that woke the memory of dead romances, and in musk that troubled the brain,
and in champak that stained the imagination; and seeking often to elaborate
a real psychology of perfumes, and to estimate the several influences
of sweet-smelling roots and scented, pollen-laden flowers; of aromatic balms
and of dark and fragrant woods; of spikenard, that sickens; of hovenia,
that makes men mad; and of aloes, that are said to be able to expel melancholy
from the soul.
At another time he devoted himself entirely to music, and in a long
latticed room, with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green
lacquer, he used to give curious concerts in which mad gypsies tore wild
music from little zithers, or grave, yellow-shawled Tunisians plucked
at the strained strings of monstrous lutes, while grinning Negroes
beat monotonously upon copper drums and, crouching upon scarlet mats, slim turbaned Indians blew through long pipes of reed or brass and charmed--
or feigned to charm--great hooded snakes and horrible horned adders.
The harsh intervals and shrill discords of barbaric music stirred
him at times when Schubert's grace, and Chopin's beautiful sorrows,
and the mighty harmonies of Beethoven himself, fell unheeded on his ear.
He collected together from all parts of the world the strangest instruments
that could be found, either in the tombs of dead nations or among the few
savage tribes that have survived contact with Western civilizations,
and loved to touch and try them. He had the mysterious juruparis of the Rio
Negro Indians, that women are not allowed to look at and that even youths
may not see till they have been subjected to fasting and scourging, and the earthen jars of the Peruvians that have the shrill cries of birds,
and flutes of human bones such as Alfonso de Ovalle heard in Chile,
and the sonorous green jaspers that are found near Cuzco and give forth
a note of singular sweetness.
He had painted gourds filled with pebbles
that rattled when they were shaken; the long clarin of the Mexicans,
into which the performer does not blow, but through which he inhales
the air; the harsh ture of the Amazon tribes, that is sounded by
the sentinels who sit all day long in high trees, and can be heard,
it is said, at a distance of three leagues; the teponaztli, that has two vibrating tongues of wood and is beaten with sticks that are
smeared with an elastic gum obtained from the milky juice of plants;
the yotl-bells of the Aztecs, that are hung in clusters like grapes;
and a huge cylindrical drum, covered with the skins of great serpents,
like the one that Bernal Diaz saw when he went with Cortes into the Mexican
temple, and of whose doleful sound he has left us so vivid a description.
The fantastic character of these instruments fascinated him, and he felt
a curious delight in the thought that art, like Nature, has her monsters,
things of bestial shape and with hideous voices. Yet, after some time,
he wearied of them, and would sit in his box at the opera, either alone
or with Lord Henry, listening in rapt pleasure to Tannhauser; and seeing
in the prelude to that great work of art a presentation of the tragedy of
his own soul.
On one occasion he took up the study of jewels, and appeared
at a costume ball as Anne de Joyeuse, Admiral of France,
in a dress covered with five hundred and sixty pearls.
This taste enthralled him for years, and, indeed, may be said
never to have left him. He would often spend a whole day
settling and resettling in their cases the various stones that be
had collected, such as the olive-green chrysoberyl that turns red
by lamplight, the cymophane with its wirelike line of silver, the pistachio-coloured peridot, rose-pink and wine-yellow topazes,
carbuncles of fiery scarlet with tremulous, four-rayed stars,
flame-red cinnamon-stones, orange and violet spinels,
and amethysts with their alternate layers of ruby and sapphire.
He loved the red gold of the sunstone, and the moonstone's
pearly whiteness, and the broken rainbow of the milky opal.
He procured from Amsterdam three emeralds of extraordinary size and
richness of colour, and had a turquoise de la vieille roche that was
the envy of all the connoisseurs.
He discovered wonderful stories, also, about jewels.
In Alphonso's Clericalis Disciplina a serpent was mentioned with
eyes of real jacinth, and in the romantic history of Alexander,
the Conqueror of Emathia was said to have found in the vale of Jordan
"with collars of real emeralds growing on their backs."
There was a gem in the brain of the dragon, Philostratus told us,
"by the exhibition of golden letters and a scarlet robe"
the monster could be thrown into a magical sleep and slain.
According to the great alchemist
, Pierre de Boniface
, the diamond
rendered a man invisible, and the agate of India
made him eloquent.
The cornelian appeased anger, and the hyacinth provoked sleep,
and the amethyst drove away the fumes of wine. The garnet cast
out demons, and the hydropicus deprived the moon of her colour.
The selenite waxed and waned with the moon, and the meloceus,
that discovers thieves, could be affected only by the blood of kids.
Leonardus Camillus had seen a white stone taken from the brain of a newly
killed toad, that was a certain antidote against poison. The bezoar,
that was found in the heart of the Arabian deer, was a charm that could
cure the plague. In the nests of Arabian birds was the aspilates,
that, according to Democritus, kept the wearer from any danger
The King of Ceilan rode through his city with a large ruby in his hand,
as the ceremony of his coronation. The gates of the palace of John
the Priest were
"made of sardius, with the horn of the horned
snake inwrought, so that no man might bring poison within."
Over the gable were
"two golden apples, in which were two carbuncles,"
so that the gold might shine by day and the carbuncles by night.
In Lodge's strange romance A Margarite of America
, it was stated
that in the chamber of the queen one could behold
"all the chaste
ladies of the world, inchased out of silver, looking through fair
mirrours of chrysolites, carbuncles, sapphires, and greene emeraults."
Marco Polo had seen the inhabitants of Zipangu place rose-coloured
pearls in the mouths of the dead. A sea-monster had been
enamoured of the pearl that the diver brought to King Perozes,
and had slain the thief, and mourned for seven moons over its loss.
When the Huns lured the king into the great pit, he flung it away --
Procopius tells the story--nor was it ever found again,
though the Emperor Anastasius offered five hundred-weight of gold
pieces for it. The King of Malabar had shown to a certain Venetian
a rosary of three hundred and four pearls, one for every god that
When the Duke de Valentinois, son of Alexander VI, visited Louis XII
of France, his horse was loaded with gold leaves, according to Brantome,
and his cap had double rows of rubies that threw out a great light.
Charles of England had ridden in stirrups hung with four hundred and
twenty-one diamonds. Richard II had a coat, valued at thirty thousand marks,
which was covered with balas rubies.
Hall described Henry VIII,
on his way to the Tower previous to his coronation, as wearing
jacket of raised gold, the placard embroidered with diamonds and other
rich stones, and a great bauderike about his neck of large balasses."
The favourites of James I wore ear-rings of emeralds set in gold
Edward II gave to Piers Gaveston a suit of red-gold armour studded
with jacinths, a collar of gold roses set with turquoise-stones, and a
skull-cap parseme with pearls.
Henry II wore jewelled gloves reaching
to the elbow, and had a hawk-glove sewn with twelve rubies and fifty-two
great orients. The ducal hat of Charles the Rash, the last Duke
of Burgundy of his race, was hung with pear-shaped pearls and studded
How exquisite life had once been! How gorgeous in its pomp and decoration!
Even to read of the luxury of the dead was wonderful.
Then he turned his attention to embroideries and to the tapestries
that performed the office of frescoes in the chill rooms of
the northern nations of Europe. As he investigated the subject--
and he always had an extraordinary faculty of becoming absolutely
absorbed for the moment in whatever he took up--he was almost
saddened by the reflection of the ruin that time brought on
beautiful and wonderful things.
He, at any rate, had escaped that.
Summer followed summer, and the yellow jonquils bloomed and died
many times, and nights of horror repeated the story of their shame,
but he was unchanged. No winter marred his face or stained his
flowerlike bloom. How different it was with material things!
Where had they passed to? Where was the great crocus-coloured robe,
on which the gods fought against the giants, that had been worked
by brown girls for the pleasure of Athena? Where the huge
velarium that Nero had stretched across the Colosseum at Rome,
that Titan sail of purple on which was represented the starry sky,
and Apollo driving a chariot drawn by white, gilt-reined steeds?
He longed to see the curious table-napkins wrought for the Priest
of the Sun, on which were displayed all the dainties and viands that
could be wanted for a feast; the mortuary cloth of King Chilperic,
with its three hundred golden bees; the fantastic robes that excited
the indignation of the Bishop of Pontus and were figured with
"lions, panthers, bears, dogs, forests, rocks, hunters--all, in fact,
that a painter can copy from nature"; and the coat that Charles
of Orleans once wore, on the sleeves of which were embroidered
the verses of a song beginning
"Madame, je suis tout joyeux,"
the musical accompaniment of the words being wrought in gold thread,
and each note, of square shape in those days, formed with four pearls.
He read of the room that was prepared at the palace at Rheims for
the use of Queen Joan of Burgundy and was decorated with
hundred and twenty-one parrots, made in broidery, and blazoned
with the king's arms, and five hundred and sixty-one butterflies,
whose wings were similarly ornamented with the arms of the queen,
the whole worked in gold."
Catherine de Medicis had a mourning-bed
made for her of black velvet powdered with crescents and suns.
Its curtains were of damask, with leafy wreaths and garlands,
figured upon a gold and silver ground, and fringed along the edges
with broideries of pearls, and it stood in a room hung with rows
of the queen's devices in cut black velvet upon cloth of silver.
Louis XIV had gold embroidered caryatides fifteen feet high
in his apartment. The state bed of Sobieski, King of Poland,
was made of Smyrna gold brocade embroidered in turquoises with verses
from the Koran. Its supports were of silver gilt, beautifully chased,
and profusely set with enamelled and jewelled medallions.
It had been taken from the Turkish camp before Vienna, and the
standard of Mohammed had stood beneath the tremulous gilt of its
And so, for a whole year, he sought to accumulate the most exquisite
specimens that he could find of textile and embroidered work,
getting the dainty Delhi muslins, finely wrought with gold-thread palmates
and stitched over with iridescent beetles' wings; the Dacca gauzes,
that from their transparency are known in the East as "woven air,"
and "running water," and "evening dew"; strange figured cloths from Java; elaborate yellow Chinese hangings; books bound in tawny satins or fair blue
silks and wrought with fleurs-de-lis, birds and images; veils of lacis
worked in Hungary point; Sicilian brocades and stiff Spanish velvets;
Georgian work, with its gilt coins, and Japanese Foukousas, with their
green-toned golds and their marvellously plumaged birds.
He had a special passion, also, for ecclesiastical vestments,
as indeed he had for everything connected with the service
of the Church. In the long cedar chests that lined the west
gallery of his house,
he had stored away many rare and beautiful
specimens of what is really the raiment of the Bride of Christ,
who must wear purple and jewels and fine linen that she may
hide the pallid macerated body that is worn by the suffering
that she seeks for and wounded by self-inflicted pain.
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