Courtney Ricks
The Pleasure of Destruction
“There were passions in him that would find their terrible outlet, dreams that would make
the shadow of the real evil” (Wilde,115). The author reveals pleasure as the driving force of
many characters within Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, but this search for pleasure
becomes fatal once taken into the hands of Dorian Gray. Throughout the novel Dorian Gray
changes his opinion on pleasure based on what he requires in order to escape reality. With each
death and misdeed he is responsible for; Dorian must search harder for a more drastic form of
release. His path declines from his innocent beginnings with Sybil Vane, to the pleasure he finds
in corrupt relations, and finally his need to escape the reality of killing a former friend. Dorian’s
view on pleasure changes as his soul deteriorates and often what brings him pleasure at first is
later destroyed and he must find another form of enjoyment. He uses obsession and forced
ignorance to try and avoid the reality of his sins but eventually his only way to escape his own
damnation is death. Dorian Gray’s quest for pleasure through sensations and detachment
intensifies as the novel progresses and is the cause of death and destruction of many as Dorian
seeks to find escape from himself and his deeds.
Sibyl Vane was the first causality in Dorian’s search for pleasure and while the situation
started innocently enough, it turned deadly the moment Dorian’s obsession failed to provide the
pleasure Dorian required. While in Lord Henry’s library Dorian reveals that he is in love with
Sibyl Vane after only three weeks of encountering her. “You filled me with a wild desire to
know everything about life…I had a passion for sensations” (Wilde,48). Dorian has just been
awakened to his knew search for pleasure and places his expectations in Sibyl and the idea that
pleasure comes from love and adoration. He admits to Lord Henry that he goes nightly to her
plays but does not truly love Sibyl, he loves the feeling of pleasure he gets from his obsession.
He idolized her and calls her sacred but does not value her as a person. When asked by Harry,
“When is she Sibyl Vane?” Dorian replies, “Never” (Wilde,54). This is the beginnings of
Dorian’s ability to place his own pleasure above others and Dorian has immediately lost himself
in this pleasure. “What there was in it of purely sensuous instinct of boyhood had been
transformed by the workings of the imagination, changed into something that seemed to the lad
himself dangerous. It was the passions about whose origin we deceived ourselves that tyrannized
most strongly over us” (Wilde,58). The danger of Dorian’s blind obsession is shown with
Sibyl’s suicide. His obsession led to the death of one person as well as the first signs of his own
worsening soul. After this experience pleasure is no longer a form of love for Dorian, but rather a
detachment from reality. While talking with Basil over breakfast Dorian shows he does not place
the same value in emotions as he had done before. “A man who is the master of himself can end
a sorrow as easily as he can invent a pleasure. I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I
want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them” (Wilde,105). In contrast to the
emotional obsession with Sibyl, Dorian next becomes obsessed with his portrait and a book.
Both are means to which he can remove himself from the truth of Sibyl’s death of his hand is
Sibyl’s death. “To become the spectator of one’s own life, as Harry says, is to escape the
suffering of life” (Wilde,107).
Dorian becomes a spectator of his own sins as he begins to obsessively keep track of his
changing portrait. His obsession with his portrait is due to the pleasure he feels that it should age
while he will remain forever beautiful and his fascination for the image of his own soul before
him. The portrait offers Dorian a distraction. “He grew more and more enamored 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 moth, wondering sometimes which
were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age” (Wilde,124). This detachment from
reality and need to view his life as an outsider soon backfires on Dorian as loathing takes its
place. With time Dorian soon begins to fear the very portrait he once adored and grows paranoid.
He refuses to allow Basil to view his own work and grows suspicious of his valet. “He hated to
be separated from the picture that was such a part of his life, and was also afraid that during his
absence some one might gain access to the room, in spite of the elaborate bars, that had caused to
be placed on the door” (Wilde,135). This paranoia brought forth by the image of his sins brings
Dorian a step closer to insanity and again he must find pleasure in obsession to escape the proof
of his sins.
Dorian Gray becomes obsessed with a book that parallels his own life, but like all of
Dorian’s other attempts at pleasure, this book becomes poisonous and leads only to despair.
Dorian first believes adoration to be the key to pleasure but this changes after reading the book
lent to him by Lord Henry. “’I didn’t say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great
difference’” (Wilde,122). Dorian’s obsession no longer has innocent intentions but instead he
fully engulfs himself in whatever he wishes and doesn’t think of consequences. “…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” (Wilde,123). He owns several copies of the books and
is fixated on the story for years. “The hero of the wonderful novel that had so influenced his life
had himself known this curious fancy” (Wilde,138). He often imitates the life of the character in
the book, and like the character he lives simply for pleasure now and his own soul worsens as he
goes to new measures in order to find it. “Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book. There were
moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his
conception of the beautiful.” (Wilde,140) He loses his morals and does not care if he is
committing sins as long as it furthers his search for sensations.
As a result of the book, Dorian becomes obsessed with new sensations and experiences
and these indulgences later lead to the destruction of Dorian’s reputation as the underlying threat
of Dorian’s influence becomes known to the upper class people of London. To escape this
constant paranoia brought by his portrait, Dorian consumes his self in life and whatever he finds
of interest. Dorian tries to keep up the pretense of the perfect gentleman by continuing to throw
parties and attend operas. Dorian is thought to be very cosmopolitan and he uses his image and
social rank to study of varying hobbies as well as become influential over other members of
upper class society. The image he tries to convey is constantly changing, however, as he cannot
hold interest in any subject for long and usually leaves a person with a ruined reputation once he
is done with them. “That curiosity about life which Lord Henry had first stirred in him… seemed
to increase with gratification. The more he knew, the more he desire to know. He had mad
hungers that grew more ravenous as he fed them.” (Wilde,124) His role in the eyes of the upper
class society changes when his need for new obsessions changes so rapidly that people begin to
witness the destruction left in the wake of his previous relationships that Dorian once found
pleasure in but felt no guilt in abandoning. “…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
conscious form of obligation or regret, the remembrance even of joy having its bitterness and the
memories of pleasure in their pain” (Wilde,127). Rumors of Dorian begin to spread and previous
friends avoid his company. Basil goes to Dorian’s house to confront him about why his
friendship seems fatal. Young men have committed suicide and several people have been
ostracized by Dorian’s flippant attention. “..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
curiosity, leave them with that curious indifference…” (Wilde,127). Lord Henry is hardly
mentioned in this part of the novel and so it is seen that it is Dorian’s pleasure in his position as a
sophisticated and ideal gentleman and the influence it allows him to have over other people and
his growing obsessions, that results in the loss of the very reputation Dorian sought to build. It is
not Lord Henry’s influence alone that is guiding Dorian’s hand. Pleasure is playing a more vital
role than influence, and it is the pleasure of influence that Dorian has chosen to use as an outlet
to escape paranoia and guilt.
Dorian must escape the realization that he murdered Basil in order to continue living
normally, but fails to be able to find any source of pleasure that would allow him to escape. It is
only death that will set Dorian free. Dorian attempts his old methods of overpowering his guilt
by ignorance and obsession but it doesn’t work this time. “He felt that the secret of the whole
thing was not to realize the situation” (Wilde,152). Ignoring the subject does not make it go
away, however, and when paranoia begins to build Dorian uses his influence over people to
bring Alan Campbell into the situation. The reputation he once had, however, has been destroyed
and Alan can no longer be influenced and must be blackmailed. Dorian continues in society as if
nothing has happened but is not acting himself and slowly going insane. “To cure the soul by
means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul!” (Wilde,176). He tries to turn to opium
for the pleasure of sensations that he valued so much but even this does not help him now.
While going to an opium den to escape his sins, Dorian’s release is again detained by the
appearance of a Adrian Singleton, a man whose reputation Dorian had previously ruined. When
Dorian tries once again to go to another opium den he is encountered by the product of another
obsession gone wrong; Sibyl Vane’s brother. “...forgiveness was impossible, but forgetfulness
was possible still, and he was determined to forget…” (Wilde,176). Dorian wished to find escape
in pleasure but cannot because past pleasures are resurfacing and preventing his denial. In the
crude den he thinks that he will be free within three days. Until then there was always a next
obsession to help Dorian move along but with Basil’s death there was only his own death that
could free him. Dorian desperately tries means of escape from his guilt. “He was prisoned in
thought. Memory, like a horrible malady, was eating his soul away” (Wilde,179). Dorian’s very
attempt to escape the reality of his evil ways has brought an end to Basil and Alan Campbell
alike and he cannot forget this. He is haunted by his own sins and while playing the piano for
Harry he questions his role as a murderer. “A method of procuring sensations? Do you think,
then, that a man who has once committed a murder could possibly do the same crime again?’…
‘Oh! Anything becomes a pleasure if one does it too often’” Wilde, (203). Dorian fears for his
own soul and, wanting some form of escape, seeks to free himself from this life he has created.
He dies trying to continue this process of pleasure, obsession, destruction, and escape.
Therefore, Dorian Gray’s death was brought about solely by his need to use pleasure as a
means to escape his sins and the way these past attempts backfired. It is his indulgence in
pleasure that leads to the death of five people and his indulgence in pleasure that leads to the loss
of his sanity and soul. Dorian tries so hard to ignore the guilt within him that he fails to see the
repeating process he is living. He seeks pleasure, destroys or alienates what gives him pleasure,
becomes guilt ridden and lesser due to his own exploits, and then must find another form of
release to escape his sins. Pleasure plays a vital role in this novel and has more power over
Dorian than his own beauty because pleasure was the basis for each of Dorian’s sins. It is not
Lord Henry’s influence or a narcissistic personality that kills Dorian, but the quest for pleasure,
no matter the consequence, that truly causes the degradation of Dorian’s soul.
Work Cited
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York, New York : Penguin Group, 1985. Print.
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