SPOLIER: If you haven’t read The Picture of Dorian Gray, the ending might not come as a huge surprise, but it’s worth while read and I would strongly suggest finishing the novel before you read on.
For those those of you who have read the novel the ending could leave you with a lingering question…or two.
What happens might be the first one and maybe an easy one to answer. Assuming you have read the novel you’ll know…
SPOILER (is it safe to say I’ve left enough space for those of you who haven’t read the novel not to accidentally have it spoiled? I hope so):
Dorian attacks the painting that has been bearing the burden of his sins and dies. A pretty easy answer and also the obvious supernatural element.
In destroying the painting, the burden of sin is suddenly thrust back upon Dorian and kills him. The painting then becomes the ideal representation of Dorian Basil initially painted.
But maybe that leaves a more challenging question:
Why does Dorian attack the painting?
Attacking the supernatural object that is allowing you a supernaturally long life seems an odd decision, but it is a decision prompted by a couple of impulses. If we know one thing about Dorian, he is driven by impulses. The painting allow him to do whatever he wants whenever he wants because even if he did confess to the murder of Basil “who would believe him? There was no trace of the murdered man anywhere.” Do you remember the helpful Alan Campbell who Dorian blackmailed to destroy the body?
In a previous chapter, Dorian had an impulse to be good. Instead of corrupting the country girl Hetty Merton. Lord Henry had referred to this as just Dorian searching for a new pleasure. Dorian disagreed and went to look at the painting to see the effect. He isn’t pleased to find “The thin was still loathsome–more loathsome, if possible, than before”. He also sees “in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite”, but Dorian isn’t too bothered. It is only when he starts thinking about pleasure and the past he gets into trouble.
Dorian thinks of the painting, “Once it had given him pleasure to watch it changing and growing old. Of late he had felt no such pleasure.” Hence he is searching for new pleasure (not corrupting Hetty, rather than corrupting everyone he encounters). Now, when Dorian looks at the painting, “Its mere memory had marred many moments of joy”.
Dorian’s impulse for pleasure and reflection on the past provide him with a conflicted perspective that make him look at the painting differently. Having, previously decided that there was no evidence linking him to the death of Basil, he looks at the painting:
“The picture itself–that was evidence. He would destroy it.”
Unfortunately for Dorian, he happens to have the knife he killed Basil with hanging around (evidence of the murder? not really “He had cleaned it many times” and it was the 19th century so no CSI).
Using the knife Dorian is looking to “kill the past” as it had “killed the painter” which would mean “he would be free”. It is the level of freedom he is looking for that is significant. He is looking for the freedom to experience pleasure. Unlike moral readings of Dorian, the painting is destroyed not because he finds it repulsive but because it is stopping him from experiencing new pleasure. Unfortunately, given Dorian’s opportunities he has no pleasures left to experience, which send him a little crazy. Crazy enough to pick up a knife and destroy the single object allowing him to do anything he wants.
At the end of the novel, Dorian is a horrible mess of man after years of corruption are suddenly thrust upon his physical form while the painting remains a “wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty”.