The Colour of Corruption

White is a beautiful colour.

White is a quiet and peaceful expression of childhood – it is pure, innocent, virtuous. White exists as a perfect combination of every colour in the spectrum – it is equal, perfect, whole. White is angelic in its composition – it is divine, ethereal, soulful.

White is a beautiful colour.

White is also the colour of emotionlessness, of emptiness, of falseness. White is the colour of haunting, of fear, of judgement. White is the colour of weak surrenders, of conformity, of deception. We tell little white lies and we cover our skin in white powders and we white-out our mistakes; white is the colour that isn’t really a colour, rather the absence of any colour at all.

White is easily tainted.

White, throughout Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, is the colour ascribed to Dorian himself, the colour that carries him through his transition from virtue to villainy. White images and references can be used to trace Dorian’s fall from grace, and as such its meaning evolves beyond usual connotations of innocence and blankness, changing in relation to Dorian’s character.

White is the colour of his innocence and the colour of his corruption.

Even before Dorian himself can be associated with white, Basil Hallward describes how when he first met the eyes of Dorian Gray, he “felt that [he] was growing pale” (10). Here, it can be seen that the novel’s first reference to the colour white alludes to it being a subtly powerful and quietly forceful colour; white causes Basil to become entranced with Dorian and lose all sense of independence.

Meanwhile, Lord Henry, while listening to Basil speak, is “pulling [a white] daisy to bits with his… fingers” (10). Here, the use of white foreshadows Lord Henry’s role in the degradation of Dorian’s character; just as he tears a white daisy to pieces, he will also play a hand in tarnishing Dorian’s white purity.

Yet as the narrative continues, Dorian himself begins to be characterized by white; he possesses a “rose-white” youth and “the white purity of boyhood” (21), looking as if “he was made out of ivory and rose leaves” (6). Here, classic connotations initially come into play; Dorian’s innocence and beauty are described by the unstained purity of the colour white. Dorian himself is a blank canvas, soon to be painted upon by both sin and immoral guidance. White, therefore, also represents vulnerability – it is the white, pure, and unalloyed quality of Dorian’s nature that attracts Lord Henry’s influence upon the innocent boy in the first place.

As Dorian discovers a love for the naïve and delicate Sybil – who is described as a “pale rose” (73) and who, after kissing Dorian “[shakes] like a white narcissus,” (74) – the innocence of this newfound emotion is also described by references to white. Here, white appears to represent everything good, bright, and beautiful, also expressing the lovely lightness of discovery. Dorian relates Sybil to the colour white so as to elevate her above a dirty, common humanity; in doing so, he gives her an angelic status and worships her divine beauty and perfection.

However, it is here that white also shifts to represent falseness. Dorian thinks of Sybil as a work of art to be appreciated rather than a human being to be loved, and his desire for her – represented in white tones – is only ever temporary and melts away like springtime snow. White begins to suggest distance and emptiness. Though Sybil’s physical beauty is intact, her acting suffers as a result of her love for Dorian, and though “the curves of her throat were the curves of a white lily [and] her hands seemed to be made of cool ivory… she was curiously listless” (80).

The passion for Sybil that he once cherished is quickly replaced by a cold emotionlessness, leading the now “proud, pale, and indifferent” (82) Dorian to reject her. The colour white takes on a new meaning; rather than representing Dorian’s purity, it comes to symbolize his capacity for cool cruelty, thus recalling that white is a powerful colour, which was established at the beginning of the novel.

In the aftermath of Sybil’s death, her body is described as “little” and “white” (103), which emphasizes the weak and empty ruin of her purity. White – so soon after being symbolic of life, love, and vivacity – changes to accommodate symbolism of death.

Like an unwashed shirt, Dorian’s purity easily becomes coloured by the stains of yellow sin from the yellow book and pursuit of yellow euphoria. As Dorian colours himself with a spectrum of sins, he also rejects association with white things. He is careful, when ordering flowers, to request “as few white ones as possible” (163), as if white has come to represent judgement, acting as an unwelcome reminder of what innocence he has lost. Dorian also spurns the prospect of redemption when Basil invokes whiteness after learning of his friend’s tainted purity: “though your sins be scarlet, I will make them white as snow” (149).

As Dorian becomes haunted by James Vane, white continues to represent judgement and the looming threat of death, also becoming the colour of consequence and fear. He sees the James’ face “pressed against the window of the conservatory, like a white handkerchief” (187) which inspires Dorian to grow “pale with terror, [as] the air seemed to him to become suddenly colder” (189). The power of white as a colour now turns against Dorian himself.

Here, at the height of his corruption, when both the symbolism of white and his soul have been tainted by sin, Dorian begins to feel “a wild longing for the unstained purity of his boyhood, [his] rose-white boyhood” (206). But his white soul has been blemished with bloodstains and painted with vices, no longer the light, blank canvas it once was.

After all, white things are easily stained and ever so difficult to clean.

The transformation of white as a symbolic colour throughout the novel mirrors Dorian’s own transformation. Both he and the colour white begin as idyllic, innocent, and beautiful, only to become cold, empty, and threatening. The contrast of white’s symbolic meaning from beginning to end – from purity to corruption – therefore highlights the evolution of Dorian’s soul.

Over the course of the novel, just as the good and beautiful Dorian discovers his own capacity for sin, so does this classically pure and delicate colour discover its own capacity to reflect moral depravity.

White is a beautiful colour – but beautiful as it may be, it is also impressionable and easily tainted.

White is a beautiful colour – but it does not forgive and it does not forget.

White is a beautiful colour – and it will haunt you.



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6 thoughts on “The Colour of Corruption

  1. Dear Ziyana,

    No matter how many times I read your writing, I’m always in awe of your skills as a writer. This blog post was so simple, but so innately eloquent all at once. Your use and placement of visuals was tasteful and minimalistic, which really helped tie the response in a neat bow. I really love the concise, clear-cut nature of this response; it is delicate in its language and powerful in its context, and the balance you displayed in your syntax truly encapsulates the essence of the blog. Never once did you lose sight of the theme; rather, your theme filtered into all aspects of your writing.

    The quotes were wisely selected and improved the flow of your writing greatly, and because of your attention to the theme, you were able to bring out symbols in the novel I had previously missed. I love how you drew in the novel’s first mention of the colour white as a colour of unwitting power, which is such an integral factor of both Dorian’s innocence and his corruption. Your quotes also helped in establishing Dorian’s journey with the colour white- from its power, to its vacancy, to its redemption and revenge. No matter how he wanted to escape the colour, it followed him all throughout his life. Your ability to pick up on subtle cues in the novel is incredibly admirable; I didn’t even realize that Lord Henry was plucking a white daisy, or that Dorian developed an aversion to white. Wow!

    Another aspect I loved was your repetition of the word/colour white. You were incredibly purposeful with your repetition, which added influence and attention to those aspects of your blog, because you were also able to pick up on the white theme played upon all throughout the novel. Your part about Sybil Vane being labelled as otherworldly by Dorian really resonated with me as well; I feel as though that was the moment white became dirty for Dorian.

    The only thing I could possibly suggest is just me being picky. I loved the ending, with your emphasis on the beauty of white. The only thing is, I found the phrase “it will haunt you” just a little bit cliche. However, it’s more of a personal preference. Tthere was also one small grammatical error in the sentence about James Vane. All in all, thank you for gracing me with yet another stunning piece!



    1. Dear Hijab,

      Thank you so much for your comment! You are so graceful in your writing, even in comments, so being given such high praise from someone as brilliant as yourself means a lot. I really appreciate both your compliments and your criticism.
      It’s funny you mention the ending because I was really struggling with writing it. I knew that I wasn’t writing an ending that did justice to the rest of my piece, but I couldn’t think of another way to end it! I tried to make it powerful by playing with the Rule of Three but I guess it didn’t come across as well as I was hoping. Thank you for that feedback, and for your lovely comment as a whole.


  2. Dearest Ziyana,

    I have always admired how you could write so eloquently with such a variety of diction and syntax choices while still relating to the main idea as a whole. As always, your blog is brilliant as it demonstrates the parallelism and symbolism of the colour white in relation to Dorian. I really liked the repetition of the colour white because it tied in nicely to your character analysis of Dorian Gray, and also how you wrote each sentence by itself to reinforce its significance. Your quotes were really smooth in transitions and carefully chosen, which I could say is a big part of your writing style.
    I liked how you added the visuals specifically when you were talking about “rose-white youth”, and “coloured by the stains of yellow sin…” As a more visual person, I always like to see pictures of what you write about so that I can see more into the piece.
    Like Hijab, I didn’t see the relation to Lord Henry picking daisies and the significance of the colour white until you pointed it out! \^_^/
    What also interested me was that you pointed out that white was just the absence of colour – it made me realize that when I think of things as blank, I think of it as white.
    In response to the sentence, “The contrast of white’s symbolic meaning from beginning to end – from purity to corruption…” made me want to ask if you could choose what shade of white would represent sin? I feel as if the corrupt white of sin would be a yellow-white-ish shade in correlation to the “yellow sin from the yellow book.” What shade or stained white would you pick?
    In terms of improvement-same with Hijab- I did find the ending nice to read, but also a bit awkward at the same time…? Maybe you could write it in a way that’s not as broken up into fragments-I think it might be the dashes in the middle?
    Anyways, besides that, I cannot really offer anything else; your piece is beautiful!

    Best wishes,


    1. Dear Kelley –

      Thank you for your comment, it’s good to hear that you liked it! I’m glad that you felt the repetition worked for you; I wanted to be purposeful with it and not overuse it, so it’s good to know that this worked well – thanks!
      I also really appreciate your constructive criticism; as I said above in my reply to Hijab’s comment, I’m aware that I could have made the ending a bit more powerful, and it’s helpful for me to know that this is something worth going back and looking at again.
      Thanks again for your comment!


  3. Zi,

    Just when I begin to think you have outdone yourself, you prove me wrong. Seriously.

    This piece was absolutely brilliant and, as always, your writing has left me in a state of reflection and awe. The idea of using ‘white’ as a repeating theme/symbol throughout your analysis, and using it as a lens through which you did analyze your piece was such a clever idea, and it is something that I never would have thought of. Your ‘full circle effect’ of using the line ‘white is a beautiful colour’ both at the beginning and at the end of your piece was ingenious and incredibly effective in reinforcing the importance of this colour in relation to ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, and in relation to Dorian himself.

    Furthermore, your quotes from the book were chosen exquisitely. They perfectly fit into your analysis and backed up your argumentation about the colour white and the progression of the colour throughout the book very strongly. Your diction, as well was impeccable, with one of my favourite lines being, “Like an unwashed shirt, Dorian’s purity easily becomes coloured by the stains of yellow sin from the yellow book and pursuit of yellow euphoria.” I would never have phrased anything in that manner–and I loved it. The way in which you worded your ideas was perfectly intentional, and that intention carried through to the reader every sentence had a purpose and that made this piece very strong.

    On a slightly different note, I would just like to comment on how much you have grown as a writer and how far you have come since that beginning of AP English in grade 10. You have really refined your writing to a point where it flows brilliantly with enough simplicity in your syntax to balance out the complexity of some of your ideas and word choices. This is such a massive improvement from our first year of AP, and as a result, you and your writing are simply ‘powerhouses’, for lack of a better word. It is just truly, eloquently, impeccable.

    I don’t have anything to offer in terms of improvement. This was just truly such a solid piece.



    1. Hope,

      Aww thank you!! What you said about me growing as a writer between Grade 10 and now really means a lot because I’ve tried to work with all the feedback I’ve been given over the years, trying to improve my writing. It’s good to know that it’s been working! 😉
      Thank you so much for your comment, I’m glad you liked this piece so much. I’m especially glad that you felt my quotes evidence in the piece worked well, because I’ve struggled with precision of evidence in the past.
      Thanks again for the comment, and for your unceasing support when it comes to my writing!


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