Is it possible to sin without consequences?
While reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, a question arose in my mind: Had it been another in Dorian’s shoes, perhaps Lord Henry, would he have been doomed to the same emotional anguish and eventual demise? Why exactly did Dorian face the horrible consequences of his sin? Both James Vane and Basil Hallward, his only sources of moral reckoning, were dead. Why, then, could he not continue relishing in his decadent lifestyle?
It is because, despite seemingly having every chance to escape repercussion, he had two weakness: a guilty conscience and a fear of facing consequences. In a relentless sinner, these are tragic flaws.
In chapter two, Lord Henry utters the enticing words, “We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. . . . Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.”
According to Lord Henry, the sins one commits exist only because of the lie that they are, in fact, sins. With such logic, the only reason an action seems “monstrous and unlawful” is because of arbitrary laws – the real monsters. It follows that, sins being imaginary, the “sinner” should face no real consequences for an imagined sin. In fact, Lord Henry claims that sinning is beneficial, “an act of purification”, rather than something deserving of punishment.
It is easy to understand why Lord Henry so quickly intoxicates Dorian with his words. Denying oneself of something desired seems excruciating, even masochistic at times. With the logic expressed in the above quote, the solution seems simple – relent to desire, relieve your pain with sin, be done with it. However, it is never that simple. Like the opium that becomes symbolic of Dorian’s sins, sinning itself is addictive. It is never enough to sin once, especially when there are no immediate personal consequences. Through his portrait, Dorian had seemingly found a way to sin unscathed. However, considering the outcome of his lascivious lifestyle, it is clear he did not escape consequences. Why?
Each time Dorian was confronted with a reckoning for his actions, he managed to temporarily escape. However, his escapism was simply prolonging the inevitable for, in the end, one can not escape a working conscience. In chapter thirteen, Basil meets with Dorian’s soul and, horrified, begs him to repent, saying, “ Pray Dorian…lead us not into temptation. Forgive our sins, Wash away our iniquities.” These words cause Dorian to feel like “ a hunted animal”. In a rush of defensive fury, Dorian kills basil, in effect silencing his conscience, and, as a result, feels “strangely calm”. He soon becomes intensely troubled by his actions that night, displaying classic signs of a conscience plagued by guilt. Dorian, although guilty, feels no remorse, for he has never experienced the consequences of his sins. However, when confronted with such consequences, he becomes frightened, for his conscience tells him he deserves them.
Extreme selfishness, such as Dorian’s, can allow a person to distance himself from a sin, for he does not contemplate its effect on others. This creates the impression that one has no responsibility for what happens to other people – a soothing thought to a guilty mind. However, no matter how far one hurls a sin away from himself, it is always painfully visible to the conscience. When James Vane, a symbolic manifestation of Dorian’s conscience comes to avenge his sister’s death, Dorian finally brushes shoulders with the consequences of his first sin. Although he cleverly escapes, he is continually plagued by fear until, through a stroke of luck, James Vane is killed. Overjoyed, Dorian feels he has somehow escaped the jaws of fate. That is, until he is confronted with the terrible reality of his soul, and the idea that he will never be anything but the monstrous creature he has become. This is especially cruel. Being tortured by one’s conscience is awful enough, but most individuals know they can silence it simply by showing genuine remorse. However, Lord Henry convinces Dorian that his desire for a clean slate is nothing by an unconscious continuation of his selfish desire for new sensations. This would mean that there is no hope for Dorian’s soul; the only future is one of internal conflict and despair momentarily masked by empty pleasure.
Due to Lord Henry’s comments, Dorian comes to believe that he can not escape the degradation of his soul. One with a normal upbringing knows that every action has consequences, some more severe than others. Most people have faced repercussions their whole life and know how to cope with them; they know life goes on beyond the initial shame and pain. Such person knows they can change through hard work and time. However, having never faced consequences, Dorian habitually looks for the easy path to salvation. Once again, he attempts to escape his nagging conscience, only to discover that one can not do such a thing without working through consequences. He does not know that it is possible to completely change one’s soul, for he never has learned to try.
A troubled conscience can be a merciless traitor within oneself. For Dorian, his inability to ignore his conscience is his downfall. As acid slowly eats through flesh, a guilty conscience will continue to slowly destroy a person, despite attempts to ignore it. This constant reminder of mistakes weakens one’s resolve to maintain a sinful course. In the end, the conscience is part of a person and can not be completely destroyed without destroying the person as a whole. This is why, when Dorian does eventually face consequences for his sins, they prove fatal. Therefore, it is never possible to escape sin’s eventualities, though these consequences are far less drastic to those who are able to confront them.