The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17 & 18


The chapter begins with Dorian and Lord Henry chatting with Gladys, the Duchess of Monmouth, during a party at a conservatory. Many guests are gathered there for an extended visit as guests of Dorian's. The guests discuss names, love, and of course the virtues of beauty. Gladys shows herself to be quite witty, holding her own in a tete-a-tete with Lord Henry. After Henry playfully mentions Dorian's old nickname, Prince Charming, she asks whether Dorian has ever truly been in love. Disturbed by the reminder of his recent confrontation, Dorian excuses himself, saying that he must pick orchids for the duchess.

Dorian takes a long time to return, and as Henry wonders about his whereabouts, a disturbed cry is heard from the other room. Lord Henry rushes to the scene, and finds that Dorian has fainted. Henry insists that he stay in bed and recover, but Dorian doesn't want to be alone. All of the guests assume that he has merely collapsed from exhaustion. Dorian, however, doesn't tell them the real reason for his distress: he fainted upon seeing the face of James Vane, spying on him through the conservatory window.

Dorian spends the next three days inside, "sick with a wild terror of dying, and yet indifferent to life itself." He eventually convinces himself that the face was a hallucination brought on by his conscience as a result of suppressing his guilt for so long. When Dorian finally goes outdoors, he and Lord Henry accompany Sir Geoffrey Clouston, the duchess's brother, on a short hunting excursion. Geoffrey aims at a hare, and Dorian instinctively cries out, urging him not to shoot it. Two screams are heard after the shot is fired: "the cry of a hare in pain, which is dreadful," and "the cry of a man in agony, which is worse." Geoffrey assumes that the man he has shot is a "beater," one of the men employed by the conservatory to drive the game into the open for the hunters.

All hunting is called off for the day, so that the guests don't appear too callous, and Lord Henry informs Geoffrey that the man who has been shot is dead. Later, Henry and Dorian again chat with Gladys. We learn that Geoffrey is upset, but Henry blames the beater for everything and sees no reason for any remorse. He wishes, however, "that he had done the thing on purpose," and proclaims that "I should like to know someone who had committed a real murder." Dorian must excuse himself to lie down.

He lies on a sofa upstairs, terrified, feeling as if the unexpected stranger's death is a sure sign that his own is imminent. He is nearly paralyzed with fear and decides to leave for a doctor, but before he can his valet sends the gamekeeper in. Knowing it must be about the dead beater, Dorian questions whether the victim had had a wife or any dependents, and offers "any sum of money you may think necessary" to provide for their needs. However, the gamekeeper has arrived to inform Dorian that the dead man was not an employee, and that no one has been able to identify him. Dorian frantically rides to the farm house where the body is being kept, and discovers that the dead man is James Vane. He is overjoyed, his eyes "full of tears, for he knew he was safe."


The discussion of names and Henry's comment that "I never quarrel with actions [but] with words" prompt us to consider the significance of names in the novel, and the theme of the power of words. Upon first meeting Lord Henry in chapter 2, and first hearing the man's intoxicatingly sensuous view of the world, Dorian thinks to himself: "Words! Mere words! How terrible they were!...One could not escape from them." It is Henry's conversational acumen that enables him to influence Dorian so profoundly, and it is a book (Henry's gift, which Dorian obsesses over in chapter 11) that Dorian considers to be primarily responsible for his own corruption.

By placing such emphasis on the power of words, written or spoken, Wilde is indirectly commenting on the power of the literary art. Fittingly, Henry follows his earlier comment with the remark, "That is the reason I hate vulgar realism in literature." This comment is not merely an expression of yet another of Henry's distinctive beliefs, but an invitation for the reader to consider the value of the fantastic elements included in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Duchess of Monmouth is one of the few characters in the book who seems capable of holding her own in conversation against Lord Henry's sharp, unorthodox witticisms. When she says to Henry that "You value beauty far too much," she unknowingly hits on the reason for Dorian's guilt. When Dorian leaves to pick flowers, we are reminded of the first chapter, when Henry picked a flower from Basil's garden and slowly pulled it apart, petal by petal. As Henry's earlier action symbolized his role as both an admirer and a destroyer of delicate beauty, Dorian's action reveals that he has now symbolically replaced his mentor in this way as well.

The insensitivity of the party-goers upon hearing that a man has been shot is so extreme that it reads as a parody. Sir Geoffrey's first response upon learning that he has shot a man is annoyance; he says that the event "spoiled my shooting for the day." Lord Henry handles the news with typically superficial concern, saying that hunting must cease for the day because "It would not look well to go on." For all of the seeming profundity of the sayings that Henry spouts in conversation, he proves himself to be, in times of crisis, incapable of viewing the world in terms of anything but appearances. His comments in this chapter remind us of the superficial nature of his comfort to Dorian immediately after Sibyl's death (chapter 8), when he recommended that Dorian not sulk or involve himself with the investigation so as to preserve his reputation.

Dorian himself displays some distress upon hearing of the man's death, but not for humanitarian reasons. He urges Sir Geoffrey not to shoot, but only because the intended target, a rabbit, strikes him as beautiful. Perhaps, since Dorian has felt like a hunted creature ever since his encounter with James Vane outside of the opium den, he sympathizes with the creature. The emotional pain Dorian feels after learning that a man is dead is the consequence of his own self-pity: he considers the event a "bad omen," not a tragedy in its own right. Dorian displays his true insensitivity when his immediate reaction to the news is to reach for his checkbook. He is not compelled to comfort the family of what he assumes to be a dead employee, or even to express his condolences, but rather instinctively attempts to make the problem go away by throwing money at it.

Discovering that the dead man is James Vane causes Dorian to rejoice for several reasons. First and foremost, he no longer has to fear for his life. However, it also means that he was not hallucinating when he saw James's face through the window. Dorian may be cripplingly paranoid, but he is not insane. Finally, since James's appearance was intended to make Dorian pay for his hand in Sibyl's death, now that James is dead, Dorian may once again convince himself that he has escaped unscathed from the sins of his past.