The Immorality of Influence

“Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of some one else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self.” (13)

In this passage, Henry Wotton’s philosophy begins to seduce Dorian Gray, part of Wotton’s ultimate quest to become indispensable to Gray, just as Gray is to Basil Hallward. Wotton eventually seizes Gray’s character and then projects his hedonistic ideals and criticisms of morals and duties onto him, which lead to Gray’s tragic downfall.

Henry Wotton often speaks so profoundly of Hedonism and moral views that his confidence both intimidates and amazes Dorian. It is ironic that Wotton, a man who preaches the immorality of influence and the importance of self-development, becomes the influence from which Gray’s sins are borrowed. But from their first meeting, Wotton saw Gray’s naiveté and sought to take advantage of it and dominate his self-development.

When Wotton and Gray first meet, Gray is praised for his shocking beauty and powerful presence. Hallward is so unwilling to share his muse with the rest of humanity, especially with Wotton, because he is afraid of corruption of his muse, which would result in a loss of inspiration for him. Hallward also criticizes Wotton for his dodgy and radical opinions that make it difficult to infer whether they are his genuine opinions. However, Gray is so enthralled by Wotton’s confidence that he becomes attached to him. But once Gray accepts Wotton’s influence, his sordid evolution begins.

As Wotton dictates an influence on Gray, Gray loses the power over his own thinking and decision-making, a theme also seen in Nora Helmer’s character in A Doll’s House. Both characters are governed by the morals of their caretakers and have their opinions shrouded by the rules their superiors have set forth. However, Gray is stuck in this power dynamic because Wotton attacks his youth, which is Gray’s most valuable quality. Gray is driven into Wotton’s ideals by his fear of not only losing his youth, but his lack of knowledge up to this point in his life. Wotton intimidates Gray so much that he entrusts his life in Wotton, which will eventually lead to his demise.

3 thoughts on “The Immorality of Influence”

  1. When I came across the passage you selected in the book, I also thought of Nora’s character in A Doll’s House. The last line, “they have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty to oneself” parallels Nora’s dramatic decision at the close of the play. Nora and Dorian, despite both being roped into playing a part that they feel is not meant to be their own, come to drastically different ends. Nora frees herself from Torvald’s influence, expressing her “natural thoughts” when she decides to leave him. Dorian on the other hand comes to a much more tragic end. I don’t think he ever manages to free himself from Lord Henry’s influence. What I can’t quite figure out is whether or not Lord Henry means to be such a bad influence on Dorian. He is fascinated by him, as demonstrated by his reaction when they first meet. I wouldn’t say that Lord Henry set out to ruin Dorian’s life or take his youth away, but he does take a certain pleasure in watching Dorian change. Shortly after Lord Henry’s comment posted above, he continues his thought stating “the bravest man among us is afraid of himself” (20). He tells Dorian directly that even he, with his “rose-white boyhood” (21) has had hidden passions, he just has not expressed them. This makes me wonder if Lord Henry’s influence made Dorian Gray who he truly was from the start and that Wotton just gave him the courage to show it. But it wouldn’t be Wilde without a paradox–that paradox being that Lord Henry’s influence alone cannot make Dorian Gray the real Dorian Gray, because as he says, any influence hinders a person’s self-development. I agree with your thoughts in that Lord Henry is responsible for Dorian’s transformation, but I’m not sure quite sure who Dorian actually becomes. Is he an imitation of Lord Henry or has he just found the courage to be himself?

  2. I was really glad that you decided to contrast this passage with the character of Nora from “A Doll’s House” as I also think it’s a very interesting comparison. Dorian Gray seems to be in a position similar to Nora – he’s fulfilling a role portrayed by Lord Henry. From the very beginning, the reader can tell that this is not a healthy relationship between the two men with the influence that Lord Henry has over Gray can at points be hypnotizing almost. This reminds me again of Nora, who seems to almost be under Torvald’s spell; she acts a certain way, talks a certain way, etc. in order to fit this mold he has envisioned of her until the very end. I think the difference here is that she eventually sees through that continuous mold she’s put into and is able to break free from herself and him. Gray, on the other hand, seems very unsure and I don’t think I see him breaking from Lord Henry’s power of influence. Even going into later parts of the book, we see Gray break off an engagement with a woman he claims to love. However, after her poor acting performance, it’s like there was a light switch in him and after being embarrassed in front of Basil and Lord Henry, Gray calls the engagement and any relations with this woman off. Lord Henry was not a fan of the marriage in the first place and it was almost like inadvertently it was his mere presence in the play that caused the sudden change for Gray, just like what he wanted. Nora seems to have a hold on Torvald’s influence over her, which is the difference between her and Gray. Gray doesn’t seem like he at all realizes it and I’m not exactly sure if he ever will.

  3. I have to disagree with your thought process here Emma. While a connection between Dorian and Nora can be made, there situations are very different. In the very beginning of Dorian Gray, a reader could come to realize that Lord Henry is trying to influence Dorian because of he sees how naive Dorian is, but as I continued reading, I found out that it was not the case. Lord Henry is not trying to influence or change Dorian, but is trying to get Dorian to change the way he thinks about himself, which is different from Nora’s situation. I found a passage in chapter 6 that shows a good example of this: Discord is to be forced to be in harmony with others. One’s own life—that is the important thing. As for the lives of one’s neighbours, if one wishes to be a prig or a Puritan, one can flaunt one’s moral views about them, but they are not one’s concern. Besides, Individualism has really the higher aim. Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.” The way in which I am interpreting Lord Henry’s actions are as so: He is trying to have Dorian see himself as someone different from ordinary and change the way he sees himself.

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