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‘Much speech leads inevitably to silence’

Lao Tzu : Tao Te Ching Book 1, V




Pointed anecdote: once Wilde was being interviewed on his way to the railway station. He displayed his usual brilliant wit. But, unfortunately, it was announced that the departure of the train would be delayed. Having exhausted his ostensibly off-the-cuff (though in fact, carefully prepared) bon mots, he dried up completely and could say no more.

Wilde, the playwright, delivered his lines like an actor in one of his plays, but it was a dramatic monologue not true communication. Words served to ward off embarrassing silence. To one who could say ‘I am prepared to prove anything’ (The Decay of Lying) and ‘Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style’ (Ibid), words could have been at best an amusing game. An attitude that surely betrays despair of language.



Lord Henry speaks a bit like Wilde. His is certainly the dominant rhetoric. He speaks the first words in the book (8) and his name is the last word uttered (242). Not content with the words that others use, he even wants to invent his own language, to name things anew like God or Adam (214):

It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things. Names are everything. I never quarrel with actions. My one quarrel is with words. (215)

Lord Henry dominates the speech of others, and they repeatedly refer to his words:

as Henry says… (121)

You remind me of a story Harry told me… (123)

I remember Harry saying once… (169)

he repeated to himself the words that Lord Henry had said to him (204)

Though he uses the phrase ‘Upon my word’ (8, 63), Lord Henry is a liar. As Lady Agatha says : ‘He never means anything that he says’ (47), and Basil corroborates this : ‘You don’t mean a single word of all that’ (86). Lord Henry admits that he lies to his wife: we tell each other the most absurd stories with the most serious faces’ (10). However, (like Cyril in The Decay of Lying) he can rationalize his lying:

The value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it (15)

Truth can never be spoken (Nothing is ever quite true’, 91), only hinted at in paradoxes.

Lord Henry is ‘Prince Paradox’ (215). He sounds like Lao Tzu:

the way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test Reality we must see it on the tight-rope. When the verities become acrobats we can judge them. (48)

To use another circus metaphor, he is a juggler with words.

The book is full of wordplay and playing with words. For instance, even when Dorian Gray is talking seriously, a pun is put into his mouth (‘It sounds vain… Sybil Vane’, 232). For Wilde, words are a game. This idea is actually made explicit:

They passed words to each other as players at a game pass counters (79)

The game-metaphor (juggling again) has been used before in the book:

He played with the idea, and grew wilful; tossed it into the air and transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it… He charmed his listeners out of themselves, and they followed his pipe laughing. (50)

In the playful interchange (pages 215-219), itself an elaborate verbal game, ‘riposte’ (219) a term from fencing is used. Another sporting metaphor applied to speech occurs earlier:

He had merely shot an arrow into the air. Had it hit the mark? (27)

Lord Henry plays cat to Dorian’s mouse:

With his subtle smile, Lord Henry watched him. He knew the precise psychological moment when to say nothing. He felt intensely interested.(27)

There is something of the seductive siren in Lord Henry:

He had such a beautiful voice … musical voice (25)

There is something in his low, languid voice that was absolutely fascinating. (28)

Something similar is said of Sibyl Vane (and her name is obviously significant in this context):

And her voice - I never heard such a voice. It was very low at first, with deep mellow notes, that seemed to fall singly upon one’s ear. Then it became a little louder, and sounded like a flute or a distant hautbois… You know how a voice can stir one. Your voice and the voice of Sibyl Vane are two things that I shall never forget. When I close my eyes, I hear them, and each of them says something different. I don’t know which to follow. (59-60)

There is a suggestion of the Pied Piper (cf ‘they followed his pipe laughing’, 50)

Words affect action. They may lead astray, deprave and corrupt. Dorian is warned:

don’t … pay any attention to what Lord Henry says. He has a very bad influence over all his friends. (24)

If a person is influenced, he becomes ‘an actor of a part that has not been written for him’ (25). This is what happens to Dorian. He even begins to speak like Lord Henry. Basil notices the change in his speech quite early: ‘It was so unlike Dorian to speak like that’ (34).

In the face of Lord Henry’s overwhelming rhetoric, Dorian can only falter:

Stop! … Stop! You bewilder me. I don’t know what to say. There is some answer to you, but I cannot find it. Don’t speak. (26)

The effect of words is made explicit:

The few words that Basil’s friend had said to him – words spoken by chance, no doubt, and with willful paradox in them – had touched some secret chord that he had never been touched before, but that he felt was now vibrating and throbbing to curious pulses.

…Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of a viola or of a lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words? (26)

Lord Henry’s words alter Dorian’s sensibility and stir him into action:

it was through certain magical words of his, musical words said with musical utterance, that Dorian Gray’s soul had turned to this white girl and bowed in worship before her. (67)

Dorian puts Lord Henry’s words into practice:

That is one of your aphorisms. I am putting it into practice, as I do everything that you say. (55)

and this is his undoing. He says to Lord Henry: ‘You cut life to pieces with your epigrams’ (110). However, Dorian, not content to confine his cruelty to cutting words, acts out his sadistic metaphor and actually cuts life to pieces with a knife!

Indulging in wishful thinking, Dorian says:

If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that - I would give everything!... I would give my soul for that! (33)

But his words come true, and the oath is exacted. It would seem to be just as well most words of that kind remain vox et practerea nihil.

Words sometimes have great power. Dorian murders Sibyl with his unkind words:

So I have murdered Sybil Vane, murdered her as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife. (112)

A few words written on a piece of paper have power over Alan Campbell (189). Dorian murders Basil because of his words:

He had said things that were dreadful, horrible, not be endured. (205)

Lord Henry’s rhetoric wipes away Dorian’s doubts, he justifies his cruel actions with plausible words:

You have explained me to myself…I felt all that you have said, but somehow I was afraid of it, and I could not express it to myself. (117)

Unpleasant facts can be glossed over with specious words or simply ignored in conversation:

If one doesn’t talk about a thing, it has never happened. It is simply expression, as Henry says, that gives reality to things. (121)

Therefore, words are subject to censorship:

Don’t talk about horrid subjects (121)

‘Stop Basil! I won’t hear it! You must not tell me about things (122)

mind you don’t talk about anything serious (165)

I must tell them that the subject is tabooed (225)

In the world of Dorian Gray, only appearances matter. So, on the same day as making a body disappear, Dorian can indulge in society talk (194 ff).

But sometimes, words may be seen to be inappropriate:

You can talk to me of other women being charming, and of Patti singing divinely, before the girl you loved has even the quiet of a grave to sleep in. (122)

So, although words may influence action, words may also be ‘separated from action’ (149). The split is particularly pronounced in Lord Henry. Basil observes of him:

You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing (10)

This may amount to hypocrisy:

The rich would have spoken on the value of thrift, and the idle grown eloquent over the dignity of labour. (19)

Yet, paradoxically, it has been seen that putting words into action is not necessarily desirable either!

The life of words and the life of action seldom coincide, the former often being the substitute for the latter:

A great poet... is the most unpoetical of all the creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look… He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize. (65)

It is even suggested that words (like poetry, Auden would have us believe) make nothing happen:

‘I cannot do it,’ he said, mechanically, as though words could alter things (190)

though it is elsewhere explicitly stated that words do alter things. There is more than a hint of paradox here.

Lord Henry speaks with such style and verbal polish that he sounds unspontaneous. It’s as if he delivers carefully rehearsed lines like an actor. Indeed, he consciously performs for an ‘audience’ (50).

The Vane family act like characters in a melodrama:

‘My child! My child! ‘cried Mrs. Vane, looking up to the ceiling in search of an imaginary gallery. (75)

Dorian acts out a scene with his valet (178-9). But, after so much acting, Dorian is no longer taken seriously:

You are not serious… you are acting. (100)

He is taken for an actor, when he is being sincere:

‘ What would you say… if I told you that I murdered Basil?’ ‘I would say…that you were posing for a character that doesn’t suit you’ (235-6)

So much acting and lying makes communication difficult if not impossible. In fact, one could say that failure of communication is the rule rather than the exception. Characters do not listen to each other:

She did not listen (171)

You are not listening to a word I am saying (77)

She seemed not to listen to him (98)

or they cannot understand each other:

He stood there motionless and in wonder, dimly conscious that Hallward was speaking to him, but not catching the meaning of his words. (32)

‘I am sure I never can make out what you are talking about’ (48)

Or they cannot find adequate words:

She could not communicate her joy. (79)

Perhaps one should never put one’s worship into words (130)

Communication is denied:

None of the chaps will speak to me now (207)

Don’t ever talk to me again (209)

Dorian tells Basil: ‘Don’t speak!’ (126) and a little later Basil tells Dorian the same: ‘Don’t speak!’ (128)

Words are devalued by being given perverse definitions:

‘What of Art?’

‘It is a malady.’


‘An illusion.’


‘The fashionable substitute for Belief’ (216)

Lord Henry sounds like Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary:

Experience… was merely the name men gave to their mistakes (68)

Such an assault on language may render it meaningless:

She spoke the words as though they conveyed no meaning to her (96)

Always... is a meaningless word (31)

Dorian is so corrupted that not only his diction but also his understanding of language is affected. When Basil quotes the Bible, Dorian replies:

Those words mean nothing to me now (175)

On one level, language is noise. Sometimes that’s all it is, a meaningless noise (‘drunkards bawled and screamed’, 204), a noise to drown other noises:

If one hears bad music, it is one’s duty to drown it in conversation (54)

Human language is juxtaposed with animal noises:

He repeated her name over and over again. The birds that were singing in the dew-drenched garden seemed to be telling the flower sabout her (105)

as if he had summed up the world on a phrase. There was a rustle of chirruping sparrows. (19)

Sometimes, the two become indistinguishable.

The old gentleman growled approvingly (43)

warbled the Duchess (49)

the parrot-phrase (70)

the low buzz of voices (224)

Lady Brandon has a voice like a peacock’s (13), Sibyl Vane that of ‘nightingales’ (60).

Animal noises are more spontaneous, perhaps even more communicative than words. Intense emotion expresses itself directly and forcefully without words:

A low moan broke from her (100)

A cry of terror broke from Dorian Gray’s lips… (126)

A cry of pain broke from the lad’s lips… (111)

The subsequent verbalization is to no avail. Dorian acknowledges Sibyl Vane’s death with his cry but denies it with his empty words: ‘Sibyl dead! It’s not true! It’s a horrible lie’ (111)

It is significant that Dorian dies with a wordless cry (‘horrible in its agony’, 247) – communication more primal, immediate and sincere than any words. After the inadequacy of trivial chatter and the irresolvability of paradox, Dorian despairs of language and resorts to inarticulate sound:

As he reached the door he hesitated for a moment, as if he had something more to say. Then he sighed and went out. (242)

When word fail, there is silence. The word ‘silence’ and its variants occur again and again (eg 33, 46, 55, 71, 101, 112, 117, 189, 196). Silence, though sometimes pregnant and eloquent, usually suggests a lack or failure of communication. It seems something to be avoided:

Stung by the lad’s silence, not understanding what it meant (33)

an awkward silence (55)

The wordy silence troubled her (71)

The silence… became intolerable to her (73)

terrible silence (189)

But amid so much small talk and society gossip, Mr. Erskine’s ‘bad habits of silence’ seem almost wise:

Mr. Erskine of Treadley, an old gentleman of considerable charm and culture, who had fallen, however, into bad habits of silence, having, as he explained once to Lady Agatha, said everything he had to say before he was thirty. (46)

At least, he avoids empty words. The others go on talking, with nothing to say.

Words are inadequate to convey deep emotion:

She wept silently, and made no answer (101)

Perhaps one should never put one’s worship into words (130)

Basil who repeatedly warns Dorian about his corrupting words, work at his art in silence:

I never talk when I am working, and never listen either. (24)

Dorian was born of silence (his mother stopped speaking to his father, 42; ‘Months of voiceless agony, and then a child born in pain’, 44) and words are to blame for his downfall. In the end, after Dorian’s last word has been said, silence is regained: ‘Everything was still’ (248)



Davy King, 1974


The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in 1890

(All page numbers refer to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray)

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