Swayed by Speeches: The Power of Verbal Manipulation by Bianca Rosetti

Swayed by Speeches: The Power of Verbal Manipulation by Bianca Rosetti

 The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is a story about temptation and desire, told through descriptive imagery and flawless prose. It follows Dorian Gray, whose life is greatly shifted after his first encounter with Lord Henry, who speaks to Dorian of his beauty and how he has to yield to all his desires as time will eventually catch up to him. This speech enamours Dorian and he grows attached to his beauty. Devastated that it will one day fade, and in a desperate attempt to cling to this newfound feature, he begs to switch places with his portrait so that he may remain young while the painting grows old. To Dorian’s surprise, and what he sees as his advantage, this wish seems to come to fruition and the painting begins to decay, acting as a mirror of Dorian’s own sins, while Dorian himself remains untouched by the scars of time. Thus, the story succeeds in highlighting the effects of the Decadent movement on society through its characters and their views of the world, which influence the protagonist of this book to various extents, especially Henry and his infamous controversial speeches. Henry’s use of paradox in these speeches throughout the book demonstrates the power of verbal manipulation in blinding the victim to the reality of the situation.

    Firstly, Henry’s beguiling speech when he first encounters Dorian triggers impulses in him that he has never felt. When Basil and Henry are talking before Dorian’s arrival, we get a sense of the influence Henry has on others based on the concern and worry Basil shows about his friend meeting Dorian. In fact, his concerns prove to be valid, because as soon as Dorian walks in Henry does not hesitate to deliver a magnificently hypnotic speech about the sins of the world, and that “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it” (Wilde 59), rather than letting it poison one with regret once one grows older. Though these ideas seem incompatible when

compared, because when one has a temptation, yielding to it usually only encourages it, Henry’s words and use of speech bring sense to this paradox. Thus, he succeeds in convincing Dorian that he must take advantage of his youth by feeding these temptations, which strikes a chord within him that “he felt was now vibrating and throbbing to curious impulses” (59). Dorian is well aware of the awfulness of Henry’s words, but their careful phrasing and musicality allows them to influence him easily. As made clear in this paragraph, Henry’s controversial views and skewed morality are strategically covered by his beautiful wording crowded with paradox, which successfully allows him to let Dorian realize his beauty is only finite, and that he must yield to his temptations while he still has his youth, blinding Dorian to the reality that not all temptations should be pursued if they are to put others at risk.

    The continued effects of Henry’s speeches are seen once again when Henry aestheticizes Sibyl Vane’s death, quickly changing Dorian’s perspective on the situation to a morally corrupt one. After the painting changes and morphs as a result of Dorian’s cruelty towards Sibyl, who he now views as a ruined artwork he can no longer muse over, he vows to do better. Thus, when he finds out about her death from Henry, a wave of guilt washes over him, but is quickly dried out by Henry’s speech. In fact, Henry romanticizes her death, telling Dorian that “[s]omeone has killed herself for love of [him]” (136), and that because she lived through the art of acting, “the girl never really lived, and so she never really died” (138). The aestheticization of Sibyl’s passing by turning her suicide into the finest of tragedies succeeds in dehumanizing her death. Henry persuades Dorian to mourn her artwork, and rather than grieve the situation, to appreciate the sheer romance of it all. Though death can never be viewed as romantic, Henry’s flowery speech makes it seem as such, and Dorian quickly adopts this controversial view. When discussing her death with Basil later on, he dismisses Basil’s sadness, rephrasing Henry’s speech in only two

sentences: “She lived her finest tragedy. She was always a heroine” (144). Dorian completely forgets the reality of the situation, which is that he has caused a suicide, and it becomes clouded by Henry’s rather aesthetic view of the situation, which completely ruins the moral perspective he had toward her passing in the first place. Henry’s effect with words is thus made extremely clear with how easily he has made a real tragedy into a fictional one.

    In the final chapters, Henry’s influence over Dorian is clearly illustrated when his convincing speech about Dorian’s inability to change leads to Dorian selfishly destroying the painting rather than going through with his newfound goal. After James Vane’s death, Dorian seems to have another change of heart, vowing yet again to be good, and proves his progress by telling Henry of the sacrifice he made by rejecting love for fear of corrupting his lover. However, his progress is swiftly dismissed by Henry, who sees it as a rather poor beginning. “From a moral point of view,” Henry says to Dorian’s claims of goodness, “I cannot say that I think much of your great renunciation” (239). He continues by delivering several speeches, each jumping from one topic to another, all to say that Dorian, who has had his life delivered to him in the most pleasant way, is ultimately unable to change, and should not, for that matter. Henry’s dismissal of Dorian’s attempt at good morals greatly impacts him, because even though the former’s opinion is poisonous, Dorian has come to rely on Henry’s advice because of his manipulative and convincing dialogue. In fact, when Dorian is reflecting on the situation and is deciding on what to do with the painting, he questions whether there is truly any hope for him and whether his good deed had come from good intentions, or as Lord Henry hinted, “the desire for a new sensation” (249). Lord Henry’s words slowly get to him, and instead of pursuing his vow to be good, he selfishly destroys the painting, as it is the last piece of evidence that he was ever morally corrupt in the first place, convinced that change is not a possibility. Henry’s impact is extremely present in this last scene as it shows how powerful his words are, to the point where they begin to dictate Dorian’s own moral decisions even when another option is clearly available.

To conclude, through Henry’s convincing speech at first encounter with Dorian, followed by his aestheticization of Sibyl’s death, and his dismissal of arguments regarding Dorian’s ability to change, readers are able to grasp the impact of mere words when phrased strategically. Thus, Henry’s paradox is essential in demonstrating the power of verbal manipulation in blinding others to the seriousness of a situation and its available alternatives by skewing the victim’s views to that of their manipulator, which can have dire consequences.


Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Broadview Press, 2005.

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