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The Picture of Dorian Gray
KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
The novel is set in London at the end of the nineteenth century;
one chapter is set at Dorian Gray’s country estate, Selby Royal.
Basil Hallward – the artist who paints the portrait of Dorian Gray.
He is so enamored of Dorian Gray that he feels himself dominated
by Dorian. His art changes when he paints Dorian Gray. He is
eventually murdered by Dorian Gray when he tries to urge Dorian
to reform himself.
Lord Henry Wotton – the aristocrat who corrupts Dorian Gray
with his ideas that morality is hypocrisy used to cover people’s
inadequacies. He decides early on that he wants to dominate
Dorian Gray – the object of fascination for everyone. He is the
most beautiful man anyone has ever seen. He prays that he should
change places with a portrait painted of him when he is quite
young. He prays that he will stay young forever and the portrait
will show signs of age and decadence. His prayer comes true and
he remains beautiful even while being corrupt.
Dorian Gray, a man who is jolted out of oblivion at the beginning
of the novel and made aware of the idea that his youth and beauty
are his greatest gifts and that they will soon vanish with age.
Lord Henry Wotton, the bored aristocrat who tells Dorian Gray
that he is extraordinarily beautiful. He decides to dominate Dorian
and proceeds to strip him of all his conventional illusions. He
succeeds in making Dorian live his life for art and forget moral
A secondary antagonist is age. Dorian Gray runs from the ugliness
of age throughout his life. He runs from it, but he is also fascinated
with it, obsessively coming back again and again to look at the
signs of age in the portrait.
The climax follows Sibyl Vane’s horrible performance on stage
when Dorian Gray tells her he has fallen out of love with her
because she has made something ugly. Here, Dorian rejects love
for the ideal of beauty. The next morning, he changes his mind and
writes an impassioned letter of apology, but too late; Sibyl has
Dorian Gray becomes mired in the immorality of his existence. He
places no limit on his search for pleasure. He ruins people’s lives
without qualm. His portrait shows the ugliness of his sins, but his
own body doesn’t. His attempts at reform fail. He even kills a
messenger of reform–Basil Hallward. Finally, he kills himself as
he attempts to “kill” the portrait. He dies the ugly, old man and the
portrait returns to the vision of his beautiful youth.
The novel opens in Basil Hallward’s studio. He is discussing his
recent portrait of Dorian Gray with his patron Lord Henry Wotton.
He tells Lord Henry that he has begun a new mode of painting
after his contact with Dorian Gray, a young man of extraordinary
beauty. He doesn’t want to introduce Lord Henry to Dorian
because he doesn’t want Lord Henry to corrupt the young man. He
says he is so taken with Dorian Gray that he feels the young man
dominates all his thoughts. When Lord Henry meets Dorian Gray,
he finds him to be totally un-self-conscious about his beauty. Lord
Henry talks to Dorian Gray of his philosophy of life. Lord Henry
finds all of society’s conventions from fidelity in marriage to
charity toward the poor to be hypocritical covers for people’s
selfish motives. Dorian Gray feels the weight of Lord Henry’s
influence on his character. When they see the finished portrait of
Dorian that Basil has painted, they are enthralled by the beauty that
Basil has captured. Dorian bemoans the inevitable loss of his
youth. He wishes that he could change places with the painting,
that it could grow old and he could stay the same.
Lord Henry decides to dominate Dorian Gray just has Basil has
told him Dorian Gray dominates him. They have dinner at Lord
Gray’s Aunt Agatha’s house. She is a philanthropist and Dorian
has been working with her. Lord Gray wittily ridicules the goals of
philanthropy and Dorian is swept away by his logic.
Weeks later, Dorian tells Basil Hallward and Lord Henry that he
has fallen in love with a young actress named Sibyl Vane, who acts
in a run-down theater. He tells them he is engaged to Sibyl Vane.
At the Vanes’ house, Sibyl tells her mother of how much she is in
love with her young admirer, whose name she doesn’t know, but
whom she calls Prince Charming. Mrs. Vane thinks her daughter
might be able to get money out of the aristocratic young man.
Sibyl’s brother James, on the other hand, hates the idea of a rich
man using and then leaving his sister. It is James’s last night on
shore before he ships off as a sailor. Before he goes, he vows to
kill the man if he ever hurts Sibyl. He learns from his mother that
his and Sibyl’s father was an aristocrat who vowed to take care of
the family financially, but died before he could.
Dorian arranges a dinner with Basil and Lord Henry, after which
they will go to the theater to see Sibyl Vane act. He tells the other
men how amazed he has been by Sibyl’s acting talent. When they
arrive at the theater and the play begins, they are all appalled at
Sibyl’s horrible acting. The two other men try to console Dorian
Gray, telling him it doesn’t matter if a wife is a good actor or not.
He tells them to leave and he stays on in torment through the rest
of the play. When the play is over, he goes back stage to talk to
Sibyl. She tells him she doesn’t care that her acting was so bad.
She says she realizes that she can no longer act because she is in
love with him. Before, she could act because she had no other
world besides the created world of the stage. Dorian tells her he is
ashamed of her and disappointed in her. He tells her he only fell in
love with her because of her artful acting. Now he feels nothing for
her. Sibyl begs him not to leave her, but he refuses to listen and
The main theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the relationship
between beauty and morality. Oscar Wilde plays on the
Renaissance idea of the correspondence between the physical and
spiritual realms: beautiful people are moral people; ugly people are
immoral people. His twist on this theme is in his use of the magical
contrivance of the portrait. The portrait of Dorian Gray bears all
the ugliness and age of sin while Dorian himself remains young
and beautiful no matter what he does. The portrait even holds
Dorian’s guilty conscience, at least until he kills Basil Hallward.
The minor theme of the novel is the idea of the amorality of art. If
something is beautiful, it is not confined to the realm of morality
and immorality. It exists on its own merits. This idea is expressed
by Lord Henry in its decadent aspect and by Basil Hallward in its
idealistic aspect. Dorian Gray plays it out in his life.
The mood of the novel is a counterbalance between the witty,
ironical world view of Lord Henry and the earnest and
straightforward world view of Basil Hallward. Dorian Gray goes
back and forth between these two poles. The novel does too. At
times, it is the world of urbane wit making light of the moral
earnestness of philanthropists. At times, it is the melodramatic
world of lurid opium dens and tortured suicides.
Basil Hallward: Basil Hallward is perhaps an old-fashioned
representative of the aesthetic movement. He lives his life artfully,
making a mystery when there is usually predictability, for instance,
in his habit of taking trips without ever telling people where he’s
going. He dedicates his life to art and, when he sees Dorian Gray,
decides to found a new school of art, one devoted to the youthful
beauty of his subject. His home is filled with beautiful things. He
has clearly devoted his life to the pursuit of the aesthetic as a way
He is an old-fashioned aesthete in the sense that he is willing to
give up art for the sake of moral responsibility. When he sees
Dorian has become upset over the portrait he paints of the boy, he
is willing to destroy the painting. This is a painting he has just said
is the best work of his artistic career. Basil Hallward is the only
one in Dorian Gray’s life who beseeches him to reform himself. In
this respect, Basil Hallward is the moral center of the novel. The
novel opens with him and the plot action sees a sharp downward
turn when he is murdered. Basil Hallward play a small role in the
novel, only appearing at three points in Dorian Gray’s life, but his
influence is great.
Lord Henry Wotten: Lord Henry is the radical aesthete. He lives
out all of the precepts of the aesthetic movement as outlined in the
Preface to the novel. He refuses to recognize any moral standard
whatsoever. He spends his time among aristocrats whom he
ridicules in such a witty fashion that he makes them like him.
When the novel opens, he and his opposite in aestheticism are
discussing the protagonist, Dorian Gray. Basil Hallward earnestly
enjoins Lord Henry to leave Dorian Gray alone, not to interfere
with him, not to exert his influence on the youth. Lord Henry
ignores Basil’s plea entirely. He never has a qualm about doing
just the opposite of what Basil begged him to do. He immediately
begins to exert his influence on the beautiful Dorian Gray, an
opposite influence to that which Basil Hallward would wish for.
He makes Dorian Gray self-aware, self-conscious, and even self-
involved. He gives Dorian Gray an inward focus and ridicules
Dorian’s attempts to find an outward focus in philanthropy. He
takes Dorian Gray around to all the fashionable salons and drawing
rooms of the London aristocracy showing him off, encouraging
him in his self-gratifying pursuits.
When Dorian Gray attempts to reform himself at the end of the
novel, Lord Henry remains true to his long-established purpose. He
ridicules Dorian’s attempts to deny his gratification for a greater
good and thus makes Dorian feel it is futile to attempt to reform.
At the beginning of the novel, Basil Hallward scoffs at Lord
Henry’s amoral aphorisms, saying that Lord Henry always says
bad things but never does anything bad. Basil Hallward feels that
Lord Henry’s amorality is just a pose. By the end of the novel,
when Lord Henry takes Dorian’s last chance of reform away from
him, the reader might assume that Basil Hallward was wrong. Lord
Henry is immoral in his supposed amorality.
PLOT: Oscar Wilde plots The Picture of Dorian Gray on a model
of descent. Dorian Gray begins at the height of his beauty and
innocence. Basil Hallward is also at the height of his artistry at the
opening of the novel. The novel is the inexorable downward slide
of the protagonist, however secret that downward slide is. When
Basil Hallward recognizes the depths to which Dorian Gray has
sunk, he attempts to pull him out of it and is killed for the attempt.
When Dorian Gray attempts to bring himself back into moral
rectitude, he fails.
The secondary plot structure of the novel is the triangular
relationship among Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry.
In the first few chapters f the novel, Wilde sets up the triangle.
Basil Hallward is enraptured with Dorian Gray’s beauty. Dorian
Gray doesn’t yet recognize the power this gives him. He doesn’t
even recognize the power of his beauty. Then comes Lord Henry,
the man who brings Dorian Gray into self-consciousness and pulls
him away from the influence of Basil Hallward. Basil Hallward
dies trying to bring Dorian Gray back under his influence. The
novel ends with Dorian making a last, pitiful attempt to convince
Lord Henry to release him from his influence.
When Dorian Gray attempts to destroy the portrait, he is trying to
destroy the link between art and morality, the link which Lord
Henry has forever denied. The attempt kills him. Oscar Wilde
suggests that there is a vital link after all between the beautiful and
Under debate in The Picture of Dorian Gray from beginning to end
is the relationship between beauty and morality. Oscar Wilde sets
up the triangular relationship along the lines of this debate. Basil
Hallward takes the position that life is to be lived in the pursuit of
the beautiful and the pleasurable, but he is unwilling to divorce the
good from the beautiful. Lord Henry, on the other hand, goes
through life throwing one aphorism after another together to prove
the non-existence or the hypocrisy of morality. In the character of
Dorian Gray and in his relationship to the his magical portrait,
Oscar Wilde dramatizes this debate.
In the Renaissance, people believed in the idea of correspondences.
They saw correspondences between the heavens and the earth.
When something went wrong on the social scale, they looked to
the skies for similar upsets. In the literature of the Renaissance,
storms always accompany social upheaval. In like manner, there
was seen to be a correspondence between beauty and virtue. If a
person was beautiful, it was assumed that she or he was also
virtuous. If a person was ugly, it was a assumed this person was
corrupt. The face told the story of the soul.
Oscar Wilde takes this Renaissance idea of correspondences and
sees how it works in the world of the aesthetes. The aesthetes of
the 1890s were intent on developing a positive philosophy of art.
Art was not the classical notion of a mirror held up to life. Art was
to be regarded as autonomous. In its own right, it was to be
celebrated. It was no longer to be subordinated to life as a mirror is
subordinate to the object mirrored. If a comparison was granted, art
was superior to life. It was timeless, unchanging, and perfect.
In detaching art from its representational function, the aesthetes
were also detaching it from its moral aim. Victorian writers had
long held art up as valuable for its ability to instruct and correct its
readers. The aesthetes wanted no moral task assigned to art. Art
existed for its own sake, not as moral instruction, and not as a
mirror held up to life. Aesthetes might have overstated the point. In
the Preface to Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde sounded the keynote of
the aesthetic movement when he wrote “There is no such thing as a
moral or an immoral book” and added, “No artist has ethical
sympathies.” Ironically, his novel is just that. It is a moral book.
Wilde uses the magical contrivance of the portrait as a way to play
on the themes of art in life, life as art, and the amorality of art. For
the aesthetes, if something is beautiful, it is not confined to the
realm of morality and immorality. It exists on its own merits. This
idea is expressed by Lord Henry in its decadent aspect and by Basil
Hallward in its idealistic aspect. For Lord Henry, there is no moral
imperative. The true lover of beauty is safe to pursue art and
pleasure and should think of conventional morality as the enemy of
beauty. For Basil Hallward, the beauty should be pursued because
it idealizes the viewer. It makes the world a better place. The world
is made morally good when it enjoys the beauty of art.
Dorian Gray is the beautiful one who plays out the ideal of art in
his life. For Basil Hallward, he is the one who can make his
contemporaries better people. For Lord Henry, he should pursue
pleasure and beauty for no end other than self-gratification. Dorian
follows the way of Lord Henry. Oscar Wilde keeps in the forefront
of the novel the ideal which Basil Hallward sets up with the use of
the portrait. The portrait of Dorian Gray bears all the ugliness and
age of sin while Dorian himself remains young and beautiful no
matter what he does. The portrait even holds Dorian’s guilty
conscience, at least until he kills Basil Hallward.
Art bears the sins of the age. The portrait of Dorian Gray bears all
the traces of his sins. It loses its innocent look and begins to look
contemptuous and then downright vicious. Dorian Gray, on the
other hand, retains the innocent look of youth and so people have a
great deal of difficulty believing the stories about his bad habits.
Dorian Gray’s portrait even bears the weight of his guiltiness.
Since he doesn’t have to pay for his sins in the loss of his looks, it
is easier for him to leave them behind and never repent of them.
When he is confronted by Basil Hallward, he is confronted by his
creator. Without Basil’s portrait of him, Dorian would have had a
very different life. He kills Basil when Basil begs him to reform.
Dorian hates the creator, the one who enabled him to sin as he has
in the first place, and so he kills him. After Basil’s death, though,
Dorian cannot go on as he did before. Without his creator, he loses
his ability to leave all his sins to mark the portrait. He gets nervous
and edgy. Vengeance comes out of his past in the form of James
Vane and stalks him. When he is let off the hook by James’s
accidental death, he doesn’t feel relief. He attempts to go Basil’s
way after all, but it is too late. He has no moral grounding to
support moral choices. The only end possible for him is to kill the
art that has poisoned his life. In doing so, he kills himself.
Oscar Wilde ended up writing a moral book after all. The novel
shows the lesson that has been told over and over in story after
story. Guilt will always out. There is no escape from a guilty
conscience. All crime must be paid for.
In a richly decorated studio an artist, Basil Hallward talks with a
guest, Lord Henry Wotton about a new portrait he has standing
out. Lord Henry exclaims that it is the best of Hallward’s work and
that he should show it at Grosvenor. Hallward remarks that he
doesn’t plan to show it at all. Lord Henry can’t imagine why an
artist wouldn’t want to show his work. Hallward explains that he
has put too much of himself in it to show it to the public. Lord
Henry can’t understand this since Hallward isn’t a beautiful man
while the subject of the portrait is extraordinarily beautiful. As he
is explaining himself, he mentions the subject’s name–Dorian
Gray. He regrets having slipped, saying that when he likes people,
he never tells their names because it feels to him as if he’s giving
them away to strangers.
Lord Henry compares this idea to his marriage, saying that “the
one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception
absolutely necessary for both parties.” He adds that he and his wife
never know where the other is and that she’s always a better liar
than he is, but that she just laughs at him when he slips. Basil
Hallward is impatient with Lord Henry for this revelation, accusing
Lord Henry of posing. He adds that Lord Henry never says
anything moral and never does anything immoral. Lord Henry tells
him that being natural is the worst of the poses.
Hallward returns to the idea of the portrait. He explains that “every
portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the
sitter.” The sitter only occasions the production of the art. The
painter is revealed, not the sitter. He won’t, therefore, show the
secret of his soul to the public.
He tells the story of how he met Dorian Gray. He went to a “crush”
put on by Lady Brandon. While he was walking around the room,
he saw Dorian Gray, “someone whose mere personality was so
fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb by whole
nature, my whole soul, my very art itself.” He was afraid of such
an influence, so he avoided meeting the man he saw. He tried to
leave and Lady Brandon caught him and took him around the room
introducing him to her guests. He had recently shown a piece that
created a sensation, so his cultural capital was quite high at the
time. After numerous introductions, he came upon Dorian Gray.
Lady Brandon says she didn’t know what Mr. Gray did, perhaps
nothing, perhaps he played the piano or the violin. The two men
laughed at her and became friends with each other at once.
He tells Lord Henry that soon he painted Dorian Gray’s portrait.
Now, Dorian Gray is all of Hallward’s art. He explains that in art,
there are two epochal events possible: one is the introduction of a
new medium for art, like the oil painting, the second is the
appearance of a new personality for art. Dorian Gray is the latter.
Even when he’s not painting Dorian Gray, he is influenced by him
to paint extraordinarily different creations. It is like a new school
of art emerging. Dorian Gray is his motive in art.
As he is explaining the art, he mentions that he has never told
Dorian Gray how important he is. He won’t show his Dorian Gray-
inspired art because he fears that the public would recognize his
bared soul. Lord Henry notes that bared souls are quite popular
these days in fiction. Hallward hates this trend, saying that the
artist should create beautiful things, and should put nothing of his
own life into them. Dorian Gray is often quite charming to Basil,
but sometimes he seems to take delight in hurting Basil. Basil feels
at such moments that he has given his soul to someone shallow and
cruel enough to treat it as a flower to ornament his lapel. Lord
Henry predicts that Basil will tire of Dorian sooner than Dorian
will tire of him. Basil refuses to believe this. He says as long as he
lives, Dorian Gray will dominate his life.
Lord Henry suddenly remembers that he has heard Dorian Gray’s
name. His aunt, Lady Agatha, has mentioned him in relation to
some philanthropic work she does, saying he was going to help her
in the East End. Suddenly, Dorian Gray is announced. Basil
Hallward asks his servant to have Mr. Gray wait a moment. He
tells Lord Henry not to exert any influence on Dorian Gray
because he depends completely on Dorian remaining uncorrupted.
Lord Henry scoffs at the idea as nonsense.
Chapter 1 sets the tone of the novel. It is witty, urbane, and ironic
with only brief moments of deep feeling expressed and then wittily
submerged. The artist of the novel is Basil Hallward. He seems to
be in love with his most recent model, Dorian Gray, whom he
considers more than a beautiful man, but an inspiration to a new
form in his art. The intensity of his feelings for Dorian Gray and
the art that Dorian Gray inspires has to do with his sense of
identity. He doesn’t want his portrait of Dorian to be shown in
public because he feels as if he’s put something essential of
himself in it. That is the seed of the novel. The artist paints himself
when he seems to be painting another.
Lord Henry is here for ironic relief and the production of
aphorisms (short statements of truth) that irony spawns. He voices
Oscar Wilde’s signature expressions. He says, for instance, “It is
only the intellectually lost who ever argue.” One of the most often
quoted of his aphorisms: “there is only one thing in the world
worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
He thinks of the luncheon he missed in lingering with Hallward. It
had a philanthropic motive, upper class people gathering to discuss
ways to share a bit with poor people, the idle people discussing the
dignity of labor, the rich people discussing the value of saving
money. Basil Hallward also has his own aphoristic rules of life. He
never tells people where he’s going when he travels as a way to
keep mystery in his life. He never introduces people he likes to
other people because he feels it would be like giving them away.
When they walk from the studio into the house, they see Dorian
Gray at the piano. He tells Basil that he’s tired of sitting for his
portrait. Then he sees Lord Henry and is embarrassed. Basil tries to
get Lord Henry to leave, but Dorian asks him to stay and talk to
him while he sits for the portrait. He adds that Basil never talks or
listens as he paints. Lord Henry agrees to stay.
discuss Dorian’s work in philanthropy. Lord Henry thinks
he’s too charming to do that kind of thing. Dorian wonders if Lord
Henry will be a bad influence on him as Basil thinks he will be.
Lord Henry thinks all influence is corrupting since the person
influenced no longer thinks with her or his own thoughts. He
thinks the “aim of life is self development.” He doesn’t like
philanthropy because it makes people neglect themselves. They
clothe poor people and let their own souls starve. Only fear
governs society, according to Lord Henry. Terror of God is the
secret of religion and terror of society is the basis of morals. If
people would live their lives fully, giving form to every feeling and
expression to every thought, the world would be enlivened by a
fresh impulse of joy. He urges Dorian not to run from his youthful
Dorian becomes upset and asks him to stop talking so he can deal
with all that he has said. He stands still for ten minutes. He realizes
he is being influenced strongly. He suddenly understands things he
has always wondered about. Lord Henry watches him fascinated.
He remembers when he was sixteen he read a book and was
immensely influenced. He wonders if Dorian Gray is being
influenced that way by his random words. Hallward paints
furiously. Dorian asks for a break. Basil apologizes for making him
stand so long. He is excited about the portrait he’s painting, and
praises Dorian for standing so perfectly still as to let him get at the
effect he had wanted. He says he hasn’t heard the conversation, but
he hopes Dorian won’t listen to anything Lord Henry tells him.
Lord Henry and Dorian go out into the garden while Basil works
on the background of the portrait in the studio. Dorian buries his
face in a flower. Lord Henry tells him he is doing just as he should
since the senses are the only way to cure the soul. They begin to
stroll and Dorian Gray clearly looks upset. He’s afraid of Lord
Henry’s influence. Lord Henry urges him to come and sit in the
shade to avoid getting a sunburn and ruining his beauty. Dorian
wonders why it’s important. Lord Henry tells him it matters more
than anything else since his youth is his greatest gift and that it will
leave him soon. As they sit down, he implores Dorian to enjoy his
youth while he can. He shouldn’t give his life to the “ignorant, the
common, and the vulgar.” He thinks the age needs a new
Hedonism (pursuit of pleasure as the greatest goal in life). Dorian
Gray could be its visible symbol.
Dorian Gray listens intently. Suddenly, Basil comes out to get
them. He says he’s ready to resume the portrait. Inside, Lord Henry
sits down and watches Basil paint. After only a quarter of an hour,
Basil says the painting is complete. Lord Henry proclaims it his
finest work and offers to buy it. Basil says it’s Dorian’s painting.
When Dorian looks at it, he realizes he is beautiful as Lord Henry
has been telling him. He hadn’t taken it seriously before. Now he
knows what Lord Henry has meant by youth being so short-lived.
He realizes the painting will always be beautiful and he will not.
He wishes it were reversed. He accuses Basil of liking his art
works better than his friends. Basil is shocked at this change in
Dorian. He tells him his friendship means more to him than
anything. Dorian is so upset that he says he’ll kill himself the
moment he realizes he’s growing old. Basil turns to Lord Henry
and says it’s his fault. Then he realizes he is arguing with his two
best friends and says he’ll destroy the painting to stop the
argument. Dorian pulls the knife away from him to stop him. He
tells Basil he’s in love with the portrait and thinks of it as part of
The butler brings tea and the men sit down to drink it. Lord Henry
proposes they go to the theater that night. Basil refuses the
invitation, but Dorian agrees to go. When they get up to go, Basil
asks Lord Henry to remember what he asked him in the studio
before they went in to see Dorian. Lord Henry shrugs and says he
doesn’t even trust himself, so Basil shouldn’t try to trust him
Beauty lives only for a moment. The theme of this chapter is also one of the central themes of the novel. Dorian Gray is introduced
as an un-self-conscious beauty. In the course of this chapter, he is
made self-aware. He recognizes his beauty when he sees it
represented in Basil Hallward’s portrait. He is prepared for this
recognition by Lord Henry who, in the garden, urges him to spend
his youth on youthful pursuits, not on philanthropy, and warns him
that his youth is his best gift and that it won’t last. All of Basil
Hallward’s fears of Lord Henry corrupting Dorian Gray seem to
have been borne out.
It is 12:30 in the afternoon and Lord Henry Wotton is walking to
his uncle’s house. Lord Fermor had in his youth been secretary to
his father, an ambassador to Madrid. When his father didn’t get the
ambassadorship of Paris, he quit in a huff and Lord Fermor quit
with him. From them on Lord Fermor had spent his life devoted
“to the serious study of the great aristocratic art of doing absolutely
nothing.” He pays some attention to the coal mines in the Midland
counties, “excusing himself from the taint of industry on the
ground that the one advant
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