The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary and Analysis - Writing Explained (2023)

Dorian Gray Introduction

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel written by Oscar Wilde and published in 1890. Having been no stranger to scandal in his personal life, Wilde’s novel brought the philosophy of aestheticism to the public eye.

Dorian Gray is in part gothic fiction, but it is also a comedy of errors, following a young and attractive socialite as he trades his soul for eternal youth and beauty. His descent into sin and hedonism lead him to question where one finds the real source of beauty in life.

Dorian Gray Literary Elements

The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary and Analysis - Writing Explained (1)Author: Oscar Wilde

Type of Work: Novel

Genres: Gothic; comedy of manners

Published Date: 1890

Setting: Late nineteenth century in London, England.

Main Characters: Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton, Sibyl Vane

Protagonist: Dorian Gray

Antagonist: Dorian Gray; James Vane

Major Thematic Elements: Art’s purpose; youth and beauty as vehicles of influence; superficiality of society; the dangers of social influence

Motifs: The picture of Dorian Gray; white colors; homoerotic relationships

Exposition: Celebrated artist Basil Hallward meets Dorian Gray and, enthralled by his beauty, asks Dorian to sit as a model for his paintings.

Plot: chronological, through the eyes of an anonymous third person omniscient narrator

Major Symbols: Opium dens, James Vane, the yellow book

Climax: Dorian kills Basil

Literary Significance of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary and Analysis - Writing Explained (2)When The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890, it was criticized for being immoral and full of scandal. Oscar Wilde defended his novel, explaining in an added preface that he subscribes to a philosophy of aestheticism. He explained that art possesses the value of beauty which is all that it has to do. He explains that art need not make any social or political commentary—it must simply be beautiful.

At this point in Victorian England, this sort of attitude towards art was unusual and somewhat revolutionary. Until this point, art was expected to uphold and reinforce morals and so stripping art of that responsibility was bold and uncomfortable. In many ways, aestheticism failed to really uphold its core purpose because it did influence a social and artistic movement.

One of the reasons why The Picture of Dorian Gray is so widely studied to this day is because it brings this puzzling aspect of aestheticism to light. The novel is partly gothic fiction, partly a comedy of manners, and partly a philosophical engagement. The is much to be picked apart from this novel and just as Victorian audiences felt confused, many literary scholars still find areas to continue to disagree about in terms of deeper meaning.

The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary

The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary and Analysis - Writing Explained (3)The novel opens in the luxurious London home of celebrated artist, Basil Hallward. He shows his latest painting to his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, who presses Basil to show his fine work off. Basil says that he cannot do that because he put too much of himself into that particular portrait. Basil reveals that the portrait is of a young man named Dorian Gray, whose beauty he admires so much that he credits it to having brought him out of an artistic crisis. Dorian arrives at the party, where at this point, everyone is eager to meet him.

In chapter two, Dorian woos the guests of the party with his charm and beauty. Dorian is going to sit for another portrait for Basil and he invites Lord Henry to stay and keep him company while he models. Basil dislikes the idea, saying that Lord Henry will be a bad influence on him. While Dorian models and Basil paints, the three discuss their personal philosophies. After the portrait is finished, Lord Henry admires it, but Dorian feels sad looking at it, suddenly aware that his youth and beauty will not last forever.

In chapter three, Lord Henry does some sleuthing into Dorian’s background. He finds out that the young man has an unhappy past, coming from a family with a troublesome social background. Lord Henry realizes that he could probably have great influence over Dorian because of this. The two go on to develop a friendship and when, weeks later, Dorian falls in love with a beautiful young woman, he is eager to tell Lord Henry all about it. The young lady is named Sibyl Vane and she is an actress who does Shakespeare plays. Dorian and Sibyl waste no time before getting engaged.

As Sibyl continues her acting career, she finds that her acting is terrible now that she is in love. She feels that pretend emotions are no longer interesting to her now that she has the real thing. Despite her acting career taking a hit, she is still happy. Dorian is appalled and no longer feels that he is in love with Sibyl. Distressed, Dorian wanders the streets of London alone. At this point in chapter seven, Dorian returns home to find that the portrait that Basil painted of him has developed a faint sneer. Dorian feels ashamed of himself and goes to bed with plans to make amends with Sibyl the next day.

The next morning, Dorian finds that the face in the painting has started to look even crueler than before. Lord Henry arrives and informs Dorian that Sibyl committed suicide after Dorian left her the previous night. Dorian resolves to live a life of hedonistic values and that he will maintain his youth and beauty while his portrait bears the marks of age and experience instead. Basil is hurt to find that this change has come over Dorian and blames Lord Henry’s influence. Basil requests to show the portrait at an art show, but Dorian refuses to allow it, instead keeping it hidden for himself behind a screen. In chapter ten, Dorian’s madness starts to really show. He has some men help him move the portrait into an abandoned school room near his apartment so that it can be kept away from prying eyes.

As years pass, Dorian maintains his youth and beauty as he falls more and more down a rabbit hole of hedonism. Rumors develop that he engages in sinful and dark behaviors and has made a pact with the devil. In chapter eleven, Dorian notices with delight the growing contradiction between his dark and corrupted soul and his youthful and innocent appearance. Dorian becomes paranoid that someone will find and steal his portrait.

Chapter twelve sees Dorian about to turn 38. While he is out the evening before his birthday, he passes Basil on the street. Basil follows Dorian home and confronts him about his behaviors, warning him that nobody can escape their sins. Basil asks Dorian about the rumors that trail him and why all of his relationships end in disaster. It is revealed that one young man who Dorian befriended committed suicide and others had their entire careers ruined. Basil laments that he wishes he could see Dorian’s soul, which amuses Dorian. He takes Basil to the painting to show him how he has maintained his beauty. Basil begs Dorian to pray for forgiveness but instead Dorian murders Basil by stabbing him repeatedly.

Overwhelmed, Dorian begins to seek out solace in opium dens. He knows that he cannot be forgiven for his sins, so he opts to forget them instead. In chapter sixteen, James Vane, Sibyl’s brother, has tracked Dorian down and threatens him at gunpoint. Dorian tricks James into thinking that he is not the right person, since it has been eighteen years since Sibyl’s death, but Dorian is clearly not old enough to have been responsible all those years ago. James lets Dorian leave but soon discovers that he had the responsible person all along.

Over the next couple of chapters, Dorian falls more and more paranoid and miserable. Terrified that James will catch up with him and kill him, Dorian can hardly leave his house. When he finally does, he feels that he sees bad omens and realizes that he has lost any ability to love. He wishes that he could feel anything.

In chapter nineteen, Dorian has finally had enough. He wants to try and find a way to live a life of virtue. He tells Lord Henry that he murdered Basil, but Lord Henry laughs and says that Dorian is not a vulgar enough person to have committed a murder. Finally, utterly lost and feeling trapped by a life of sin, in the final chapter of the book, Dorian takes a knife to the painting. When noises are heard by servants, they enter the room finding the portrait showing a young a beautiful Dorian and an old, ugly man on the floor with a knife through his heart.



The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary and Analysis - Writing Explained? ›

It tells the story of Dorian Gray, a wealthy young Englishman who prizes his looks and his youth above all else. The basic plot of the novel is as follows: Dorian has his portrait painted as a young man. The portrait takes on Dorian's sins and his signs of aging.

What is The Picture of Dorian Gray about easy summary? ›

1-Sentence-Summary: The Picture of Dorian Gray tells the story of a young, beautiful man who trades his soul for eternal youth, then descends further and further into a moral abyss — until he discovers there is, after all, a price to pay for his actions.

What is the main message of The Picture of Dorian Gray? ›

Wilde himself admits, in a letter to the St. James's Gazette, that Dorian Gray “is a story with a moral. And the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment” (Wilde 248).

What is the literary analysis of Dorian Gray? ›

Dorian Gray is in part gothic fiction, but it is also a comedy of errors, following a young and attractive socialite as he trades his soul for eternal youth and beauty. His descent into sin and hedonism lead him to question where one finds the real source of beauty in life.

Is The Picture of Dorian Gray analysis? ›

The Picture of Dorian Gray has been analysed as an example of the Gothic horror novel, as a variation on the theme of the 'double', and as a narrative embodying some of the key aspects of late nineteenth-century aestheticism and decadence.

Why does Dorian stab the painting? ›

The portrait reflects this hypocrisy and drives him to his final, desperate act. He decides it is better to destroy the last evidence of his sin—the painting of his soul—than face up to his own depravity. The depravity he seeks to destroy is, in essence, himself; therefore, by killing it, he kills himself.

What is Dorian Gray syndrome? ›

Dorian Gray syndrome (DGS) denotes a cultural and societal phenomenon characterized by a man's extreme pride in his personal appearance and the fitness of his physique, which is accompanied by difficulties in coping with the requirements of psychological maturation and with the aging of his body.

Why was Dorian jealous of the picture? ›

Dorian explains to Basil and Lord Henry why his portrait upsets him. His immediate reaction to the portrait was to admire it. However, after recalling Lord Henry's warning that he would not always have his looks and youth, this admiration was replaced with anger and jealousy.

Does Dorian kiss Basil in the book? ›

In one of their decadent parties, the two men descend into a room, and, in the middle of a conversation, Dorian kisses Basil to “fully express” his “gratitude” for painting him. He then pushes Basil downward into a submissive position to assert his authority before going down and presumably having sex with him.

What is the main conflict in The Picture of Dorian Gray? ›

Major conflict Dorian Gray, having promised his soul in order to live a life of perpetual youth, must try to reconcile himself to the bodily decay and dissipation that are recorded in his portrait.

Why does Dorian Gray hate the painting? ›

Dorian often associates his portrait with death. The more he thinks about the portrait changing as he ages, the more concerned he becomes about his own mortality. Rejecting the inevitable connection between his youth and eventual death, Dorian refuses to have anyone look at the painting.

What does the ending of Dorian Gray mean? ›

Ever since he made that fateful plea to switch places with the painting, Dorian remained young and impervious to sin while the painting harbored his true soul, paying gravely in appearance for his atrocities. As such, upon killing himself, his evil soul no longer weighed on the painting and it was absolved of his sins.

Why is a picture of Dorian Gray important to read? ›

Why do they recommend it? This book is a fascinating look at how cruelty can turn you ugly on the inside. It was scandalous at the time of its publication in 1890, because it is very clear that the male character Basil is romantically in love with the man he is painting, the title character Dorian Gray.

Why was The Picture of Dorian Gray banned? ›

Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was never banned. In its first publication in 1890, however, the editor of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine edited out more than five hundred words out of the original manuscript without the author's knowledge - for fear of offending the sensibilities of the British book reviewers.

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