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The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was initially published in 1890 in the American literary periodical Lippincott's Monthly Magazine to a scandalous and controversial reception due to its themes of immorality and allusions to homosexuality. In 1891, the novel was edited and republished with the addition of a preface in which Wilde responds to critics, defending his art and his reputation.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was initially published in 1890 in the American literary periodical Lippincott's Monthly Magazine to a scandalous and controversial reception due to its themes of immorality and allusions to homosexuality. In 1891, the novel was edited and republished with the addition of a preface in which Wilde responds to critics, defending his art and his reputation.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: main idea

Let's dive deeper into this alluring cautionary tale about the dangers of vanity, narcissism, and the pursuit of pleasure at the expense of one's own moral and spiritual well-being.

Overview: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Author of The Picture of Dorian GrayOscar Wilde
GenreGothic fiction
Literary PeriodVictorian, Aestheticism
First published1890
Brief summary of The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • The story follows the life of a young man named Dorian Gray, who has his portrait painted by a talented artist named Basil Hallward.
  • Dorian becomes enamoured with his own beauty and wishes that he could remain young and handsome forever, while his portrait would age in his place.
List of main charactersDorian Gray, Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton
ThemesThe purpose of art, beauty, youth, narcissism, homosexuality, and the corrupting influence of hedonism.
SettingLate nineteenth-century London.
AnalysisThe novel explores the power of art and the relationship between the artist and the subject. The portrait of Dorian Gray serves as a symbol of his inner corruption and moral decay, and the painting becomes more grotesque and distorted as Dorian's character becomes more corrupted.

The author of The Picture of Dorian Gray

The author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde was in London at the time of writing the novel. Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1854, Wilde studied at Trinity College in Dublin and later at Magdalen College in Oxford, where he became known for his wit and flamboyant personality.

After graduating, he moved to Victorian London and became a prominent figure in the city's literary and cultural scene. The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde's only novel and is considered a classic of Gothic literature. The novel was initially published as a serial in a magazine, but Wilde later revised and expanded the novel for publication as a book.

Wilde's personal life was also controversial, and he was famously put on trial and imprisoned for homosexuality in 1895, shortly after the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The trial and subsequent imprisonment had a profound impact on Wilde's life and career, and he died in exile in Paris in 1900.

The Victorian Era encompassed the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) and was characterized by a stuffy and prudish approach to life and art. Hard work, religion, and self-improvement were emphasized as Victorian virtues. The social order was based on a rigorous class system, with a small class of wealthy aristocrats and gentry representing the morally superior upper crust.

The Picture of Dorian Gray Analysis StudySmarterFig. 1 - In the Victorian household, traditional family values dominated all aspects of life.

In Victorian households, men were expected to be unquestioned leaders, while women were limited to the role of subservient followers. The belief in these traditional roles also informed the legal system, as women were not eligible to vote, and homosexuality was classified as a criminal act. In 1895, Oscar Wilde received two years of hard labour for an act of 'gross indecency.'

Many great works of art faced repression and censorship due to Victorian society’s stifling moral code.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: summary

The novel commences in the artist Basil Hallward's studio. He discusses his most recent painting with his witty friend Lord Henry Wotton. Henry insists that the painting should be displayed. However, Basil is worried that his obsession with the subject is too apparent. The portrait is of Dorian Gray, a young man with extraordinary beauty. He arrives later and joins the conversation.

Dorian becomes fascinated with Lord Henry's hedonistic and amoral beliefs, especially when discussing youth and beauty's fleeting nature. Young and impressionable, Dorian subsequently wishes on his soul that the portrait should become old and ugly in his place. Basil then gives him the portrait.

In the following weeks, Dorian indulges in Lord Henry's "new hedonism," wherein he pledges to live his life fully in the pursuit of pleasure. He tells of a young actress he has fallen in love with, Sybil Vane, because of her incredible acting talent and convinces Basil and Henry to go to a seedy theatre to watch her perform in Romeo and Juliet. However, overcome by her love for Dorian, Sybil performs poorly.

Embarrassed by this, Dorian cruelly breaks off their engagement and returns home to see the portrait changed: it now possesses a cruel expression. After seeing this change in the portrait, Dorian resolves to seek Sybil's forgiveness the next day. However, Lord Henry arrives with news of her suicide. Lord Henry convinces Dorian that he should not feel guilty. Sybil's death was a tragedy comparable to the various Shakespearean heroines she played on stage; Dorian eventually agrees. He then hides the portrait in the attic of his house so that no one can witness its transformation.

Henry sends Dorian a book about the hedonistic exploits of a young Frenchman. Dorian soon becomes obsessed with it. Under its influence for the next 18 years, Dorian devotes his life to the pursuit of excess and corruption with no acknowledgement of the consequences of his actions. He soon becomes more drawn to evil, which is reflected in the portrait: it shows signs of ageing in horrifying ways. However, Dorian himself remains unblemished. Rumours about his exploits spread in London society, and Dorian's reputation suffers greatly.

”He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul.”

Dorian runs into Basil one foggy night, who confronts him about these rumours. Dorian refuses to accept blame and takes Basil to his attic to show him the portrait, which has become hideous. Basil is horrified and begs Dorian to repent; however, Dorian soon becomes enraged and stabs Basil in a fit of anger. The following day, Dorian blackmails a former friend, a doctor, to dispose of the body.

The night after Basil's murder, Dorian goes to an opium den where a vengeful James Vane, Sybil's brother, attempts to take Doran's life, but he manages to escape. Dorian is wracked with fear and retreats to his country home, where he hosts a hunting party for various guests, including Lord Henry.

James Vane follows him there but is killed by the hunting party. Feeling safe again, Dorian decides to repent for his life of sin. He returns to his home in London to see if there is any change in the portrait, but it remains horrifying and has now acquired a look of cunning. In a rage, Dorian stabs the painting. His servants hear a scream and run to the attic, where they see Dorian, now a disfigured old man, dead on the floor and the painting restored to its former beauty.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: characters

Dorian Gray is the protagonist of the novel. He is wealthy and comes from an aristocratic background. Dorian is extraordinarily beautiful and naive. However, he soon becomes enraptured by hedonism and sin.

The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.

Chapter 1

Basil Hallward is an artist infatuated with Dorian, claiming him as his muse. Basil is a moral man, so Dorian's actions and corruption horrify him.

An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty.

Chapter 1

Lord Henry Wotton is Basil's friend, introduced to the novel through his quick wit and self-proclaimed theory of 'new hedonism', which he introduces to Dorian. Lord Henry is an aristocrat who lives a lavish lifestyle and spouts radical theories about morality and pleasure.

We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret.

Chapter 2

Oscar Wilde famously made the following remark about the novel's three main characters, which are often seen as interlinked in the exploration of hedonism, pleasure, and beauty. Wilde also said that each of the three main characters are facets of his own personality.

Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.1

Other characters in the novel have various roles that range from representing societal expectations and norms to highlighting the consequences of Dorian's actions.

The Picture of Dorian Gray's minor charactersDescriptionQuotes
Sibyl VaneA young actress whom Dorian falls in love with'I am nothing to you now. You used to love me. I wish you had never met me.'
James VaneSibyl's brother, who seeks revenge on Dorian'I will kill him if he crosses my path.'
Alan CampbellA former friend of Dorian's who is coerced into helping him cover up a crime'You have made me see that, Christ-like as I am, I have been fashioned in the fires of hell.'
Lady AgathaA socialite who invites Dorian to her party'We all have our little foibles, Mr. Gray. You have your picture, I hear.'
Duchess of MonmouthA society lady who is rumoured to have had an affair with Dorian'I hear you have been a very naughty boy, Mr. Gray.'
Victoria WottonLord Henry's wife'I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time.'

The Picture of Dorian Gray: themes and main ideas

Let's discuss some of the main themes and ideas in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Amongst the Victorian upper-class, reputation was everything. Wilde worked to resist Victorian morality.

The purpose of art

Throughout the novel, Wilde explores his personal philosophy, which follows closely from, and is largely rooted in, aestheticism.

Aestheticism was a philosophy developed in the late 19th century that posited that art exists for the sake of art alone, rather than serving a larger social, moral, political or dialectic purpose.

This philosophy stood at odds with the Victorian society that Wilde lived in, which largely saw art as a tool to influence society and create uniform ideas about morality and sensibility. Those involved in the movement sought to free art from these moral and social responsibilities, instead simply allowing it to be beautiful for its own sake.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, this philosophy is embodied by Lord Henry, whose aphorisms throughout the novel serve to question bourgeois ethical certainties.

An aphorism is a concise statement that expresses a general truth. Wilde was mainly known for these witty statements.

The bourgeoisie refers to the upper-middle class and the wealthy, who possess and control most of society's wealth.

However, the titular piece of art, Basil's portrait of Dorian, seems to oppose this philosophy. It becomes altered, and its meaning changes based on Dorian's actions, thereby acting as a barometer for morality. The painting becomes a mirror in which art reflects the self and is altered by immorality.

Although this opposes the tenets of aestheticism, we can consider that Wilde purposefully breaches the philosophy to point out the dangers of assigning art a moral responsibility.

Through art, Dorian is forced to (literally) face the consequences of his actions, imparting a didactic lesson not only to him but also to the reader. Dorian's obsession with the moral ramifications of his portrait ultimately becomes the reason for his demise.

The value of beauty and youth

From the beginning of the novel, Lord Henry emphasises his belief in the invaluable power of youth and beauty. Dorian's subsequent devotion to this belief allows him to evade responsibility for his actions.

He sees himself as free from society's moral constraints because of his perfect appearance, valuing this above the degradation of his soul, exposed by the changes in his portrait. This misaligned moral prioritisation causes Dorian's eventual demise. The dangers of overvaluing superficiality are made obvious by Wilde by the end of the novel.

Homosexuality

After the criticism the novel faced when it was first published in 1980 in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, Wilde was forced to edit and remove various passages that alluded to homosexual desire. However, in the final novel, some veiled allusions to homosexual tendencies remain between the three main characters, Dorian, Lord Henry and Basil.

The bonds between the men serve to structure most of the novel. Basil's adoration of Dorian is the reason for the painting, and Lord Henry's influence over Dorian is rooted in an attempt to seduce him. Wilde's personal struggle, living as a homosexual man in an intolerant society, manifests itself throughout the novel and arguably is integral to its ultimate meaning.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: analysis

The Picture of Dorian Gray explores themes of morality, vanity, and the corrupting influence of pleasure and beauty. The novel is frequently analysed as a gothic cautionary tale.

Genre and literary devices

The novel is classified as part of the Gothic genre and thus, contains many of the tropes popularised by other works in the genre.

Gothic fiction was a genre of literature popularised in the 18th century. It is categorised by themes of fear and haunting, often caused by supernatural events or characters. Famous works of gothic fiction include Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and poetry by Lord Byron.

Indeed, The Picture of Dorian Gray's central narrative event is based on a supernatural occurrence, which is Dorian's wish upon the portrait and his following immortality. Wilde uses contemporary Gothic motifs to comment on society, art and Victorian morality.

Symbolism

Some of the important symbols of the novel include the portrait of Dorian himself, which becomes a kind of mirror through which he can monitor the corruption of his soul. However, the portrait forces Dorian to look upon the consequences of his actions and prevents him from fully releasing himself to a life of sin, acting almost as a conscience.

Opium Dens

In respectable Victorian society, opium dens were considered pits of sin. They often operated as brothels and drug markets in the city’s slums, close to the docks. Sailors, addicts, and even upstanding Victorian gentlemen frequented the dens to indulge in various sins.

Wilde uses the opium den to reflect the corrupt state of Dorian’s mind and soul. Dorian uses opium to escape the guilt of having murdered Basil. The opium den is also where his past sin confronts Dorian in the form of Sybil Vane’s brother, James.

James Vane

James Vane is the personification of Dorian's guilt. Appearing at the opium den, James is presented as a ghostly figure that haunts Dorian. Symbolizing the past Dorian wants to escape, James threatens to destroy him. Interestingly, the character did not appear in the original draft and was later added to the plot to offset the novel’s initial controversy and introduce an element of class tension.

The Yellow Book

Lord Henry gifts Dorian a scandalous French novel referred to as The Yellow Book. The Yellow Book’s tales of debauchery and pleasure-seeking act as a guide for Dorian’s years of hedonism. Wilde used the book to symbolize how people can attach too much meaning to art, and how this can poison someone's soul. Dorian's fate seems to lie at the hands of this book, serving as a warning to readers about the potential of art to corrupt if it is taken in the wrong spirit.

As Dorian buys dozens of copies over the years, the text becomes more than art, taking on an almost religious significance to Dorian. Wilde most likely based The Yellow Book on the scandalous novel À Rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans.

With the character of James Vane, Wilde symbolizes Dorian's guilty past. What do the characters of Lord Henry and Basil Hallward represent to Dorian?

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Key takeaways

  • The gothic novel was Oscar Wilde's first and only novel, published in full in 1891.
  • It was subject to much controversy: Victorian society was shocked by Wilde's exploration of immorality.
  • The principal characters include Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward.
  • The novel's main idea explores the philosophy of aestheticism, asking if art can exist only for art's sake or if it serves a larger purpose.
  • Some important symbols to consider are the portrait of Dorian, opium dens, and the yellow book.

References

  1. Alex Ross, 'How Oscar Wilde Painted Over “Dorian Gray”', The New Yorker (2011)

Frequently Asked Questions about The Picture of Dorian Gray

When published, in 1981, Wilde's contemporary society was shocked by the novel's allusions to immorality, but even more so by the suggestions of homosexuality. Much of the uproar was directed to the novel's undertones of homoeroticism; however, detractors also directed criticism to Wilde himself. This became especially targeted when Wilde was brought to court in 1895 for indecent acts.

The main idea of the novel follows the philosophy of aestheticism. This emphasises the existence of art for beauty's sake, rather than for a larger dialectical purpose.

The novel is relatively short, at 288 pages. It discusses many philosophical themes throughout but still follows a typical narrative structure. 

Oscar Wilde.

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