Study Guide

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Dorian Gray, the title character of The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a decadent dandy of the Victorian era. Concerned with little but appearances, he lives a reckless, nonproductive existence. A crucial event in his life comes when Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton in the studio of Basil Hallward, an artist, who has painted a portrait of the breathtakingly beautiful Dorian, now in his early twenties. Lord Wotton intrigues Dorian with his talk of the New Hedonism, which is reflected in the novel by Lord Henry’s giving Dorian a copy of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922), a novel that articulates this philosophy, the basis of which is the achievement of a complete realization of one’s nature.

Dorian now utters a Faust-like proposition. He expresses a willingness to surrender his soul if he can maintain his youth and physical beauty and have his portrait age in his place. Dorian hardly expects to have his wish granted and thinks little more of it. He is busy courting Sybil Vane, a talented young actress, who falls in love with him.

Ironically, Sybil’s being in love with Dorian robs her of her ability to act. In time, the very ability that first drew Dorian to Sybil has disappeared, and he rejects her unfeelingly. Having lost Dorian and her acting ability simultaneously, Sybil kills herself. Lord Henry, Dorian’s Mephistopheles, convinces Dorian that, in line with the New Hedonism, Sybil’s suicide is an experience that will help him to feel life more intensely and that it can be viewed as nothing but a source of personal growth.

When all of this happens, Dorian notices subtle changes in the portrait, which is still on display in his residence. A hint of cruelty, a line near the mouth, forms, but Dorian thinks little of it. Meanwhile, Lord Henry leads Dorian into all kinds of arcane activities that, in the tradition of the gothic novel, are suggested but never revealed explicitly, making them seem, perhaps, more horrible than they actually are.

By the time Dorian is thirty-eight years old—still looking twenty—the portrait has changed so drastically that it must be hidden under lock and key. Basil, the artist, alarmed at Dorian’s dissolute ways, urges him to change, to reform. Dorian shows Basil the portrait, now hideous, reflecting all the corruption of Dorian’s past years. Then he turns on Basil and stabs him. To conceal the crime, Dorian forces a chemist whom he has ruined to use his knowledge of chemistry to destroy the body. Finally, weeks later, shaken by what he has become, Dorian tells Lord Henry that he is going to reform. On returning home, he looks at the portrait and, seeing further deterioration in the visage before him, grabs the knife that he has plunged into Basil and sinks it into the grotesque portrait. A cry and a crash are heard. Servants rush to the locked room, forcing open the door. Inside, they find a portrait of an exquisite youth, and on the floor beside it, the body of a hideous, loathsome old man in evening dress, a knife through his heart.

Wilde’s novel provoked considerable outrage when it was published. The tenets of the New Hedonism expressed in the book flew in the face of conventional morality to the point that readers were profoundly shocked. Despite these objections, the novel succeeded artistically and attracted many readers.

The book presents Lord Henry’s credo within its first few pages, and the rest of the narrative is devoted to Dorian’s acting out of that credo. In a sense, Dorian Gray was born with the creation of Basil Hallward’s portrait. Readers are not introduced to Dorian Gray, the child. The Dorian that Wilde springs on his readers does not exist until the portrait exists.

According to a letter that Wilde wrote in 1894, he said that he saw in this novel three sides of himself. In Basil Hallward, he creates what he believes is a true perception of himself. In Lord Henry, he projects the person whom the world believes him to be. In Dorian, he presents the self whom he would like to be in some other age. How seriously one can take this assessment remains a matter of scholarly speculation.

The Lord Henry that Wilde projects is, in accordance with Wilde’s expressed philosophy, the ultimate artist. He molds raw material (Dorian), shaping it with sure hands into what he wills it to be. In this sense, he is a Pygmalion as much as he is a Mephistopheles.

The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

One day in his London studio, painter Basil Hallward is putting a few finishing touches on a portrait of his handsome young friend, Dorian Gray. Lord Henry Wotton, a caller, indolently watches the painter at work. When his friend admires the subject of the painting, the artist explains that Dorian is his ideal of youth and that he hopes Lord Henry will never meet him because the older man’s influence will be absolute and evil.

While Hallward and Lord Henry are talking, Dorian arrives at the studio and Hallward, much against his will, is forced to introduce the young man to Lord Henry. Hallward signs the portrait and announces that it is finished. When Lord Henry offers to buy the picture, the painter says it is not his property and that it belongs to Dorian, to whom he is presenting it. After listening to Lord Henry’s witty conversation, Dorian looks at his portrait and grows sad. He will become old and wrinkled, he says, while the picture will remain the same. Instead, he wishes that the portrait may grow old while he remains forever young. He says he would give his soul to keep his youth. There is, however, no overt Faustian bargain struck with Satan. Rather, Dorian’s powerful narcissism is sufficient to magically draw the portrait’s perpetual youth and beauty into himself.

Dorian and Lord Henry become close friends. One of the gifts Lord Henry gives the young man is a book about another young man who attempts to realize in his brief lifetime all the passions of human history. Dorian makes the book a pattern for his own life. In a third-rate theater, he sees a young actor named Sibyl Vane playing the role of Juliet with such sincerity and charm that he falls in love with her on the spot. After he has met her in person, Dorian dreams of taking her away from the cheap theatrical troupe and making her a great actor who will thrill the world.

One night, Dorian takes Lord Henry to watch Sybil’s performance. Tonight, however, she is listless and wooden; she is so uninspired in her acting that the audience hisses at her. Dorian goes to her dressing room after the final curtain. Sibyl explains to him that before meeting him she thought acting her only reality. Now, she says, Dorian’s love has taught her what reality actually is, and she can no longer act. Dorian coldly tells her she has killed his love and that he never intends to see her again.

Later, when Dorian returns to his home, he notices something in his portrait that he has never before seen, a faint line of cruelty about the mouth. Looking at his own features in a mirror, he finds no such line on his own lips. Dorian is disturbed, and he resolves to reform, to see no more of Lord Henry, and to ask Sibyl to forgive him and then marry him. This very night, he writes her a passionate letter, but before he can post the letter, Lord Henry visits in the morning and brings the news that Sibyl had killed herself in her dressing room last night.

After his friend leaves, Dorian decides there is no point to his good resolutions. The portrait will have to bear the burden of his shame. In the evening, he attends the opera with Lord Henry. The following day, when Hallward attempts to reason with him over scandalous reports that are beginning to circulate about his behavior, Dorian expresses no emotion over Sibyl’s suicide. His part in her tragic story will never be revealed, for she knew him only as a Prince Charming. When Hallward asks to see his painting of Dorian, the young man refuses, and in a sudden rage shouts that he never wishes to see the painter again. Later, he hangs the portrait in an old schoolroom upstairs, locks the door, and hides the key where only he can find it.

Rumors about Dorian continue, and the young man becomes suspected of strange vices. Gentlemen walk out of their club rooms when he enters, hosts of balls and parties at country houses invite him less and less, and many of his former friends refuse to acknowledge him when they meet. It is reported that he has been seen in low dives with drunken sailors and thieves. Dorian’s looks do not change, however; only the portrait reflects his life of crime and debauchery. Like the hero of the book that Lord Henry gave him, Dorian spends his life pursuing fresh experiences and new sensations. One interest succeeds the next, and he immerses himself in turn in the study of religious rituals, perfumes, music, and jewels. He frequents opium dens and has sordid affairs with women.

On the eve of Dorian’s thirty-eighth birthday, Hallward visits him again. Although the two have been estranged for years, Hallward comes in a last attempt to persuade Dorian to change his dissolute ways. He is still unable to believe many of the stories he has heard about Dorian. With a bitter laugh, Dorian says that Hallward should see what he has truly become. He takes Hallward to the schoolroom and unveils the portrait. The artist is horrified, for only by the signature can he identify his own handiwork. Dorian, in anger that he has betrayed his true self to his former friend, seizes a knife that lies nearby and stabs Hallward in the neck and back, killing him.

Dorian locks the door behind him and goes down to the drawing room. Because Hallward had intended to leave for Paris tonight, Dorian knows the painter will not be missed for some time. He decides that removing the body is not enough. He wants it completely destroyed. Suddenly, he thinks of Alan Campbell, a young chemist who once was his close friend. By threatening the young scientist with exposure of a crime only he knows about, Dorian forces Campbell to destroy Hallward’s body with fire and chemicals. From this night forward, the hands of the portrait show smears of blood.

Late one night, commonly dressed, Dorian leaves an opium den. A drunken woman addresses him as Prince Charming. A sailor who overhears her follows Dorian out. The sailor is James Vane, Sibyl’s brother, who has sworn revenge on the man who betrayed his sister, the man he knows only by the cognomen—Prince Charming—that Sybil gave him. He would have killed Dorian then and there had Dorian not looked so unspoiled and young. Sibyl had committed suicide eighteen years ago, yet the man before James seems no more than twenty years old. When Vane returns to the opium den, the woman tells him that Dorian had ruined her many years ago as well, and that he has not changed in appearance since then.

Some time later, at his country home, Dorian sees James watching him outside a window. Subsequently, during a hunt on the estate, James is shot and killed. His death is believed to be an accident, but Dorian feels his own evil presence is the true cause of the incident. Campbell had committed suicide as well some time earlier under strange circumstances, and Hallward’s disappearance is being investigated. Dorian decides to reform. His first virtuous act is to spare rather than corrupt Hetty Merton, a local girl who is infatuated with him.

Back in London, Dorian goes to the old schoolroom. He examines his painting, hoping that his one good act has mitigated to some degree the horror of the portrait. It has not. He decides to destroy the picture that stands as the awful record of his guilt. Now, the portrait also has an appearance of cunning and triumph. Using the knife with which he had murdered Hallward, Dorian stabs the frightful portrait. The servants in the house hear a horrible cry of agony. When they force open the locked door of the room, they find, hanging on the wall, a fine portrait of their young master. On the floor is a dead body, withered and wrinkled and with a knife in its breast. Only by the rings on his hands do they recognize Dorian, who had killed himself in a desperate attempt to kill his conscience.

The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary

Chapters 1–5
The Picture of Dorian Gray begins on an afternoon in London, in the studio of the artist Basil Hallward....

(The entire section is 1256 words.)