Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 764 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1386 words.)