Basil Hallward, a painter, reluctantly introduces his jaded friend, Lord Henry Wotton, to the young man Basil is painting. Dorian Gray, at the age of twenty, is outstandingly beautiful, wealthy, and inexperienced. Lord Henry tells him that “beauty is a form of genius” and that he must live the wonderful life inside him, giving form to every feeling, expression to every thought, and reality to every dream. Lord Henry believes that this form of fulfillment results in an ideal life.
Dorian realizes with horror that he will grow old as the portrait stays young and beautiful. He states that he would give his soul to stay young while the portrait ages. Immediately, Dorian’s character changes; he cruelly taunts Basil as Basil gives him the painting.
Dorian flings himself into life. He falls in love with a young actress, Sibyl Vane, who plays Shakespearean roles in a seedy theater. They declare their love the afternoon before Basil and Harry first see her. That night, her performance is terrible; having felt real love, she can no longer pretend it as Juliet. Dorian, however, loves only the images; he coldly rejects the woman. On returning home, he sees that the portrait reflects his cruelty. Horrified, he resolves to marry Sibyl, but he cannot; she has committed suicide. At first, Dorian is shocked, but he soon rationalizes that Sibyl deserved her fate because she failed to live up to his expectations.
The day after Sibyl’s death, Lord Henry sends Dorian a “poisonous book.” Symbolist in style, the book is said to tell of a young Frenchman who tries to recapitulate the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual history of the world in his own life, “loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations what men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin.” Dorian comes to feel that the hero of the book is “a kind of prefiguring type of himself.” He patronizes the arts, flirts with Roman Catholicism, and studies perfumes, exotic musical instruments, jewels, and embroideries.
For seventeen years, Dorian enjoys the life of a wealthy man, remaining young and beautiful. Rumors circulate about him: He ruins women’s reputations, he frequents strange places, and his friends come to bad ends. Seeing him, however, few can believe him to be evil. Late one night, Basil visits, insisting he must know if the rumors about Dorian’s evil lifestyle are true. Dorian offers to show Basil his soul, as contained in the portrait. Basil is horrified at the cruel, sensual face. Dorian stabs him to death and blackmails a scientific friend into disposing of the body.
Plagued by fear and guilt, Dorian escapes Sibyl Vane’s brother, who has sought vengeance all these years, but that does not help, and even opium yields only temporary forgetfulness. He resolves to change and refrains from seducing a village girl. The portrait reveals hypocrisy in addition to evidence of various sins and flaws. Dorian grows angry, determining to destroy the painting and, with it, his past. He stabs it. Passersby hear a horrible cry. When the servants enter the room, they find “a splendid portrait of their master” and a body they recognize only by the rings it wears.