illustration of the upper-right corner of Dorian Gray's picture

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

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What characteristics lead to Dorian Gray's downfall in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

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At the beginning of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian is twenty years old, young, beautiful, and innocent. He is also a shy young man who is prone to blushing when meeting new people.

Dorian Gray is my dearest friend. He has a simple and beautiful nature.

It is when Dorian is introduced to Lord Henry Wotton through their mutual friend the artist Basil Hallward, that Dorian’s character changes dramatically. Dorian is easily influenced and Lord Henry is a cynical man without morals, who believes in the philosophy of ‘new Hedonism’ and the self-indulgent pursuit of pleasure. Lord Henry awakens Dorian to the truth about his beauty whilst also warning him to use it selfishly as it will not last forever. This warning sets the action of the novel in motion when Dorian announces his envy of his portrait, which Basil has just painted.

I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me... Every moment that passes takes something from me and gives something to it. Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now!

Dorian becomes obsessed with staying young and beautiful, and he joins Lord Henry in the selfish pursuit of pleasure, indulging in sex, drugs, and homosexuality. And, as he wished in the quote above, his portrait bears all the marks of his narcissistic soul whilst he maintains his youthful, innocent, beauty. But after killing his friend Basil, and becoming aware of what people really think of him, Dorian becomes increasingly anxious and insecure. He cries out for the life he could have had.

It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had prayed for.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde warns readers against narcissism, selfishness and vanity.

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Dorian unfortunately falls under the influence of Lord Henry and is susceptible to his flattery. Lord Henry talks about how fleeting beauty and youth are and how beautiful Dorian is. When Dorian sees his portrait, he realizes for the first time, almost without ego and in a detached way, that he is very beautiful. People like Henry have told him this, but he never truly understood or believed it before.

Seeing the picture of himself fills him with an intense longing to stay beautiful. He wants to maintain his youth so badly that he thinks he would sell his soul for it. That gives the devil his opening to make the bargain with him to allow the portrait to age and grow corrupt instead of him.

Dorian starts off young and goodhearted. It is his fatal attraction to beauty, including his own, and his related desire for pleasure that leads to his downfall. He is also too naive at first to know what he is getting himself into. He doesn't realize that everything has a price and that he will have to pay it. Dorian does not start out bad—nor does he end up bad, as he dies in deep remorse—but like most people, he wants to have his cake and eat it too.

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Fundamentally, Dorian is narcissistic, vain, and selfish. He is obsessed with beauty, and sensual experience to the point that he has no balance in his life. He is so focused on fulfilling his sensual desires that he loses touch with reality. While these characteristics do intensify as the novel progresses they are evident even when we first meet him at age 20.

The first direct sign of Dorian's downfall is his unsympathetic response to Sybil's suicide. The fleeting nature of his love/lust for her suggests that he is imbalanced. Furthermore, this sign, if not initially recognized by the reader, is confirmed when it represented as the first change in the portrait.

As his obsession with beauty, vanity, and himself intensifies, Dorian becomes more mentally unstable, eventually resulting in him killing Basil. From this point on, the reader can see Dorian's descent into madness is inevitably going to result in his demise.

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What are the character traits of Dorian Gray that lead to his downfall?

There is much in this character upon which to write.  I think that you could concentrate on several traits and examine their role, impact, and evolution over the course of the novel.  Initially, I think that the notion of emotional selfishness and the shallowness of emotional depth that often accompanies it would be one area of Gray's traits that should be explored.  The idea of living for beauty and for an aesthetically pleasing conception of the world carries with it a self absorbed nature that compels him to use people as means to ends as opposed to ends in their own rights.  Dorian's pursuit of an external end of beauty causes him to break hearts, rupture bonds of friendship, and live a life without any sort of moral substantiation.  There is little in way of ethical depth that is present.  This could also be explored in strong detail and related to historical development in social periods where shallowness has reigned supreme and its implications from it.

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