What is the overall theme in the story The Picture of Dorian Gray?

One could argue that the overall theme in the story The Picture of Dorian Gray is that a life of pleasure is no substitute for morality. Yet that's what Dorian, under the baleful influence of Lord Henry Wooton, comes to believe. In his efforts to lead a life of constant pleasure, he ends up falling into self-indulgence and debauchery.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Dorian makes the fateful decision to aestheticize his existence, to turn his life into a work of art—and all in pursuit of a constant stream of pleasurable experiences. Strongly influenced by the amoral life philosophy of the louche aristocrat Lord Henry Wooton, Dorian comes to believe that pleasure isn't everything;...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Dorian makes the fateful decision to aestheticize his existence, to turn his life into a work of art—and all in pursuit of a constant stream of pleasurable experiences. Strongly influenced by the amoral life philosophy of the louche aristocrat Lord Henry Wooton, Dorian comes to believe that pleasure isn't everything; it's the only thing.

As Dorian has devoted himself to making his life one long work of art, he is no longer interested in what is morally right. All he cares about is achieving an endless series of aesthetic pleasures, however they may be acquired. This attitude inevitably puts him at odds with any system of morals worthy of the name. As all that matters to Dorian is his own pleasure, other people are just objects to be cynically manipulated to serve his ends. Pleasure is what counts, not people. They are merely instruments of what really matters in life.

Almost inevitably, Dorian soon falls into a life of self-indulgent debauchery in his never-ending quest for the latest pleasure. His hedonistic lifestyle corrupts his soul, so much so that he ends up stabbing Basil to death. Dorian cannot face the truth of what he's become, as displayed for everyone to see in Basil's decaying portrait of him.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The primary theme explored throughout the novel concerns the dangers of valuing appearances over morality and ethics. Lord Henry Wotton, Basil Hallward, and Dorian Gray all place a significant value on appearances and are obsessed with beauty, whether it be in the form of art or humanity. Initially, Basil Hallward is captivated by Dorian Gray's image and paints his portrait to satisfy his own desires. Lord Henry Wotton then informs Dorian Gray that his youthful image is his most precious commodity and laments on the transient nature of youth, which enlightens the innocent Dorian Gray, who desperately wishes to remain young and attractive.

After Dorian Gray discovers that his youth will never fade because his portrait magically reflects his corrupt soul and aging appearance, he proceeds to indulge in a life of debauchery and crime. Despite adopting the tenets of "a new Hedonism," breaking Sibyl Vane's heart, and frequenting London's debased underground scene, Dorian Gray's image remains immaculate, and he is praised by society for his enduring youth. Although Dorian continues to take pride in his appearance, his soul becomes increasingly corrupt and doomed. Eventually, Dorian ends up murdering his close friend Basil and becomes overwhelmed with guilt to the point that he commits suicide by stabbing his portrait. Overall, Dorian's obsession with outward appearances and lack of concern for morals and ethics leads to his demise.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A major theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is the importance of beauty. At the beginning of the book, the author claims that the purpose of art is to display beauty. In the novel, beauty is valuable than morality. The significance of beauty is highlighted in the first chapter where Basil Hallward is obsessed by Dorian Gray and likes him because of his looks. Hallward confides to Lord Henry:

“When I like people immensely I never tell their names to anyone. It is like surrendering a part of them” (7).

Dorian Gray, because of his beauty, inspires Basil Hallward to paint a masterpiece. Furthermore, Lord Henry tells Hallward that humans have high regard for beauty. When Lord Henry finally meets Dorian Gray, he marvels at his physical appearance before anything else. Lord Henry informs Dorian that beauty and youth are the most important privileges a person can have in the world. The novel reveals that beauty is more powerful in society than common sense.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Good vs. Evil is a prominent theme.  Dorian is an innocent, pure soul before Henry meets and influences him.  Basil, Dorian's true friend and artist, did not want Henry to meet Dorian to meet Henry for the very reason that Basil knows that Henry enjoys toying with people as a life-long psychology experiment. 

Because of Henry's influence and his philosophies on Beauty, Indulgence, Art, and life in general, Dorian makes a deal with the Devil and only the picture shows the extent of his sinful behaviors while his physical appearance remains untarnished and beautiful.

Beauty, Art, and Indulgence are three other good themes, as well as the supernatural aspect of dealing with the Devil and remaining young forever because of the deal.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The indulgence of the senses is one the the main themes in this novel. Lord Henry believes that one should not deny oneself of their impulses and desires, and Dorian attempts to follow this view.

In order to live life well, the senses must be indulged. Intellectual matters and education are less important that art and beauty in this novel.Dorian's interpretation of Lord Henry's advice leads to suicide, murder, and the destruction of human lives.

Whether Dorian misinterpreted Lord Henry's views, or the views of Lord Henry's Hedonism themselves are flawed, is up to the reader to decide.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team