Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338
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Dorian Gray, a handsome young man who, while visiting the studio of an artist friend who is painting his portrait, idly wishes that the portrait would grow old while he himself remained young looking. Later, having treated a young woman cruelly, he notices the first sign of alteration in the portrait. Alarmed, he decides to repent and to marry her, but he learns that she has killed herself. He now gives himself over entirely to a life of corruption, under the tutelage of an evil friend. His crimes include murder. At last he decides to destroy the hideous portrait, which has been long locked away. He stabs it with a knife. Hearing a cry, the servants find lying before a portrait of their handsome master a withered, wrinkled body with a knife in its breast.
Lord Henry Wotton
Lord Henry Wotton, a witty, degenerate man who deliberately tempts Dorian into a life of debauchery.
Basil Hallward, Dorian’s artist friend, who paints his portrait. He asks Lord Wotton never to meet Dorian, saying that the older man’s influence would be evil; but Dorian comes to the studio while Lord Wotton is there, and the friendship begins. Hallward and Dorian become estranged; but on his thirty-eighth birthday, Dorian shows Hallward the altered portrait and then, angry because he has betrayed himself, kills Hallward.
Alan Campbell, a young chemist whom Dorian blackmails into disposing of Hallward’s body with fire and chemicals. Campbell later commits suicide under strange circumstances.
Sibyl Vane, a young actress who knows Dorian only as “Prince Charming.” Dorian treats her cruelly, and she kills herself.
James Vane, her brother. He has sworn revenge against “Prince Charming,” but he hesitates to kill Dorian, who looks years too young to be the man who ruined his sister eighteen years before. Assured that Dorian is in fact that man, he follows him to his country house and is accidentally shot and killed during a hunt on the estate.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1367
Alan Campbell is a former close friend of Dorian Gray. The friendship lasted for eighteen months and ended for unknown reasons. After the split between the two men, Campbell became melancholy and gave up playing music, which had been his delight. After he murders Basil, Gray summons Campbell, who is an expert in chemistry, to dispose of the body. Campbell agrees to do it only after Gray indicates he will blackmail him if he does not cooperate. Campbell later commits suicide by shooting himself in his laboratory.
Lord Fermor is the uncle of Lord Henry Wotton. He is a bachelor and former diplomat who devotes himself to what the narrator describes as “the great aristocratic art of doing absolutely nothing.” He informs Lord Henry about Dorian Gray’s family background.
Dorian Gray is twenty years old when the novel begins. He is the grandson of Lord Kelso, and his mother was the beautiful Lady Margaret Devereux. Margaret married a man Lord Kelso did not approve of, and her father arranged for the man to be killed in a duel. Dorian’s mother died within a year, and Dorian was raised by his grandfather. When Dorian comes of age at twenty-one, he will inherit enough money to enable him to live comfortably.
Dorian possesses great physical beauty, and the artist Basil Hallward is infatuated with him. When Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, he falls under the influence of Henry’s new hedonism, in which the goal of immediate sensual pleasure is valued above ethics or morality. Soon after Dorian meets Lord Henry he falls in love with the actress Sibyl Vane but rejects her when she declares that since she has fallen in love with him, she no longer cares for creating art. It is Dorian’s callous response to Sibyl’s resulting suicide that produces the first change in the portrait that Basil painted of him: a distinctly cruel expression appears on the face. After this, Dorian pursues a life of pleasure in which he courts all manner of sensual enjoyments, searching for beauty in fleeting sensations and objects of art.
But since he does not balance his love of beauty with a sense of morality, he sinks into selfish behavior. He leads many of his friends to ruin or disgrace, and as the years go by, rumors circulate in London about his objectionable behavior, and people start to shun him. In his physical appearance, however, he remains as youthful as the day the portrait was painted. The degradation of his soul is registered only in the picture.
Dorian sinks to his lowest point when he murders his friend Basil, who has made the mistake of inquiring too closely into the nature of his activities. Dorian effectively covers up his crime, and when James Vane, who has been trying to kill him, is killed in a hunting accident, it appears that Dorian is safe. But he is weighed down by his dissolute life and desires to change it, a goal for which he receives no encouragement from his friend Lord Henry. Eventually, driven to desperation, Dorian slashes the picture on which his sins are visible, but in a mysterious act of transference, Dorian himself dies of a knife wound through his heart, and the picture is restored to its original condition.
Basil Hallward is an artist who paints the picture of Dorian Gray. He is completely captivated by the beautiful Dorian, whom he has known for two months, and paints him in many different guises. He secretly worships Dorian and later confesses this adoration to him. He believes that Dorian has inspired him to create the best work of his life. Through Dorian he has discovered a new style of painting and hopes it will be the beginning of a new school that will combine the best of the Greek and Romantic spirit, presenting a harmony of spirit and passion, body and soul. Basil does not intend to exhibit the painting because he says he has put too much of himself into it. Instead, he presents it to Dorian.
Unlike his friend Lord Henry, whose cynicism he regards as a mere pose, Basil does not take an amoral approach to life. He tries to console Dorian after the death of Sibyl Vane and is shocked by the callousness of his friend. He attributes Dorian’s attitude to the bad influence of Lord Henry.
After this exchange, Basil and Dorian meet seldom. Eighteen years after their first meeting, they run into each other by chance. Basil demands to know from Dorian the truth regarding the many rumors about Dorian’s bad behavior. Dorian resents his criticism. He decides to show Basil the real state of his soul, which is revealed in the picture. Basil only has time to express his horror at the alteration in the picture before Dorian stabs him to death with a knife. Since Basil had been due to depart for Paris that same night and planned to remain there for six months, he is not missed for some time.
Adrian Singleton is a former friend of Gray’s. Dorian encounters him again at the opium den, and it is clear that Singleton has been disgraced as a result of his association with Dorian. None of his friends will speak to him, and he takes refuge in an opium addiction.
James Vane is the sixteen-year-old brother of Sibyl Vane. He becomes a sailor, but not before he has vowed that if Sibyl’s aristocratic admirer, whom he knows only by the name of Prince Charming, ever wrongs her, he will kill him. Eighteen years later, he spots Dorian Gray in an opium den, follows him out to the street, and is ready to kill him, but Dorian convinces him that he has got the wrong man. Vane soon realizes his mistake, and eventually tracks Dorian down, but he is accidentally shot and killed when he intrudes on a hunting expedition.
Mrs. Vane is the mother of Sibyl and James Vane. Like her daughter, she is an actress, but she is a tired woman who has had a hard life. The family lives in poverty because Mrs. Vane was not married to the father of her children, and he died without making provision for them.
Sibyl Vane is a seventeen-year-old girl who excels as an actress. She performs many of the great Shakespearean roles in a tawdry theater in the back streets of London. Dorian Gray falls in love with her, and she with him. But he rejects her after she performs badly, and she is so distressed by his rejection she commits suicide.
Lord Henry Wotton
Lord Henry Wotton, an aristocratic man of thirty, is a friend of Basil Hallward. He has a languid manner and smokes cigarettes constantly. He is married, but later his wife runs away with another man. When he meets Dorian Gray, he makes such an impression on the younger man that Dorian tries to put into practice the kind of life that he thinks Lord Henry espouses. Lord Henry, however, although he advocates the pursuit of sensual experience for its own sake, tries to remain a spectator of life. Although he and Dorian become friends, he watches Dorian’s life as if he is observing a psychological experiment conducted by himself. He is amoral and cynical in his attitudes and expresses no sympathy after the death of Sibyl Vane or the disappearance of Basil. Lord Henry likes to apply his keen intelligence to making epigrams at dinner parties or in conversation with Basil and Dorian. He seems to prefer coming up with witty sayings that reverse conventional notions or morality than getting involved in the realities of life. Basil sometimes says that Lord Henry does not really believe a word he says. Late in the novel, Lord Henry does admit that he would like to be young again, but typically, he immediately takes refuge in a witticism that effectively disguises his real feelings: “To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.”