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

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

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The Plot

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Places Discussed

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*Mayfair

*Mayfair. Richest district of London, lying to the east of Hyde Park, bounded on the north by Oxford Street and on the south by Piccadilly. Most of the significant locations featured in the novel are situated there. The exact location of Lord Henry Wotton’s house, with its oak-paneled library, furnished with Persian rugs, is left unspecified, but his uncle, Lord Fermor, lives in Berkeley Square, one of the most imposing addresses in London, and is a member of one of the most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs, the Albany. Even Alan Campbell, the chemistry expert blackmailed by Dorian into disposing of Basil Hallward’s body, lives in Mayfair, although Hertford Street is one of the least prepossessing thoroughfares in the district.

Dorian’s own town house, inherited from his grandfather, Lord Kelso, is situated in the other famous Mayfair square, Grosvenor Square. It is here that a study in contrasts is developed between the room in which Dorian hides the portrait, his old schoolroom, located at the very top of the house, and the rooms that he furnishes in an extraordinarily lavish fashion with all manner of tapestries, textiles, embroideries, and ecclesiastical vestments.

Schoolroom

Schoolroom. Symbolizing Dorian’s lost innocence, the schoolroom is furnished with a satinwood bookcase, a Flemish tapestry featuring two monarchs playing chess while falconers hover nearby, and a cassone, a large Italian trunk with a hinged lid, which features painted panels and gilt moldings. Dorian used to use this cassone as a hiding place when he was a child. The remainder of the house undergoes a remarkable transformation as Dorian buries the conventional furnishings handed down by his grandfather in a decorative riot of silks, satins, velvets, and other ultrasoft materials. The obsessively conservative Victorians condemned any tendency to luxury as a sign of moral decadence, prompting radical aesthetes like Oscar Wilde to go to an opposite extreme.

Selby Royal

Selby Royal. Site of Dorian’s country house. It was standard practice for every nineteenth century family of any real social standing to maintain a town house and a country house, the former being used for “the season,” the summer months when all London’s key social events took place, while the latter was usually the manor house attached to the family estate. Dorian, like most young aristocrats of his generation, prefers to spend almost all his time in London, but Selby Royal proves a convenient location for the elimination of the vengeful James Vane.

*Euston Road

*Euston Road. London street. In the 1880’s the streets surrounding Euston Station were a modest residential district, considerably more respectable than the poverty-stricken East End although far inferior to Mayfair. It is not surprising that the working-class Vanes are struggling to pay the rent on their apartment in Euston Road, even though Sibyl is appearing at the Royal Theatre in Holborn. The address signifies that the family is desperately ambitious to move up in the world, which is a significant factor in the frustration that leads Sibyl to suicide.

Basil Hallward’s studio

Basil Hallward’s studio. Artist’s studio situated in an unnamed suburb of London, conceptually, if not geographically, midway between Grosvenor Square and Selby Royal. Its French windows look out onto a pleasant garden scented in summer by lilac, laburnum, and honeysuckle, but its interior is furnished in a slightly Bohemian style, with sofas and divans. Like the Vanes, Hallward is operating in a social stratum above that in which he was born.

Historical Context

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Aestheticism and Decadence
Aestheticism was a literary movement in late nineteenth-century France and Britain. It was a reaction to the notion that all art should have a utilitarian or social value. According to the Aesthetic Movement, art justifies its own existence by expressing and embodying beauty. The slogan of the movement was “art for art’s sake,” and it contrasted the perfection possible through art with what it regarded as the imperfections of nature and of real life. The artist should not concern himself with political or social issues.

In France, Aestheticism was associated with the work of Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, and Stéphane Mallarmé. In England, its chief theorist was Walter Pater (1839–1894), who was a professor of classics at Oxford University. In contrast to the usual Victorian emphasis on work and social responsibility, Pater emphasized the fleeting nature of life and argued that the most important thing was to relish the exquisite sensations life brings, especially those stimulated by a work of art. The aim was to be fully present and to live vividly in each passing moment. As Pater put it in the “Conclusion” to his work Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), which is in effect a manifesto of the Aesthetic Movement in England, “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” This is in complete opposition to the prevailing Victorian mentality, with its emphasis on hard work, moral earnestness, and material success.

Wilde was an admirer of Pater, and it was Wilde who later became the representative figure of Aestheticism. Pater’s influence on The Picture of Dorian Gray was profound. When Dorian adopts Lord Henry’s belief that the aim of the new Hedonism “was to be experience itself, and not the fruits of experience” he is virtually quoting Pater’s “Conclusion,” in which he writes, “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.”

Pater was a key figure in the emergence of the later movement in England and France known as Decadence. This movement flourished in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, a period also known as fin de siècle (end of the century). Decadent writers believed that Western civilization was in a condition of decay, and they attacked the accepted moral and ethical standards of the day. The theory of Decadence was that all “natural” forms and behaviors were inherently flawed; therefore, highly artificial, “unnatural” forms and styles were to be cultivated, in life as well as art. Many Decadent writers therefore experimented with lifestyles that involved drugs and depravity (just as Dorian does in The Picture of Dorian Gray).

One influential work of the Decadent movement was À Rebours (Against the Grain), a novel by French writer, J. K. Huysmans, published in 1884. The protagonist is estranged from Parisian society and continually seeks out strange and new experiences. It is generally accepted that À Rebours is the novel that Lord Henry sends to Dorian Gray and which fascinates and grips Dorian for years.

Another example of Decadent literature is Wilde’s play Salomé, with its lurid subject and imagery of blood, sex, and death. In addition to Wilde, Decadence in England was associated with the poets Algernon Swinburne and Ernest Dowson, and the painter, Aubrey Beardsley.

Literary Style

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Epigram
An epigram is a short, witty statement in prose or verse. Wilde is famous for his epigrams, and the novel furnishes many examples, almost all of them uttered by Lord Henry Wotton. “A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies,” he tells his friend Basil. The humorous effect is gained by a reversal of the expected meaning, since it would be natural to expect to hear “friends” instead of “enemies.” The reversal creates a comic surprise. Lord Henry uses the same reversal of expectations when he says, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” This can also be described as a paradox, which is a statement that appears to be contradictory or absurd but on examination may prove to be true. Wilde’s preface to the novel also contains many epigrams, many of which show his eagerness to undermine conventional ideas, as in “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.”

Myth
Underlying the narrative are suggestions of several myths, including the fall of man as described in Genesis. Dorian, as an innocent, beautiful young man, newly created (in a sense) by Basil Hallward, the artist/God, is the equivalent of Adam in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Lord Henry Wotton plays the role of Satan. He tempts Dorian with the promise of a fuller, richer life, if he will only follow his, Henry’s, credo. Dorian has too much pride and egoism to resist the temptation, and so he falls.

There is also an allusion to the medieval legend of Faust. Faust is a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power, just as Dorian makes a bargain to keep his eternal youth even if it means the loss of his soul.

Another allusion is to the classical myth of Narcissus, who falls in love with himself after seeing his reflection in a pool. When Lord Henry first sees the picture he compares Dorian to Narcissus. This gives a clue to the vanity inherent in Dorian’s nature. Lord Henry may tempt him, but in a sense he is only drawing out the qualities that are already present in Dorian.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: Male homosexuality is a crime in England, punishable by imprisonment.

Today: Homosexuality is no longer a crime. In law, homosexual people are treated the same as everyone else. However, many people holding conservative and religious views based on the Bible still regard homosexuality as a sin.

1890s: Britain is the foremost power in the world but faces increasing rivalry from the growing industrial and military strength of Germany.

Today: Britain and Germany, having fought against each other in two world wars, are now allies within the European Community and NATO. Britain is no longer the leading power in the world.

1890s: Class divisions are emphatic in Britain, and there is a wide contrast in dress, manners, and way of life between those who are comfortably off and those who are poor. Families are large. Only working class women take employment outside the home. University education is not available for women of any class or for the working classes.

Today: Britain is a more egalitarian society than at any time in its history. The influence of mass culture, through television, films, and advertising, has tended to erode differences between classes in dress and manners. Women of all classes now make up a large percentage of the workforce, and higher education is open to all.

Media Adaptations

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The Picture of Dorian Gray has been adapted to film in the following versions: the version starring George Sanders (Warner, 1945); the version directed by Glenn Jordan (1973); and the BBC version, directed by John Gorrie, with Sir John Gielgud as Lord Henry (1976).

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Ericksen, Donald H., Oscar Wilde, Twayne’s English Authors Series, No. 211, Twayne Publishers, 1977, pp. 96–117.

Gillespie, Michael Patrick, The Picture of Dorian Gray: “What the World Thinks Me,” Twayne’s Masterwork Studies, No. 145, Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Kohl, Norbert, Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel, translated by David Henry Wilson, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 138.

Pater, Walter, “Conclusion,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 4th ed., Vol. 2, Norton, 1979, pp. 1580–83, originally published in Studies in the History of the Renaissance, 1873.

Wilde, Oscar, “The Critic as Artist,” in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, edited by Richard Ellmann, Random House, 1969, pp. 340–408.

—, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Unicorn Press, 1948.

Further Reading
Cohen, Ed, “Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation,” in Critical Essays on Oscar Wilde, edited by Regenia Gagnier, G. K. Hall, 1991, pp. 68–87. Cohen analyzes The Picture of Dorian Gray to show how even in the absence of explicit homosexual terminology or activity, a text can subvert the traditional standards and representations of appropriate male behavior.

Cohen, Philip K., The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978, pp. 105–55. Cohen argues that Wilde’s recurrent themes are sin and salvation and a conflict between the moral perspectives of Old and New Testament, judgment and love. He explores these themes in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Paglia, Camille, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Vintage, 1991, pp. 512–30. As part of her celebrated, controversial, and wideranging examination of Western culture, Paglia treats The Picture of Dorian Gray as the fullest study of the Decadent erotic principle: the transformation of person into objet d’art.

Raby, Peter, Oscar Wilde, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 67–80. This is an introductory essay that emphasizes two major elements in the novel: the Sybil Vane episode and the yellow book that Lord Henry sends Dorian.

Bibliography

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Ellmann, Richard, ed. Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. An anthology of essays on the works of Oscar Wilde, by a series of well-known authors. Includes two essays on The Picture of Dorian Gray, a contemporary (1891) review of the book by Walter Pater, “A Novel by Mr. Oscar Wilde,” and a 1947 treatment by Edouard Roditis, “Fiction as Allegory: The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

McCormack, Jerusha Hull. The Man Who Was Dorian Gray. New York: Palgrave, 2000. A scholarly scraping together of the life of Wilde’s model.

Nunokawa, Jeff. Oscar Wilde. New York: Chelsea House, 1995. Part of a series entitled “Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians.” Includes an extensive discussion of The Picture of Dorian Gray as a love story, emphasizing the relationships between Gray and the two other major male characters in the book, Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward.

San Juan, Epifanio, Jr. The Art of Oscar Wilde. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1967. An analysis of Wilde’s major works. Includes a long chapter dealing with The Picture of Dorian Gray, which emphasizes Wilde’s treatment of psychology. Also includes a discussion of the work’s influence on later writers.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. A discussion of homosexuality in literature. In her treatment of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the author emphasizes sentimental love rather than sex. Also includes a discussion of the narcissistic qualities of the title character.

Weintraub, Stanley. Literary Criticism of Oscar Wilde. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968. A collection of the critical works of Wilde. Of particular interest is the series of letters Wilde wrote to various newspapers in response to the negative criticism the book received when first published.

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