The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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. 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

(Novels for Students)

Aestheticism and Decadence
Aestheticism was a literary movement in late nineteenth-century France and Britain. It was a reaction...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

An epigram is a short, witty statement in prose or verse. Wilde is famous for his epigrams, and the novel furnishes many...

(The entire section is 380 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

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

Today: Homosexuality is no longer a...

(The entire section is 214 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Who is most to blame for the tragedy of Dorian Gray—Lord Henry, Basil Hallward, or Dorian himself?

Research how attitudes...

(The entire section is 121 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The Picture of Dorian Gray has been adapted to film in the following versions: the version starring George Sanders (Warner, 1945); the...

(The entire section is 41 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895; first published, 1899) was the last of Wilde’s four stage comedies and is generally regarded...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

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

(The entire section is 304 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.