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

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

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What are some significant locations in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

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It is useful to consider setting in The Picture of Dorian Gray in terms of how it displays the theme of duality—the contrast between good and evil, morality and immorality, and purity and decay. 

One clear example we have of this is the hidden location of the picture itself. From its creation by Basil, the picture is associated with the desire to remain hidden and secret. Basil expresses his reluctance to display the painting publicly as it contains too much of himself, referring presumably to his fascination with Dorian. 

Later, when Dorian himself notices the first signs of decay appearing on the painting, he hides it in the attic behind a curtain, permitting it to be seen by no one but him. The dark, dusty attic highlights the perverse delight that Dorian takes in his secrecy, contrasting with the rich, decadent, and perfumed settings so prevalent in the novel.

In chapter 11, Dorian is described as creeping up to the attic to view his flawless face in the mirror in contrast with the decayed face of the painting. He relishes the ability to indulge his vices hidden from the view of society and to maintain the look of "one who kept himself unspotted from the world."

In the same chapter, Dorian's delicately scented chamber is juxtaposed with "the sordid room of the little ill-famed tavern near the Docks," which he only ever frequents in disguise and under a false name. Public Dorian is fresh-faced, perfumed, and spotless—a dandy, certainly, but still able to use his beauty as a mask of innocence. In private, though, in the sordid little room in a seedy area of town and hidden behind the curtain in his own attic, Dorian indulges his vices with no thought to the consequences, thus displaying the duality between Dorian's angelic persona in public settings and the decrepit, decaying reality secreted behind a curtain.

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In The Picture of Dorian Gray, there are a number of settings which are significant because they reinforce the novel's key themes.

Firstly, consider Basil's studio. This setting, with its "rich odour of roses" and "heavy scent" of lilac, represents Dorian's innocence and youth, before he makes his supernatural pact to stay young and before he meets Lord Henry, who contributes to the corruption of his soul. It is interesting to note how the description of Basil's studio and garden reflect the importance of this meeting with Lord Henry: "The wind shook some blossoms from the trees . . . a grasshopper began to chirrup by the wall." This coming-alive of nature is symbolic of the impact which Lord Henry will have on the young Dorian. 

Secondly, Dorian's old schoolroom is an important setting in the novel. This first appears in Chapter Ten and evokes memories of Dorian's "lonely childhood" and the "stainless purity of his boyish life." The schoolroom thus symbolises repression: Dorian represses the painting from public view, so that his secret pact will never be revealed, just like he has repressed the painful memories of his childhood.

Finally, the opium dens, which feature in Chapter 16, are significant because they represent the corruption of Dorian's character and his soul. The opium den is the epitome of Dorian's hedonistic lifestyle and his selfish pursuit of pleasure. This idea is supported by the description of Dorian as he roams around:

Callous, concentrated on evil, with stained mind, and soul hungry for rebellion, Dorian Gray hastened on.

In other words, the opium dens transform Dorian, and he becomes just like the painting that he has tried so hard to conceal.

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