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

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

Start Free Trial

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

Quick answer:

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

What are the ideas or values presented in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Dorian comes to regret with all his heart the devil's bargain he has made to trade his own body's aging and growing ugly with the portrait doing it instead. He realizes too late that it has corrupted him and made him evil to be able to get away with depravity and cruelty and still look young and innocent. As he comes to the end of his saga, he feels sad and soiled, and he

felt a wild longing for the unstained purity of his boyhood—his rose-white boyhood, as Lord Henry had once called it.

He repents of having prayed the portrait age for him. He now realizes there is no free ride and that he was allowed to get away with things that have come back to haunt and torment him. He craves punishment, because it would purify him. He thinks:

Ah! in what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that the portrait should bear the burden of his days, and he keep the unsullied splendour of eternal youth! All his failure had been due to that. Better for him that each sin of his life had brought its sure swift penalty along with it. There was purification in punishment. Not "Forgive us our sins" but "Smite us for our iniquities" should be the prayer of man to a most just God.

The novel thus conveys traditional Christian moral values: a person's soul will be in torment until they pay for their crimes. There is no cheating God: one way or another, our sins catch up with us.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the ideas or values presented in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Well, there are clearly many possible answers to this excellent question. I will respond by just focussing on one alone, which is the Gothic idea of the double or the doppelganger. Running throughout this excellent Victorian Gothic novel is the idea that we have another "self" and the way that this "self" is actually a much more frightening manifestation of us than we allow to appear in our normal lives. In Gothic literature, this idea of the double is terrifying on the one hand, in terms of the way that it questions the uniqueness of identity, but at the same time it is also alien, as we project into our other selves aspects of our psyche that we repress or ignore.

Of course, the doppelganger in this novel is the painting of Dorian, that he describes as a mirror to his soul. Significantly, after the death of Sybil Vane and his acceptance of its power to reveal his own inner corruption whilst preserving his youthful beauty, he says:

Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins--he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame; that was all.

The relationship between Dorian and his portrait is thus established, and through the Faustian pact that Dorian makes, he is able to preserve his beauty and innocence overtly whilst being free to indulge in all of his most corrupted vices. Thus Dorian splits his soul and body in a way that will have unforeseen consequences for himself, as the end of the story indicates.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are possible themes in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

An important theme, which is actually the theme that moves the plot forward, is negative influence. Lord Henry's main goal since he first laid eyes on Dorian Gray was to change Gray's life and to make it fit Lord Henry's own whims. Lord Henry was able to read into Dorian's moral weakness, and even went as far as to use Dorian's unhappy family history as fuel to set the perfect scenario of corruption that he had set out for the young man. He knew that it would work because he used every technique possible to get through straight to Dorian's psyche. Ultimately, it was this negative influence what destroyed Dorian's body and soul.

Another salient theme is class and social differentiation. The aristocratic background of Dorian makes him more likely to listen to an equal, like Henry, rather than to follow the righteous path to good living proposed by his former best friend, the poor painter Basil. It is also class differentiation that seems to give Lord Henry the feeling of entitlement to control the lives of those around him. Certainly, he transferred that same feeling onto Dorian who, instead of changing, basically destroyed everyone in his path. 

A final theme that could be considered is one very dear to Oscar Wlde: art imitating life, and life imitating art. This theme is very salient in Dorian's obsession with Sybil Vane in Chapter 3. Notice how his primary attraction for Sybil is the fact that she is an actress who plays all of Shakespeare's heroines

She is all the great heroines of the world in one.

It is the idealized female that she represents when she acts, and not the real woman, that fuels Dorian admiration. In the case of art imitating life, Dorian intends the opposite; he wants (like Henry) for life to be a trivial exploration where art dominates one's every actions no matter how serious they are. Under an aesthetic, Wildean, perspective life and its daily torments is nowhere as important and interesting as the excesses that can only be possible when applying an artistic approach to it.

"To-night she is Imogen," [Dorian] answered, "and to-morrow night she will be Juliet."

[Henry:] "When is she Sibyl Vane?"


"I congratulate you."

Therefore, these themes help mold and move the plot of the novel by applying the main ideals of Wilde's style: life imitating art, the eternal search for sensations, the unfair reality of social imbalance, and bad influences.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on