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

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

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What is Wilde's writing style in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

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In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's writing is complex, ornate, and humorous. His writing balances long complex sentences filled with figurative language with short and witty sentences. This style is indicative of Wilde's belief that beautiful art should be created for the sake of itself.

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From the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the reader can infer that Oscar Wilde’s style in the novel will be ornate, elaborate, and beautiful. Wilde writes,

The artist is the creator of beautiful things … Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

Wilde considers himself an artist creating beautiful things, especially with this novel. Therefore, Wilde’s writing style can be described as ornate and humorous. His writing is filled with complex syntax, figurative language, and details.

We can consider a quote from the first chapter of the book as an example:

From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion.

Note that this is a single, complex sentence. Within this sentence, Wilde includes details, anthropomorphism, metaphor, alliteration, imagery, and allusion. He also has a languid and educated tone. Lord Henry considers the beauty of the blossoms and compares the birds to Japanese art. Wilde’s ornate and complex style, exemplified by this single sentence, demonstrates Wilde’s belief that art should be beautiful for the sake of having beautiful art.

Wilde’s writing style is also famously humorous. In this book, the characters jab at one another. For example, Lord Henry tells Dorian, “you will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit” (chapter 6). Wilde’s humor helps to balance the elaborate syntax and erudite diction. Overall, Wilde’s writing style is sharp, purposeful, and vivid.

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Oscar Wilde was a member of the Aesthetic movement, a movement that said art should exist for its own sake.  Much of what he wrote in A Picture of Dorian Gray was a reflection of this idea, from its aphorisms to its ornate prose to the allegorical nature that characterizes the story.

Wilde uses aphorisms to draw his reader into the story.  In his Preface, for example, he says, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim.” In the very first line of the novel, Wilde tells us that art, the creation of beauty, is what is most important.  This applies not only to the way he writes, but also to what he writes about. He says, “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated,” challenging the reader to find those beautiful meanings. He also challenges the reader to go beneath the surface of his narrative when he says, “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.” Telling the reader not to search for meaning beneath the surface only makes the reader inclined to do just that.

Wilde’s use of ornate prose throughout the novel is another great example of the aesthetic style. Wilde could use simpler words, and he could construct his sentences differently. He does not do this because, after all, part of his purpose is to write beautifully for the sake of writing beautifully. “I wonder can you realize all that that means? Unconsciously he defines for me the lines of a fresh school, a school that is to have in it all the passion of the romantic spirit, all the perfection of the spirit that is Greek. The harmony of soul and body—how much that is!” (Chapter 1).  The way Wilde expresses himself is part of the point he is trying to make about beauty for its own sake.

Finally, the story Wilde is trying to tell is an allegory.  Why write an allegory when a simple, straightforward story would do?  In keeping with the aesthetic movement, Wilde structures the story as an allegory in order to celebrate this style.  Dorian’s story is the story of an innocent young man who falls from grace as the result of the corruptive influence of evil in the form of Lord Henry.  Dorian essentially sells his soul to keep his youth.  In using the portrait as part of the allegory, Oscar Wilde challenges the reader to discover that art cannot be life, and that beauty for its own sake also has its flaws.

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“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde’s only novel, is almost written in the style of a dramatic play rather than the conventions of the novel at the time. He does not seem to be concerned with going into long detail with describing the setting of the story, but more concerned with the dialog and demeanor of the characters to further the plot along.

Also like his plays, in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” Wilde doesn’t use many characters to tell the story.  The plot centers on only three major characters: Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil. Besides focusing on what these characters say, Wilde depends a lot on the reader’s interpretation of the way they act and behave to certain situations, instead of just telling the reader about it as a typical author of the time would do in a novel.


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What kind of literary style does Wilde use in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde demonstrates a unique and varied writing style.

In the novel, Wilde makes frequent use of sensory language and imagery. It can be said that he sometimes dedicates almost too much time and detail to his descriptions, making them overly elaborate. Given that the novel largely focuses on notions of excess, art, and aesthetics, Wilde’s excessive explanations and detailed aesthetic descriptions are appropriate as they parallel the novel’s motifs.

Another hallmark of Wilde’s literary style in the novel is his emphasis on paradoxical language. Wilde juxtaposes many conflicting ideas throughout the novel such as public and private personas, reality and appearances, and so on. Once again, Wilde’s language and writing style reflect the paradoxical nature of the novel itself.

Wilde frequently adds levity to the novel by injecting humorous content into a plot that focuses on some rather dark, ominous topics including sin, deceit, and death. In a sense, this contrast of humor and darkness is another example of paradox.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is largely an intertextual novel. Wilde makes frequent references to other written works including Greek folklore, Shakespeare’s works, historical recollections and figures, and so on. Wilde makes references to real people and texts in the creation of his artistic work—an example of art imitating life. This mirrors the art-life connection we see between Dorian and his portrait.

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