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The Picture of Dorian Gray

KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS

SETTING

The novel is set in London at the end of the nineteenth century;

one chapter is set at Dorian Gray’s country estate, Selby Royal.

CHARACTERS

MAJOR CHARACTERS

Basil Hallward – the artist who paints the portrait of Dorian Gray.

He is so enamored of Dorian Gray that he feels himself dominated

by Dorian. His art changes when he paints Dorian Gray. He is

eventually murdered by Dorian Gray when he tries to urge Dorian

to reform himself.

Lord Henry Wotton – the aristocrat who corrupts Dorian Gray

with his ideas that morality is hypocrisy used to cover people’s

inadequacies. He decides early on that he wants to dominate

Dorian Gray.

Dorian Gray – the object of fascination for everyone. He is the

most beautiful man anyone has ever seen. He prays that he should

change places with a portrait painted of him when he is quite

young. He prays that he will stay young forever and the portrait

will show signs of age and decadence. His prayer comes true and

he remains beautiful even while being corrupt.

CONFLICT

PROTAGONIST

Dorian Gray, a man who is jolted out of oblivion at the beginning

of the novel and made aware of the idea that his youth and beauty

are his greatest gifts and that they will soon vanish with age.

ANTAGONIST

Lord Henry Wotton, the bored aristocrat who tells Dorian Gray

that he is extraordinarily beautiful. He decides to dominate Dorian

and proceeds to strip him of all his conventional illusions. He

succeeds in making Dorian live his life for art and forget moral

responsibility.

A secondary antagonist is age. Dorian Gray runs from the ugliness

of age throughout his life. He runs from it, but he is also fascinated

with it, obsessively coming back again and again to look at the

signs of age in the portrait.

CLIMAX

The climax follows Sibyl Vane’s horrible performance on stage

when Dorian Gray tells her he has fallen out of love with her

because she has made something ugly. Here, Dorian rejects love

for the ideal of beauty. The next morning, he changes his mind and

writes an impassioned letter of apology, but too late; Sibyl has

committed suicide.

OUTCOME

Dorian Gray becomes mired in the immorality of his existence. He

places no limit on his search for pleasure. He ruins people’s lives

without qualm. His portrait shows the ugliness of his sins, but his

own body doesn’t. His attempts at reform fail. He even kills a

messenger of reform–Basil Hallward. Finally, he kills himself as

he attempts to “kill” the portrait. He dies the ugly, old man and the

portrait returns to the vision of his beautiful youth.

PLOT (Synopsis)

The novel opens in Basil Hallward’s studio. He is discussing his

recent portrait of Dorian Gray with his patron Lord Henry Wotton.

He tells Lord Henry that he has begun a new mode of painting

after his contact with Dorian Gray, a young man of extraordinary

beauty. He doesn’t want to introduce Lord Henry to Dorian

because he doesn’t want Lord Henry to corrupt the young man. He

says he is so taken with Dorian Gray that he feels the young man

dominates all his thoughts. When Lord Henry meets Dorian Gray,

he finds him to be totally un-self-conscious about his beauty. Lord

Henry talks to Dorian Gray of his philosophy of life. Lord Henry

finds all of society’s conventions from fidelity in marriage to

charity toward the poor to be hypocritical covers for people’s

selfish motives. Dorian Gray feels the weight of Lord Henry’s

influence on his character. When they see the finished portrait of

Dorian that Basil has painted, they are enthralled by the beauty that

Basil has captured. Dorian bemoans the inevitable loss of his

youth. He wishes that he could change places with the painting,

that it could grow old and he could stay the same.

Lord Henry decides to dominate Dorian Gray just has Basil has

told him Dorian Gray dominates him. They have dinner at Lord

Gray’s Aunt Agatha’s house. She is a philanthropist and Dorian

has been working with her. Lord Gray wittily ridicules the goals of

philanthropy and Dorian is swept away by his logic.

Weeks later, Dorian tells Basil Hallward and Lord Henry that he

has fallen in love with a young actress named Sibyl Vane, who acts

in a run-down theater. He tells them he is engaged to Sibyl Vane.

At the Vanes’ house, Sibyl tells her mother of how much she is in

love with her young admirer, whose name she doesn’t know, but

whom she calls Prince Charming. Mrs. Vane thinks her daughter

might be able to get money out of the aristocratic young man.

Sibyl’s brother James, on the other hand, hates the idea of a rich

man using and then leaving his sister. It is James’s last night on

shore before he ships off as a sailor. Before he goes, he vows to

kill the man if he ever hurts Sibyl. He learns from his mother that

his and Sibyl’s father was an aristocrat who vowed to take care of

the family financially, but died before he could.

Dorian arranges a dinner with Basil and Lord Henry, after which

they will go to the theater to see Sibyl Vane act. He tells the other

men how amazed he has been by Sibyl’s acting talent. When they

arrive at the theater and the play begins, they are all appalled at

Sibyl’s horrible acting. The two other men try to console Dorian

Gray, telling him it doesn’t matter if a wife is a good actor or not.

He tells them to leave and he stays on in torment through the rest

of the play. When the play is over, he goes back stage to talk to

Sibyl. She tells him she doesn’t care that her acting was so bad.

She says she realizes that she can no longer act because she is in

love with him. Before, she could act because she had no other

world besides the created world of the stage. Dorian tells her he is

ashamed of her and disappointed in her. He tells her he only fell in

love with her because of her artful acting. Now he feels nothing for

her. Sibyl begs him not to leave her, but he refuses to listen and

walks out.

THEME

MAIN THEME

The main theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the relationship

between beauty and morality. Oscar Wilde plays on the

Renaissance idea of the correspondence between the physical and

spiritual realms: beautiful people are moral people; ugly people are

immoral people. His twist on this theme is in his use of the magical

contrivance of the portrait. The portrait of Dorian Gray bears all

the ugliness and age of sin while Dorian himself remains young

and beautiful no matter what he does. The portrait even holds

Dorian’s guilty conscience, at least until he kills Basil Hallward.

MINOR THEME

The minor theme of the novel is the idea of the amorality of art. If

something is beautiful, it is not confined to the realm of morality

and immorality. It exists on its own merits. This idea is expressed

by Lord Henry in its decadent aspect and by Basil Hallward in its

idealistic aspect. Dorian Gray plays it out in his life.

MOOD

The mood of the novel is a counterbalance between the witty,

ironical world view of Lord Henry and the earnest and

straightforward world view of Basil Hallward. Dorian Gray goes

back and forth between these two poles. The novel does too. At

times, it is the world of urbane wit making light of the moral

earnestness of philanthropists. At times, it is the melodramatic

world of lurid opium dens and tortured suicides.

OVERALL ANALYSES

CHARACTERS

Basil Hallward: Basil Hallward is perhaps an old-fashioned

representative of the aesthetic movement. He lives his life artfully,

making a mystery when there is usually predictability, for instance,

in his habit of taking trips without ever telling people where he’s

going. He dedicates his life to art and, when he sees Dorian Gray,

decides to found a new school of art, one devoted to the youthful

beauty of his subject. His home is filled with beautiful things. He

has clearly devoted his life to the pursuit of the aesthetic as a way

of life.

He is an old-fashioned aesthete in the sense that he is willing to

give up art for the sake of moral responsibility. When he sees

Dorian has become upset over the portrait he paints of the boy, he

is willing to destroy the painting. This is a painting he has just said

is the best work of his artistic career. Basil Hallward is the only

one in Dorian Gray’s life who beseeches him to reform himself. In

this respect, Basil Hallward is the moral center of the novel. The

novel opens with him and the plot action sees a sharp downward

turn when he is murdered. Basil Hallward play a small role in the

novel, only appearing at three points in Dorian Gray’s life, but his

influence is great.

Lord Henry Wotten: Lord Henry is the radical aesthete. He lives

out all of the precepts of the aesthetic movement as outlined in the

Preface to the novel. He refuses to recognize any moral standard

whatsoever. He spends his time among aristocrats whom he

ridicules in such a witty fashion that he makes them like him.

When the novel opens, he and his opposite in aestheticism are

discussing the protagonist, Dorian Gray. Basil Hallward earnestly

enjoins Lord Henry to leave Dorian Gray alone, not to interfere

with him, not to exert his influence on the youth. Lord Henry

ignores Basil’s plea entirely. He never has a qualm about doing

just the opposite of what Basil begged him to do. He immediately

begins to exert his influence on the beautiful Dorian Gray, an

opposite influence to that which Basil Hallward would wish for.

He makes Dorian Gray self-aware, self-conscious, and even self-

involved. He gives Dorian Gray an inward focus and ridicules

Dorian’s attempts to find an outward focus in philanthropy. He

takes Dorian Gray around to all the fashionable salons and drawing

rooms of the London aristocracy showing him off, encouraging

him in his self-gratifying pursuits.

When Dorian Gray attempts to reform himself at the end of the

novel, Lord Henry remains true to his long-established purpose. He

ridicules Dorian’s attempts to deny his gratification for a greater

good and thus makes Dorian feel it is futile to attempt to reform.

At the beginning of the novel, Basil Hallward scoffs at Lord

Henry’s amoral aphorisms, saying that Lord Henry always says

bad things but never does anything bad. Basil Hallward feels that

Lord Henry’s amorality is just a pose. By the end of the novel,

when Lord Henry takes Dorian’s last chance of reform away from

him, the reader might assume that Basil Hallward was wrong. Lord

Henry is immoral in his supposed amorality.

PLOT: Oscar Wilde plots The Picture of Dorian Gray on a model

of descent. Dorian Gray begins at the height of his beauty and

innocence. Basil Hallward is also at the height of his artistry at the

opening of the novel. The novel is the inexorable downward slide

of the protagonist, however secret that downward slide is. When

Basil Hallward recognizes the depths to which Dorian Gray has

sunk, he attempts to pull him out of it and is killed for the attempt.

When Dorian Gray attempts to bring himself back into moral

rectitude, he fails.

The secondary plot structure of the novel is the triangular

relationship among Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry.

In the first few chapters f the novel, Wilde sets up the triangle.

Basil Hallward is enraptured with Dorian Gray’s beauty. Dorian

Gray doesn’t yet recognize the power this gives him. He doesn’t

even recognize the power of his beauty. Then comes Lord Henry,

the man who brings Dorian Gray into self-consciousness and pulls

him away from the influence of Basil Hallward. Basil Hallward

dies trying to bring Dorian Gray back under his influence. The

novel ends with Dorian making a last, pitiful attempt to convince

Lord Henry to release him from his influence.

When Dorian Gray attempts to destroy the portrait, he is trying to

destroy the link between art and morality, the link which Lord

Henry has forever denied. The attempt kills him. Oscar Wilde

suggests that there is a vital link after all between the beautiful and

the good.

THEMES

Under debate in The Picture of Dorian Gray from beginning to end

is the relationship between beauty and morality. Oscar Wilde sets

up the triangular relationship along the lines of this debate. Basil

Hallward takes the position that life is to be lived in the pursuit of

the beautiful and the pleasurable, but he is unwilling to divorce the

good from the beautiful. Lord Henry, on the other hand, goes

through life throwing one aphorism after another together to prove



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