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The Picture of Dorian Gray
KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
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.
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 – 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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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