Dorian Gray Introduction
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel written by Oscar Wilde and published in 1890. Having been no stranger to scandal in his personal life, Wilde’s novel brought the philosophy of aestheticism to the public eye.
Dorian Gray is in part gothic fiction, but it is also a comedy of errors, following a young and attractive socialite as he trades his soul for eternal youth and beauty. His descent into sin and hedonism lead him to question where one finds the real source of beauty in life.
Dorian Gray Literary Elements
Author: Oscar Wilde
Type of Work: Novel
Genres: Gothic; comedy of manners
Published Date: 1890
Setting: Late nineteenth century in London, England.
Main Characters: Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton, Sibyl Vane
Protagonist: Dorian Gray
Antagonist: Dorian Gray; James Vane
Major Thematic Elements: Art’s purpose; youth and beauty as vehicles of influence; superficiality of society; the dangers of social influence
Motifs: The picture of Dorian Gray; white colors; homoerotic relationships
Exposition: Celebrated artist Basil Hallward meets Dorian Gray and, enthralled by his beauty, asks Dorian to sit as a model for his paintings.
Plot: chronological, through the eyes of an anonymous third person omniscient narrator
Major Symbols: Opium dens, James Vane, the yellow book
Climax: Dorian kills Basil
Literary Significance of Dorian Gray
When The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890, it was criticized for being immoral and full of scandal. Oscar Wilde defended his novel, explaining in an added preface that he subscribes to a philosophy of aestheticism. He explained that art possesses the value of beauty which is all that it has to do. He explains that art need not make any social or political commentary—it must simply be beautiful.
At this point in Victorian England, this sort of attitude towards art was unusual and somewhat revolutionary. Until this point, art was expected to uphold and reinforce morals and so stripping art of that responsibility was bold and uncomfortable. In many ways, aestheticism failed to really uphold its core purpose because it did influence a social and artistic movement.
One of the reasons why The Picture of Dorian Gray is so widely studied to this day is because it brings this puzzling aspect of aestheticism to light. The novel is partly gothic fiction, partly a comedy of manners, and partly a philosophical engagement. The is much to be picked apart from this novel and just as Victorian audiences felt confused, many literary scholars still find areas to continue to disagree about in terms of deeper meaning.
The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary
The novel opens in the luxurious London home of celebrated artist, Basil Hallward. He shows his latest painting to his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, who presses Basil to show his fine work off. Basil says that he cannot do that because he put too much of himself into that particular portrait. Basil reveals that the portrait is of a young man named Dorian Gray, whose beauty he admires so much that he credits it to having brought him out of an artistic crisis. Dorian arrives at the party, where at this point, everyone is eager to meet him.
In chapter two, Dorian woos the guests of the party with his charm and beauty. Dorian is going to sit for another portrait for Basil and he invites Lord Henry to stay and keep him company while he models. Basil dislikes the idea, saying that Lord Henry will be a bad influence on him. While Dorian models and Basil paints, the three discuss their personal philosophies. After the portrait is finished, Lord Henry admires it, but Dorian feels sad looking at it, suddenly aware that his youth and beauty will not last forever.
In chapter three, Lord Henry does some sleuthing into Dorian’s background. He finds out that the young man has an unhappy past, coming from a family with a troublesome social background. Lord Henry realizes that he could probably have great influence over Dorian because of this. The two go on to develop a friendship and when, weeks later, Dorian falls in love with a beautiful young woman, he is eager to tell Lord Henry all about it. The young lady is named Sibyl Vane and she is an actress who does Shakespeare plays. Dorian and Sibyl waste no time before getting engaged.
As Sibyl continues her acting career, she finds that her acting is terrible now that she is in love. She feels that pretend emotions are no longer interesting to her now that she has the real thing. Despite her acting career taking a hit, she is still happy. Dorian is appalled and no longer feels that he is in love with Sibyl. Distressed, Dorian wanders the streets of London alone. At this point in chapter seven, Dorian returns home to find that the portrait that Basil painted of him has developed a faint sneer. Dorian feels ashamed of himself and goes to bed with plans to make amends with Sibyl the next day.
The next morning, Dorian finds that the face in the painting has started to look even crueler than before. Lord Henry arrives and informs Dorian that Sibyl committed suicide after Dorian left her the previous night. Dorian resolves to live a life of hedonistic values and that he will maintain his youth and beauty while his portrait bears the marks of age and experience instead. Basil is hurt to find that this change has come over Dorian and blames Lord Henry’s influence. Basil requests to show the portrait at an art show, but Dorian refuses to allow it, instead keeping it hidden for himself behind a screen. In chapter ten, Dorian’s madness starts to really show. He has some men help him move the portrait into an abandoned school room near his apartment so that it can be kept away from prying eyes.
As years pass, Dorian maintains his youth and beauty as he falls more and more down a rabbit hole of hedonism. Rumors develop that he engages in sinful and dark behaviors and has made a pact with the devil. In chapter eleven, Dorian notices with delight the growing contradiction between his dark and corrupted soul and his youthful and innocent appearance. Dorian becomes paranoid that someone will find and steal his portrait.
Chapter twelve sees Dorian about to turn 38. While he is out the evening before his birthday, he passes Basil on the street. Basil follows Dorian home and confronts him about his behaviors, warning him that nobody can escape their sins. Basil asks Dorian about the rumors that trail him and why all of his relationships end in disaster. It is revealed that one young man who Dorian befriended committed suicide and others had their entire careers ruined. Basil laments that he wishes he could see Dorian’s soul, which amuses Dorian. He takes Basil to the painting to show him how he has maintained his beauty. Basil begs Dorian to pray for forgiveness but instead Dorian murders Basil by stabbing him repeatedly.
Overwhelmed, Dorian begins to seek out solace in opium dens. He knows that he cannot be forgiven for his sins, so he opts to forget them instead. In chapter sixteen, James Vane, Sibyl’s brother, has tracked Dorian down and threatens him at gunpoint. Dorian tricks James into thinking that he is not the right person, since it has been eighteen years since Sibyl’s death, but Dorian is clearly not old enough to have been responsible all those years ago. James lets Dorian leave but soon discovers that he had the responsible person all along.
Over the next couple of chapters, Dorian falls more and more paranoid and miserable. Terrified that James will catch up with him and kill him, Dorian can hardly leave his house. When he finally does, he feels that he sees bad omens and realizes that he has lost any ability to love. He wishes that he could feel anything.
In chapter nineteen, Dorian has finally had enough. He wants to try and find a way to live a life of virtue. He tells Lord Henry that he murdered Basil, but Lord Henry laughs and says that Dorian is not a vulgar enough person to have committed a murder. Finally, utterly lost and feeling trapped by a life of sin, in the final chapter of the book, Dorian takes a knife to the painting. When noises are heard by servants, they enter the room finding the portrait showing a young a beautiful Dorian and an old, ugly man on the floor with a knife through his heart.