Dorian Gray – An Introduction
The novel takes place in London, England in the late 1800s. The city environment is emphasized several times in the novel as Dorian spends a lot of time out at theaters, art showings, parties, and even opium dens.
Some of these environments, such as the opium dens and some of the cheaper theaters are portrayed as more of a representation of the darker sides of society, but there are still elements of beauty found within. For example, Dorian feels some disdain for the cheaper theaters but then finds his love Sibyl acting in one. Each place within the city that serves as a setting tends to have elements of ugliness and beauty mixed together which complicates the idea that life and be solely about a pursuit of luxury and beauty, as they are often found intertwined.
Relevant to the settings is the motif of homoerotic male relationships. As the settings tend to emphasize the presence of ugliness in a life focused on pursuing pleasure, these aspects of life that were then known as shameful or sordid come into focus more clearly. One such aspect is homoerotic relationships. Although there are not necessarily any explicitly homosexual relationships occurring, the tendency for one male to strongly and obsessively desire another male is found many times.
As the title suggests, the portrait that exists of Dorian is quite an important aspect of the story. It is the strongest motif found in the novel as it provides a sort of external conscious for Dorian as giving up his soul for eternal youth has caused him to lose his conscious and moral code. This connects to one last motif, which is the color white. As white appears throughout the novel, it tends to remind Dorian and the audience that he has completely given up his innocence in order to preserve his beauty.
Symbolism in Dorian Gray
Here’s a list of the major symbols in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
- Opium Dens
- James Vane
- The Yellow Book
Dorian begins to go to the opium dens when he is starting to realize the horrendous nature that his life has taken on. It seems that he cannot correct his actions because even a desire to do so is internally and selfishly motivated.
So instead, he opts to find ways to forget. The opium den is located in a remote and shoddy area of the city and symbolizes the state of disrepair that Dorian’s mentality about life has fallen into. Although Dorian can use opium in his own home, he prefers to travel out to these external locations perhaps because of the familiarity that he recognizes as his environment matches his mental state.
James is Sibyl’s brother and vows to avenge Sibyl’s death after Dorian’s actions lead her to commit suicide. For the sake of the story, he exists mostly to haunt Dorian. Since Dorian does not have any sort of clear moral inner voice, his external environment starts to manifest the ugliness of what he has done. In this way, James is a symbol for the guilt that Dorian should feel.
The Yellow Book
Lord Henry gives Dorian a yellow book that Dorian becomes quite absorbed by. The audience never finds out what the book is, but can assume that it is probably relevant to some of Lord Henry’s personal philosophies about life, pleasure, and beauty.
The book is described as a French novel that follows a pleasure-hungry protagonist. Dorian obsessively buys dozens of copies of the book and starts to treat it more like his own personal bible than a novel for entertainment purposes. The book symbolizes the cultural and social influence that can be found in art and speaks to The Picture of Dorian Gray’s broader theme speaking to the dangers of social influence.