The Picture of Dorian Gray Themes

Main Theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray – Introduction

The Picture of Dorian Gray is set in the late 19th century in London, England. The city provides an appropriate backdrop for a tale about beauty, hedonism, and pleasure-seeking lifestyles. At various points in the novel, the seedy nature of large cities is highlighted as Dorian, a wealthy young man, visits some of the more ragged theaters of town and eventually begins to spend time in opium dens. This emphasizes the uglier side of a life all about the pursuit of pleasure and beauty.

In terms of motifs, the novel’s most obvious one is the titular picture of Dorian Gray. When the artist Basil Hallward becomes enthralled with Dorian’s beauty and winds up painting the portrait that becomes his masterpiece, the realization hits Dorian that he will one day lose his attractiveness as he ages. Dorian allows the portrait to carry that burden for him as he ignores his conscious in pursuit of a life of pleasure and sin. However, the portrait serves as an external source of a conscious for Dorian and it torments him so that he hides it away from any other potential wandering eyes.

Another motif comes in a classic form as the color white. In the beginning of the novel, Dorian starts out as an impressionable and innocent young man. Throughout the story, the color white pops up again and again to remind the audience that Dorian has forsaken his innocence. Finally, a motif of homoerotic male relationships also surfaces throughout the tale. Basil adores Dorian’s beauty and becomes mildly obsessed with Dorian as his subject for a while. Lord Henry wishes to seduce Dorian to live a hedonistic life so that he can watch what results. Dorian threatens to blackmail Campbell and it is implied that perhaps he has some potential homosexual information about him.


Dorian Gray Themes

Here’s a list of major themes in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

  1. The Purpose of Art.
  2. Youth and Beauty.
  3. The Superficiality of Society.
  4. The Dangers of Social Influence.

Theme of The Purpose of Art

themes of picture of dorian grayArt’s Purpose in a Life of Beauty – Oscar Wilde’s own personal philosophy regarding art has its roots in aestheticism which claims that art has no real purpose other than to be beautiful.

The book explores the purpose of experiencing art in the process of trying to live a life of pleasure. In this case, a painting ends up bearing the uglier consequences of a life of pleasure in a way that forces the owner to acknowledge the burden of his sins. This is seen in Basil’s experiences as well as that he feels he cannot show the portrait at a gallery because he became too invested in the portrait’s subject. Despite his discomfort about this, the portrait is widely considered to be his life’s masterpiece.

Additionally, Sibyl releases her inhibitions and commits to a life of love when she gets engaged to Dorian. She then loses her ability to act. This all raises the question as to whether or not art really can just be art for the sake of enhancing the beauty of life. Is this the case, or does art automatically lend itself to something more? The novel as a whole carries an intense moral message itself.


Theme of Youth and Beauty

dorian gray themesYouth and Beauty as Vehicles of Influence – Youth and beauty are coveted traits from the very start of the novel when Basil is telling Lord Henry about the young man he recently painted and how entranced he was with the man’s attractive features.

Lord Henry recognizes that there is something special in this and immediately decides to influence the young and impressionable Dorian because he knows that Dorian will be able to win over anybody that he wants to. Time and time again throughout the novel, beauty is treated as something that can revitalize and inspire so it is no wonder that Dorian becomes terrified of the fact that he will lose this power when he begins to age. Essentially, what Dorian gives up in order to maintain his influence over others is his soul.


The Superficiality of Society

dorian gray summary themeThe Superficial Nature of Society – Dorian’s ability to maintain a youthful complexion helps him keep favor with the who’s who of London society despite the rumors that circulate about him. These people clearly favor beauty, manners, and appearance more than whether or not a person is good at heart.

Overall, Dorian finds it to be easier to abandon his morals to act out of his own selfish will because nobody in his sphere of social influence holds him accountable except for Basil, who tries but ultimately dies as a result of confronting Dorian. In fact, when Dorian tells Lord Henry that he killed Basil, Lord Henry just laughs it off saying that Dorian is not nearly brutal or aggressive enough to have committed a murder.


The Dangers of Social Influence

The Perils and Consequences of Social Influence – The social company that Dorian begins to keep includes people who share his personal philosophy that life has no meaning if it is not pleasurable and beautiful. In addition to these people, it is implied that Dorian also keeps company with impressionable young men and influences them in much the same way Lord Henry did when Dorian was younger.

It is no surprise that Dorian fell into this way of life when society was telling him over and over how lovely he looked but that he would one day lose it. When Dorian finds a way to keep himself from aging, he becomes devoid of any conscious or moral compass, but his face keeps him in the good favor of society because he appears innocent and pure in his features.