Summary of The Picture of Dorian Gray

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The Picture of Dorian Gray book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Decadent movement

What It’s About

Art as a Mirror of the Soul

Oscar Wilde was the model of the dandy, with his impeccable style of dressing, exquisite manners and unrivaled quick-wittedness. As the 19th century ended and the 20th began, Oscar Wilde was the toast of London’s high society. But the publication of Wilde’s only novel changed everything: In 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray caused a minor scandal that would grow into a major one five years later, when the author was found guilty of homosexual activity. In the book, the dazzling youth Dorian wishes to stay young and handsome forever, while his portrait ages in his place. He indulges in depraved pleasures and doesn’t stop short of murder, until his conscience awakens at long last: Yet it takes a personal sacrifice for the picture and its model to switch places again. Thanks to the witty dialogue, the novel is fun to read, and the merciless cult of youth and beauty remains as topical in today’s age of social media self-promoters and reality stars as it was in Victorian England. This novel is one of Wilde’s most disturbing and profound works – humankind’s dream and nightmare simultaneously come true.

Take-Aways

  • While Oscar Wilde was a prolific writer and worked as a journalist, The Picture of Dorian Gray is his only novel. 
  • Dorian Gray wishes to stay young and beautiful forever, while his portrait ages in his place. His wish comes true: He lives the depraved existence of an aesthete and hedonist. Yet his abandonment to the vices leaves traces only in the picture. Finally, Dorian tries to destroy the ill-fated painting, killing himself in the process.
  • First published in a magazine in 1890, the novel was condemned as utterly immoral and vulgar.
  • The press in Victorian England had no patience for exposing the members of high society as hypocrites.
  • For the book’s publication in 1891, Wilde obscured some of the homoerotic elements and wrote a preface.
  • In the novel’s preface, Wilde suggests viewing “art for art’s sake” – the main position of the Aestheticism movement.
  • The fashionable dandy – a man with impeccable style, exquisite manners and quick-wittedness – became the icon of Aestheticism in England.
  • Dorian Gray played a major part in Oscar Wilde’s undoing.
  • The courts used the novel as proof for Wilde’s homosexual inclinations, and he was sentenced to two years of hard labor.
  • “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”
 

Summary

The Charming Dorian Gray

In his lavishly equipped studio, the painter Basil Hallward reveals his latest masterpiece: the picture of an exceedingly beautiful young man, a veritable Adonis with ivory skin and a face made of rose petals. Lord Henry Wotton, who is lounging on a divan smoking opium, applauds Hallward for his excellent work. The artist doesn’t want to divulge the model’s name to the smug and cynical Lord, yet it slips off his tongue anyway. His name is Dorian Gray, and Basil has made his acquaintance at a reception. Since that first encounter the innocent and handsome lad has had a profound effect on his life. Basil senses that Dorian represents the dawn of a new school of art. He doesn’t want Lord Wotton to meet his friend, because he’s afraid that the corrupt ways of the Lord could spoil his genuine, naive character. However, there’s no preventing it: Suddenly, Dorian Gray stands on the doorstep.

Innocence Lost

Against Basil’s explicit wishes, Dorian asks Lord Wotton to stay while the painter finishes up the portrait. Dorian is always bored, because Basil doesn’t say a word while working. Not so Lord Wotton: Self-denial, he says, cripples body and soul, and you should yield to temptations, otherwise the soul gets sick with lust. He unleashes a flood of words so that Dorian has to stop him in his tracks, seemingly impressed and agitated by such insights. Lord Wotton notes this with satisfaction. He is curious how much power he could gain over Dorian.

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” (Lord Wotton)

Dorian asks for a break and goes for a walk with the Lord in the garden. Lord Wotton tells him that youth is his greatest gift, a gift that he should put to use. He shouldn’t miss the thrill of emotions. Instead, he should live according to the new Hedonism and cherish the passions of his youth. Those words seem to affect Dorian a great deal, particularly the warning that youth is only short-lived. Just a quarter of an hour later the portrait is complete. The Lord is delighted, and even Dorian is deeply moved: Looking at the picture and thinking of their recent conversation, he suddenly becomes aware of his own beauty – and its transience.

“If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!” (Dorian)

He wishes to remain young and beautiful forever, and for the picture to grow old instead! Lord Wotton wants to buy the portrait, yet Dorian asks for it and Basil gives it to him for free. The Lord suggests going to the theater together in the evening. Basil declines but Dorian agrees.

Dorian Investigated

The next day Lord Wotton visits his uncle, Lord Fermor, who spends his days idling at the club, thereby knowing everybody who’s worth knowing. Lord Wotton wants to find out more about Dorian Gray’s parents. He learns that Dorian is Lord Kelso’s grandson and that Dorian’s mother, Margaret Devereux, ran away with a penniless fellow at the time. Her father, Lord Fermor remembers, was not amused, so he hired a scoundrel who challenged Dorian’s father to a duel and slaughtered him without mercy. Margaret Devereux was ravishingly beautiful, and died shortly after the boy was born. Meanwhile Dorian is sitting down for lunch with Lord Wotton’s aunt Lady Agatha, a renowned philanthropist, at a joint gathering Lord Wotton has arranged. On the way to his aunt he wonders how he could exploit young Dorian. The lad reacts so sensibly to every word that it’s a pleasure to remake him in his, Lord Wotton’s image, and this is precisely his intention: to influence Dorian on his terms and put his personal stamp on him. At lunch, Lord Wotton delights the noble guests with more details on his philosophy of pleasure and hedonism. More than anyone else, the spellbound Dorian hangs on Wotton’s lips, soaking up every word.

The Fair Actress

One month later Dorian goes to see Lord Wotton. He tells him that he’s fallen in love with an actress who is starring in Romeo and Juliet in a dingy, popular theater. Dorian found the play tedious and grotesque, but Sibyl Vane playing Juliet has left him struck with love and admiration. He can’t stay for dinner, because he wants to see her again in the theater. As soon as he’s gone, the Lord rubs his hands in glee: What a great human experiment is unfolding before his very eyes.

“Yes, Dorian, you will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit.” (Lord Wotton)

That same night he receives a telegram from Dorian saying that he’s become engaged to Sibyl. The girl tells her mother about the “Prince Charming” she’s fallen in love with. Yet Sibyl’s brother Jim Vane doesn’t trust his sister’s lover. Jim must leave to work on a ship heading to Australia, but swears that he’ll kill her suitor if he does Sibyl any wrong.

In the Theater

The next evening Dorian, Basil and Lord Wotton plan to go to the theater together. Basil talks to the Lord about Dorian’s impending marriage. He doesn’t approve of it, the difference in class being far too great in his view. But Lord Wotton is much more open-minded about the whole thing. Why not marry her, he argues with a dismissive air – in half a year Dorian would swap her for another woman anyway. Dorian appears with a radiant smile on his lips, raving about his newfound love. Basil feels gloomy. He senses that something has come between him and “his” Dorian, and that his friend is slipping away from him.

“My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.” (Lord Wotton)

The night in the packed theater ends on a dreadful note: They all agree that Sibyl is extraordinarily beautiful, but her acting is awfully wooden and, frankly, terrible. Dorian is ashamed of the catcalls and hisses in front of his friends, who leave the theater after the second act. As soon as the performance is over, he rushes to Sibyl’s dressing room and abuses her for having performed so poorly. She implores Dorian to understand that she was only acting badly because she was longing for him. But Dorian calls her “a third-rate actress with a pretty face” and announces that he doesn’t want to see her again.

Changes

Back home, a look at his portrait chills him: The picture has changed. There is now a hint of cruelty around his mouth on the canvas. At first he blames this on his nervous state of mind. But when he realizes that the stain is still there the next morning, he remembers his wish that the painting carry his sins, while he himself remains young and handsome. Now the picture appears to him like a reminder to his conscience.

“‘To see my soul!’ muttered Dorian Gray, starting up from the sofa and turning almost white from fear.”

He decides to apologize to Sibyl and marry her regardless. But then he gets a surprise visit by Lord Wotton, who lets him know that the previous night Sibyl committed suicide. Dorian’s first reaction is shock. However, little by little Lord Wotton manages to convince him that her death was a perfectly artistic finale – like in a Greek tragedy. He thinks that grief would be entirely out of place, so they make an appointment to visit the opera together. Dorian is beginning to like the fact that the portrait is paying for his sins. It seems like a source of unforeseen opportunities.

Paranoia

The next evening Basil visits Dorian and is quite puzzled that his friend seems unperturbed by Sibyl’s suicide. But Dorian looks so innocent that he doesn’t dare to lecture him. Instead he would like to see the painting, which he intends to exhibit in Paris soon. Dorian denies him a look at the disfigured picture. After Basil has left he moves the portrait to an unused room in the house. A paranoid fear takes hold of the appalled Dorian: No one is to see the picture under any circumstance whatsoever, not even his servant Victor.

The New Hedonism

For many years Dorian Gray lives the life of a dandy who indulges in the most pleasurable and reprehensible sins. The new kind of Hedonism that Lord Wotton used to preach manifests itself in Dorian’s life. He’s inspired to all sorts of new adventures and sensual experiences by a book about a French bon vivant that Lord Wotton gave to him. He frequents the dives of the London docks and consorts with petty criminals, following his passions and desires wherever they take him. Morals are entirely irrelevant to him. At the same time, he’s a perfectly cultivated gentleman, the best-dressed man in town. High society doesn’t believe any of the foul rumors about his dissolute life, given his youthful, fair looks and boyish demeanor that testify to a seemingly spotless character.

“A new Hedonism – that is what our century wants.” (Lord Wotton)

A day before his 38th birthday Dorian happens to meet Basil again. The painter is about to move to Paris and take an atelier to complete a picture he has in mind. Basil assails Dorian with questions about the wild rumors that are circulating about him, his supposed involvement in some of the greatest scandals in town and the dramatic social descent of several noted personalities, including a number of young men. The painter implores him to deny the purported debauchery and corrupting influence.

“Callous, concentrated on evil, with stained mind, and soul hungry for rebellion, Dorian Gray hastened on, quickening his step as he went.”

Dorian, with a contemptuous smile, leads Basil upstairs and unveils his “soul” to the painter: the portrait. Basil recoils in horror. A hideous, devilish face is glaring at him from the canvas. It seems as if sin itself had eaten away at the beautiful features like disgusting mold, overgrowing and disfiguring them. Basil kneels down and invites Dorian to pray for his soul with him. At that moment Dorian is overcome: He grabs a knife and kills the painter with it.

Youthful Sins

In order to get rid of the corpse, Dorian blackmails his old friend Alan Campbell, a young man he’s apparently had a relationship with in the past. The chemist succeeds in dissolving the corpse with nitric acid, so that not a trace of it is left behind. Having burned all of Basil’s possessions, Dorian hails a carriage and drives to an opium den, in order to calm his nerves. When he encounters several individuals whose lives he has ruined, he flees the place. Suddenly, he feels a revolver at his neck: Jim Vane, Sibyl’s brother, believes he recognizes the man who drove his sister to suicide. However, Dorian convinces Jim of his innocence with his youthful looks. After all, he argues, he’s far too young to have known his sister 20 years earlier. When a wasted prostitute swears that the man is, indeed, “the” Dorian Gray who has made a pact with the devil, Jim rushes out the door only to realize that the man he’s been searching for has disappeared.

A Murder in Oil Colors

A week later, Dorian’s guilty conscience stirs: During a reception at his country house he faints. He feels haunted by Sibyl’s brother and believes he sees the man watching him through a window. Was he real, or just an illusion? Dorian refuses to leave the house for days, until he finally joins his guests’ shooting party across the park. One of the hunters, while aiming at a hare, accidentally shoots a man who’s hiding in the thicket. They mistake him for an unfortunate beater, and Dorian thinks of the incident as an ill omen. But then the dead man turns out to be Jim Vane. Dorian is greatly relieved. Now there’s no need to fear anything or anyone from his past. A few months later he reveals to Lord Wotton that he intends to change and henceforth live a good live. The Lord sneers at this as usual: Dorian, he retorts, will never change, because he can’t. He’s lived life like a perfect work of art, and if he suddenly wants to alter and be good, then it is solely because he’s looking for the thrill of a novel sensation. They discuss Basil’s mysterious disappearance, and the Lord briefly mentions his own divorce and Alan Campbell’s suicide. Back home Dorian contemplates their conversation. Is it really impossible to change for the better? Is there no hope for a new life? Dorian remembers the portrait, the only witness to the murder of Basil. He goes up to where it’s locked away to see if it reflects his change of heart, noticing quite the opposite. There even seems to be fresh blood on his painted fingers.

“But this murder – was it to dog him all his life? Was he always to be burdened by his past? Was he really to confess? Never. There was only one bit of evidence left against him. The picture itself – that was evidence. He would destroy it.” (Dorian)

He takes a knife and stabs the loathsome picture. At that very moment his servant hears a terrible cry. Later when the servant forces his way into the room with the coachman and one of the footmen, they find the picture of Dorian Gray hanging upon the wall in its original splendid beauty. Lying on the floor is an old, wrinkled, hideous man with a knife in his heart. Only the rings on his fingers betray him as Dorian Gray.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Oscar Wilde divided The Picture of Dorian Gray into 20 chapters and provided a preface that sounds like a manifesto of Aestheticism, neatly phrasing his theses about the artist, art, literature and its possibilities of expression, such as: “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.” And finally: “All art is quite useless.” The mood and language are unmistakably fin de siècle, reflecting the typical end of century hedonism and decadence. The Picture of Dorian Gray could be a theater play dressed in prose: The back and forth of quick-witted conversations and Lord Wotton’s aphorisms are a dominant stylistic feature. Scenes and dialogues are as lively as they would be on stage, and the main protagonists are merely types that are playing a predetermined role: Basil Hallward represents morality, Lord Wotton unadorned cynicism and Dorian Gray the ultimate artwork of the “new Hedonism.”

Interpretation

  • The relationship between Dorian and his picture is an allusion to the Greek legend of Narcissus: The beautiful youth falls in love with his own reflection in the water and perishes because of it.
  • The novel focuses on the obsession with youth and beauty – a topic that continues to be highly relevant today. In Wilde’s version, this mania leads to egocentrism, moral decay and finally total self-destruction.
  • The beauty of young men, secret sinfulness, disguised debaucheries, seductive allure: All these motifs resonate with homosexuality, which triggered a scandal when the novel was published.
  • Oscar Wilde plays with the Renaissance idea that a beautiful body should harbor a beautiful mind, that is a morally impeccable person. In the late 19th century, the pseudoscience of physiognomy, in which facial features represent a person’s underlying character, was in its heyday. The Picture of Dorian Gray follows and perverts this principle at the same time: By passing on the physical signs of his amoral actions to the picture, he can – entirely unnoticed and unpunished – continue his depraved life. This narrative can be interpreted as a criticism of bourgeois morals, which get easily blinded by proper appearances.
  • The novel also addresses the morality of art: According to the author, art is neither good nor bad, obeying entirely different principles, just like the painting of Dorian Gray. Wilde says in the preface: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Nevertheless, The Picture Dorian Gray is considered a moral book today.

Historical Background

Aestheticism at the End of the 19th Century

“I altered the minds of men and the color of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder…. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.” This is how Oscar Wilde saw himself and his effect on art, literature and high society. Aestheticism includes a number of trends that were all directed against Naturalism, merging art nouveau, decadent literature and impressionism. Oscar Wilde took great influence from the works of the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, a proponent of the decadent movement, and the English art critic John Ruskin.

In time, Wilde became the main representative of Aestheticism in England. It was not so much his works but his life that turned him into an icon of the movement: Rich, successful and famous, he flirted with his image of being a fashion plate, a dandy with a long mane and the most extravagant dress. He manipulated the media and staged his public appearances as thrilling spectacles. The Aesthetic movement questioned dull bourgeois existence with its strict political, moral and religious norms. In other words: It contested the entire value system of Victorian England, which worshiped materialism, utilitarianism and colonialism while hiding the misery of the masses under the hypocritical mask of philanthropy. According to the proponents of Aestheticism, including Charles Baudelaire, Stefan George and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, life should be dedicated to enjoying the pleasure of beauty. “L’art pour l’art” – art for art’s sake – became their maxim.

Development

The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only novel, and he wrote it even before reaching the pinnacle of his literary fame. Published in the summer of 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, it shocked the public, causing a huge scandal. The press denounced it as “vulgar,” “poisonous” and “a sham.” In Victorian England, art was supposed to be morally edifying. Yet here there was, in the eyes of Wilde’s critics, an utterly immoral work. Disappointed by the harsh judgment, Wilde reworked it for its publication as a book in 1891. In order to defend himself and prevent future attacks, he blurred some of the homoerotic passages in the text, and added several chapters as well as a preface. Unfortunately, that made it even easier on his critics: In light of the introduction, Dorian Gray’s character appeared immoral not by happenstance, but by design, as Wilde wrote that art wasn’t supposed to serve any purpose or teach a moral lesson – as long as it was beautiful.

Reviews and Legacy

Wilde admitted that the novel was a self-portrait of sorts. In 1894, he wrote in a letter that it “contains much of me: Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks of me: Dorian what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.” The moral transgressions and exposure of hypocrites in supposedly good London society were crimes that the English press united to punish. Upon publication, the Daily Chronicle wrote on June 30, 1890: “There is not a single good and holy impulse of human nature, scarcely a fine feeling or instinct that civilization, art, and religion have developed throughout the ages as part of the barriers between Humanity and Animalism that is not held up to ridicule and contempt in Dorian Gray.”

While the author only made veiled allusions to a homosexual relationship between Basil and Dorian, he was much less discreet in his own life: The same year the book edition was published, he began a tempestuous and scandalous relationship with the young and spoiled Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, publicly derided Wilde as being a “somdomite,” which prompted the author to sue the Marquess for criminal libel. Eventually, Queensberry’s private detectives dragged out all sorts of sordid private affairs. In 1895, Wilde went on trial for “sodomy and gross indecency” and was sentenced to two years’ hard labor. The Picture of Dorian Gray was used in court to prove the author’s homophile inclination. Having once been the darling of high society, Oscar Wilde could never recover from the public hatred and ostracism he experienced.

About the Author

Oscar Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin. His mother was a writer, his father a surgeon. Wilde studied classical philology in Dublin and Oxford. Already as a student he was enthusiastic about the ideals of Aestheticism, religiously putting into practice the extension of the cult of beauty to all aspects of life. He acquired a reputation for his eccentric looks, sporting long hair and exquisite clothes. In 1879, he moved to London, taught aesthetics there and quickly moved up the ranks into high society. In 1884, he married the wealthy and well-educated Constance Lloyd, who gave birth to their sons Cyril and Vyvyan in 1885 and 1886. Around this time, he began to actively pursue his homosexuality. After writing poetry, essays and fairy tales, he published his only novel in 1891, the scandalous The Picture of Dorian Gray. With the theater play Lady Windermere’s Fan, he established himself as an acclaimed author of sparkling wit and sharp intellect, in spite of Victorian reservations about his “immorality.” Wilde consolidated his reputation in the years following with the plays A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest. Then he was undone by his long-term relationship with the young snob Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was sentenced to a two-year prison term on the grounds of sodomy and gross indecency. While in jail he wrote De Profundis, a two-part letter to Douglas about their relationship and its aftereffects. He lived his last years in relative poverty on the European continent, supported by friends. Before his death in Paris on November 30, 1900, he published only The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a long poem about the experience of his imprisonment.


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