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The Picture of Dorian Gray
By Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
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Type of Work
Publication Dates
Setting
Characters
Point of View
Plot Summary
Themes
Climax
Witty Dialogue
Allusions
Symbols
Epigrams
Dorian Gray as Faust
Foreshadowing Real Life
Wilde's Aesthetic Theory
Study Questions
Essay Topics
 Author Information
Complete Free Text
Index Page
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised in 2010.©

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Type of Work
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.......The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel that combines elements of Gothic horror with satire and tragedy. Let us consider these elements one at a time:

Gothic Elements

.......Although the work is not a true Gothic novel in the manner of the books of Horace Walpole and the Brontë sisters, it does contain characteristics of many Gothic novels, such as the suggestion of a supernatural presence, darkness and rain, murder and suicide, characters with mysterious pasts, and a secret room (the “old schoolroom”). The Gothic atmosphere of the novel even manifests itself in the brightness of a cheerful day, as the following passage in Chapter 14—describing events on the morning after Dorian's murder of Basil Hallward—demonstrates:

    .......As he opened his eyes a faint smile passed across his lips, as though he had been lost in some delightful dream. Yet he had not dreamed at all. His night had been untroubled by any images of pleasure or of pain. But youth smiles without any reason. It is one of its chiefest charms. 
    .......He turned round, and leaning upon his elbow, began to sip his chocolate. The mellow November sun came streaming into the room. The sky was bright, and there was a genial warmth in the air. It was almost like a morning in May.
    .......Gradually the events of the preceding night crept with silent, blood-stained feet into his brain and reconstructed themselves there with terrible distinctness. He winced at the memory of all that he had suffered, and for a moment the same curious feeling of loathing for Basil Hallward that had made him kill him as he sat in the chair came back to him, and he grew cold with passion. The dead man was still sitting there, too, and in the sunlight now. How horrible that was! Such hideous things were for the darkness, not for the day.
Satire

.......The novel satirizes Victorian aristocrats. First, it ridicules them for having little more to do than gossip, attend parties, and dabble in the arts. They live on inherited wealth and/or on enterprises sustained by the underclass. Lord Fermor, for one, derives income from his Midlands collieries (coal-mining operations). He regards this “taint of industry” as excusable because it provides money for him to burn wood in his fireplace. Second, the novel ridicules these same aristocrats for prizing appearances over substance. They assay a person’s worth on his looks, his money, his social status. For example, Lord Kelso disdains his daughter’s husband because he is a lowly subaltern in the military. On the other hand, Wotton and Hallward extol Dorian Gray primarily for his physical qualities. Late in the novel, after Dorian descends into depravity and tongues wag against him, he continues to move in the highest social circles because of his money and unchanged looks.

Tragedy

.......The novel can be regarded as a tragedy in that the protagonist, Dorian Gray, suffers a downfall and dies because of a flaw in his character—inordinate pride, or hubris—about his physical appearance.

Publication Dates
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.......Oscar Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890, then revised and published it in book form in 1891. In the latter version (the one sold in bookstores today), Wilde added a preface and six chapters; he also moderated references to implied sexuality. Many critics condemned the novel as scandalous even though it clearly demonstrates the pernicious effects of immoral behavior. 

Setting
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.......The action takes place in London, England, in the late nineteenth century. The narration also says Dorian Gray spent time at a villa in Trouville, at a house in Algiers, and at a house he maintained in Nottinghamshire.

Characters
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Dorian Gray Young man with extraordinary good looks. Orphaned as an infant, he was brought up by his wealthy grandfather, who despised Dorian. Dorian inherits a great deal of money when he comes of age. On the surface, he seems a decent fellow at first, although he no doubt suffers psychological problems rooted in his upbringing. Under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian slips into a life of dissolution and scandalous behavior.
Lord Henry Wotton Corrupt aristocrat who smokes opium-tainted cigarettes, reads scandalous books, and generally pursues a life of pleasure. Enthralled with Dorian because of his remarkable looks, which remind him of ancient Greek works of art, he introduces Dorian to perverse pleasures. Wotton is ten years older than Dorian.
Basil Hallward Artist who paints a full-length portrait of Dorian Gray. It is the best work he has ever done, he says, because Dorian and his looks inspired him to pour all of his talent into the painting. He wants to keep the portrait rather than exhibiting it, then decides to give it to Dorian. Hallward is genuinely concerned about Dorian’s welfare. After Dorian falls into his shameful lifestyle, Hallward implores him to reform his ways—and incurs Dorian’s wrath.
Sybil Vane Young, beautiful, impoverished Shakespearean actress who falls in love with Dorian, whom she calls "Prince Charming." When he ends their relationship, he breaks her heart.
Mrs. Vane Mother of Sybil. Mrs. Vane, also an actress, plays the part of Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet
James Vane Brother of Sybil. Deeply concerned about his sister’s welfare, he is suspicious of Dorian Gray’s attentions to her. Many years after Sybil's death, he tracks Dorian down. 
Margaret Devereux Mother of Dorian Gray. Although she does not appear as a living character in the novel—she died before the action in the novel begins—references to her and her background are important. Margaret was a woman of exceptional beauty with a substantial inheritance and, therefore, extremely popular with men. However, she ran off with a penniless foot soldier. He was killed in a duel by a thug hired by her father, Lord Kelso.
Lord Kelso Dorian Gray’s wealthy maternal grandfather. After the death of Dorian's mother, he takes Dorian into his home even though he despises the boy because he reminds him of his daughter and her marriage to a no-account soldier. 
Lord George Fermor Lord Henry Wotton’s uncle. He provides Wotton key background information about Dorian Gray.
Mr. Isaacs Manager of the theatre where Sybil Vane acts. Dorian despises him, apparently because he is a Jew, and thinks of him as a Caliban (a beast-man in Shakespeare’s The Tempest). Isaacs provides Mrs. Vane money to help the family pay its debts.
Alan Campbell Acquaintance of Dorian Gray. Campbell, who has studied chemistry, dissolves the body of Dorian's murder victim, Basil Hallward, after Gray threatens to disclose a secret that would embarrass Campbell.
Adrian Singleton An acquaintance of Dorian. He is one of the young men befriended and ruined by their contact with Dorian. None of Adrian’s friends will speak to him any more. Dorian encounters him in an opium den.
Lady Agatha: Lord Henry's aunt, who hosts him and others--including Dorian Gray--at a luncheon.
Duchess of Harley: Woman who attends Lady Agatha's luncheon.
Sir Thomas Burdon: Radical member of Parliament and a guest at Lady Agatha's.
Mr. Erskine: Charming older gentlemen who tends to remain silent at social affairs, explaining that he had already said everything he had to say before he reached age thirty.
Mrs. Vandeleur: Friend of Lady Agatha. Mrs. Vandeleur dresses like "a badly bound hymn-book."
Lord Faudel: "Mediocre" middle-aged man who is a guest at Lady Agatha's luncheon.
Duke of Berwick: On one occasion, when Dorian Gray entered a room in a men's club, the duke rose and left because he did not wish to associate with the young man.
Lady Brandon Society hostess who introduces Hallward to Dorian Gray.
Mr. Hubbard Frame-maker who, with an assistant, helps Dorian move the portrait upstairs, where visitors will not be able to see the mysterious changes in it.
Hetty Merton Beautiful country girl Dorian decides to spare from corruption.
Mrs. Leaf Dorian Gray’s housekeeper.
Victoria Wotton Lord Henry's wife. In time, she leaves him. 
Duchess of Harley:
Various Lords, Ladies, Servants, Footmen, Hansom Driver

Point of View

.......Wilde tells the story in omniscient third-person point of view, enabling him to reveal the thoughts of his characters, as in the following Chapter 2 passage centering on Lord Henry Wotton:

With his subtle smile, Lord Henry watched him [Dorian Gray]. He knew the precise psychological moment when to say nothing. He felt intensely interested. He was amazed at the sudden impression that his words had produced, and, remembering a book that he had read when he was sixteen, a book which had revealed to him much that he had not known before, he wondered whether Dorian Gray was passing through a similar experience. He had merely shot an arrow into the air. Had it hit the mark? How fascinating the lad was!
Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
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.......In his London studio on a pleasant summer day, artist Basil Hallward assesses a painting on an easel in the middle of the room. It is his life-sized portrait of an extraordinarily handsome young man named Dorian Gray. With Hallward is Lord Henry Wotton, a witty and cynical friend. Wafting in from the garden through an open door is the scent of flowers to compete with the smoke from Wotton’s cigarette, which is tainted with opium.
.......Wotton declares that the portrait is the best painting Hallward has ever done and suggests that he submit it for display at the Grosvenor. But Hallward says he has put so much of himself into the painting that he plans to keep it.
.......“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter,” Hallward explains. “The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul."
.......Hallward had met Gray at the home of society hostess Lady Brandon. There, while dowagers, academicians and other lofty personages stood around conversing, Hallward’s gaze met Gray’s, and the experience had an unsettling effect on the painter.
.......“I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself,” Hallward tells Wotton.
.......Lady Brandon introduced Gray to Hallward, and the two men immediately became good friends. 
.......Wotton is eager to meet Gray. While he and Hallward are in the garden discussing him, Gray enters the studio and sits down at a piano, leafing through the sheet music of a Schumann piece. When Hallward and Wotton come in, Hallward introduces Wotton as an old friend from Oxford University, warning that Wotton is a bad influence. Wotton thinks the youth is "certainly wonderfully handsome," the narrator tells the reader, "with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth's passionate purity."
.......Later, while Hallward continues to daub at the painting, Gray and Wotton talk in the garden. The narrator says Wotton's "romantic, olive-coloured face and worn expression interested [Dorian]. There was something in his low languid voice that was absolutely fascinating. His cool, white, flowerlike hands, even, had a curious charm. They moved, as he spoke, like music, and seemed to have a language of their own.”
.......Wotton compliments Gray on his looks but then unsettles the young man when he tells him he has only a short time left to enjoy life to its fullest. “When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you. . . . You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly.”
.......A short time later, Hallward announces that the painting is finished. Wotton congratulates him on the excellence of the portrait. It is clear that Gray has awakened latent talent in Hallward, so good is the painting. But Gray is silent. “Don’t you like it?” Hallward asks. Wotton answers for him, saying that he indeed likes it, and Lord Henry then offers to buy it. Hallward says, however, that he will give it to Dorian.Gray says he is sad that he will grow old while the portrait remains young. If only the reverse were true, he says—if only he would remain young while the portrait grows old. “I would give my soul for that!”

Dorian as Faust

.......And so Gray, it appears, becomes a sort of Faust, and that evening he goes to the opera with his Mephistopheles, Lord Henry. In the following days, Wotton indeed proves a “bad influence,” for Dorian begins following him in the pursuit of pleasure for the sake of pleasure. They engage in scandalous activities which erode Dorian’s innocence. 
.......One evening, while attending the Royal Theatre in the Holborn district of London, Gray becomes enthralled with a young woman playing Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Her name is Sibyl Vane. She is quite striking, Dorian thinks. She is a portrait in beauty, like the portrait of himself, and a wonderful actress. After they meet, she becomes equally enthralled with Dorian. In a short while, they pledge their love for each other.
.......Meanwhile, Wotton visits his uncle, Lord George Fermor, to find out about the history of Gray’s family. Fermor, an old bachelor who owns two townhouses and a colliery business, lives in chambers at the Albany Hotel and is well connected in aristocratic circles. When told that Gray is the grandson of a certain Lord Kelso, Fermor says he knew Kelso and Dorian’s mother. 
.......“She was an extraordinarily beautiful girl, Margaret Devereux, and made all the men frantic by running away with a penniless young fellow—a mere nobody, sir, a subaltern in a foot regiment, or something of that kind.”
.......Margaret, who had inherited a fortune from one side of her family, could have had her choice of established young men but shocked her father, Kelso, when she married a cipher. So enraged was Lord Kelso that he hired a Belgian thug to pick a fight with his son-in-law, and the Belgian killed him in a duel. Margaret died less than a year later. Dorian thus became heir to his mother’s fortune—and later, apparently, was designated to receive a goodly sum from old Kelso.
.......Wotton believes Dorian’s family history makes him all the more interesting: “Behind every exquisite thing that existed,” he muses, “there was something tragic.” And he would seek to take advantage of Gray and “make that wonderful spirit his own.”
.......Gray takes Wotton and Hallward to the theatre to show off Sibyl Vane. Mr. Isaacs, the fat Jewish manager of the theatre, greets them at the door and escorts them to a box. Dorian despises Isaacs, thinking of him as a Caliban (a beast-man in Shakespeare's The Tempest), but Lord Henry likes him because of his sponsorship of the arts. When Sybil recites her lines, Dorian is surprised that she is not the actress she was when he first saw her. Her performance is perfunctory, incompetent—just plain bad. Apparently her fervid love for Dorian has made her feigned stage love for Romeo seem hopelessly artificial. 
.......But she is a happy young lady, nonetheless, and she tells her mother all about Dorian, calling him a true “Prince Charming.” Mrs. Vane, who knows nothing of Dorian’s background, frowns on the relationship, suggesting that Sibyl pay more attention to Mr. Isaacs, who has provided the Vanes 50 pounds to pay debts and buy clothing for Sibyl’s brother, James. James cautions Sybil about Dorian, noting that she hardly knows him. But Sibyl says her heart is set on him.
.......However, when he next visits her, he criticizes her severely for her poor stage performance, calling her “shallow and stupid” and a “third-rate actress” who embarrassed him before his friends. He then ends their relationship. She turns white with disbelief. “You are not serious, Dorian,” she says. “You are acting.” He assures her he is serious. When she begs him not to leave her, he walks out.
.......At his elegant residence he glimpses the painting as he enters. The expression on the face has changed! It cannot not be possible, yet there it is “with the touch of cruelty in the mouth.” The portrait “had taught him to love his own beauty. Would it teach him to loathe his own soul? . . . . Here was a visible symbol of the degradation of sin” into which Dorian had plunged. Suddenly afraid, Dorian decides it would be best to redeem himself. So, even though he no longer truly loves Sibyl, he writes her a love letter in which he begs forgiveness. 

Sybil Kills Herself

.......Wotton stops by to see him on an urgent matter, following up on a letter he had sent Dorian earlier in the day. Dorian tells Lord Henry of his cruel behavior toward Sibyl but says he plans to marry her anyway. Wotton realizes Dorian has not yet read the letter, so he informs him of its message: Sibyl Vane has been found dead. She had swallowed a concoction laced with prussic acid. Dorian regrets her death, which he knows he caused, but apparently only because he thinks Sibyl would have kept him from the dangerous, dissolute life he has chosen to lead under Wotton’s influence. “She had no right to kill herself,” he says. “It was selfish of her.”
.......Lord Henry consoles him, telling him not to spend tears on Sibyl but instead to look forward to the wonderful life that awaits him. “There is nothing that you, with your extraordinary good looks, will not be able to do,” Wotton says.
.......So Dorian continues on the path cleared for him by Lord Henry. That very evening, he and Wotton attend the opera and Dorian forgets Sibyl. The following day, when Hallward arrives to offer his condolences, he is shocked to learn that Dorian had attended the opera on the very day that Sibyl died. Dorian manages to explain away his behavior, and Hallward seems satisfied. Hallward walks toward the painting, which is behind a screen, to again admire his handiwork. Dorian, terrified that Hallward will see the change in it, forbids Hallward to look at it, saying he will never speak to him again if he draws back the screen. Dorian’s fists are clenched. He means business. Hallward is dumbstruck. He tells Dorian he had meant to show it at an exhibition in Paris, but he backs away from the painting.
.......The experience so disturbs Dorian that he decides to move it where no one has access to it—a room upstairs he had not used in years. It is where he studied as a child. “The old schoolroom,” he calls it. His grandfather, Lord Kelso, had had it built especially for Dorian so that he could keep the boy out of his sight. He despised Dorian, for the boy’s face reminded Kelso of Dorian’s mother and her shameful marriage. After obtaining the key to the room from his housekeeper, Mrs. Leaf, Dorian engages a frame maker, Mr. Hubbard, and his assistant to move the heavy, bulky painting—which Dorian has wrapped in a coverlet—to the room.
.......Later, in his library, he sits down to read a book Lord Henry had sent over for him—a novel about the sinful life of a young Parisian. It is a “poisonous book,” Dorian realizes, and he devours it. 
.......Dorian continues to lead the dangerous life ordained for him by Wotton, engaging in every manner of profane activity. Many years pass in which people whisper about his shameful behavior, but he still enjoys some favor in society because of his looks, which simply do not change, and because of his money and the pleasures it can buy. He holds lavish parties at his house, where only the most celebrated musicians perform. Sometimes, too, he hosts little concerts at which gypsies and Indians and Tunisians play exotic instruments. He collects jewels, tapestries, embroideries—anything that strikes his fancy, even church vestments. He maintains a great house in Nottinghamshire, where he and his guests pursue forbidden pleasures. For a time lives abroad with Lord Henry at a villa in Trouville, France, at a house in Algiers, Algeria. But he always returns—to look at the portrait, to see that it remains safe in its hiding place.
.......The portrait, meanwhile, becomes more and more hideous. One day, when Dorian is 38 but still appears young, Hallward reproaches him about his scandalous lifestyle, and Dorian decides to show him the portrait. The time has come for him to reveal the state of his soul. When Dorian pulls away the curtain hiding it, the narrator says, “An exclamation of horror broke from the painter's lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him. There was something in its expression that filled him with disgust and loathing.”

Dorian Kills Hallward

.......Hallward concludes that Dorian must be even more evil than the rumors say, and he urges him to recant his sins. “Pray, Dorian, pray.” But by now, the devil owns Dorian. Suddenly a feeling of deep hatred for Hallward seizes him. In a rage he takes up a knife he had brought to the room days before to cut a cord. He plunges it into Hallward again and again. Then he blackmails an acquaintance, Alan Campbell—a man with a dark secret known to Dorian—to dissolve Hallward’s corpse with chemicals. 
.......Late in the evening, Dorian visits an opium den by the waterfront, where smokers lie on old mattresses and Dorian well knows "in what strange heavens they were suffering, and what dull hells were teaching them the secret of some new joy." He recognizes Adrian Singleton, a young man whom Dorian had brought to ruin. Now no one but Dorian will even speak to Singleton. When they later have brandy together at a bar, Dorian—in a rare moment of remorse—offers to help Singleton: "You will write to me if you want anything?" "Perhaps," Singleton says.
.......After Dorian leaves, he walks along the river in drizzling rain. For a moment—just a moment—he feels sorry for Singleton, then decides it was not his fault that Singleton had fallen so low. Each man makes his own decisions, and each man must pay the price for making the wrong ones. 
.......Dorian continues on, "callous, concentrated on evil, with stained mind, and soul hungry for rebellion." But in a moment he is confronted by another man from his past: James Vane, Sybil's brother. He means to kill Dorian to avenge the death of his sister. But Dorian tells him he has the wrong man and, under a light, shows him his face. It is still as young as it was 18 years before, when Sybil killed herself. This youth could not be Dorian Gray, Vane believes, and he leaves Dorian alone. Later, however, a woman informs he that he was indeed speaking to Dorian Gray. One day, while Dorian and is out hunting with acquaintances, one of the hunters shoots what he thinks is a hare. But it turns out to be a man—James Vane, who was apparently stalking Dorian. 
.......In the following days, Dorian looks to a new life in which he will change his evil ways. One evening at Wotton's home, he tells Lord Henry that he has actually done something good: He has given up a beautiful village girl, Hetty Merton, whom he had been seeing two to three times each week. They were to run off together, but Dorian decided not to steal her innocence. Dorian speaks further about reforming himself and even reproaches Wotton: "You poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that. Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to any one. It does harm."
.......Wotton is unmoved. He tells Dorian that morality, the existence of the soul—it is all nonsense. "Don't spoil [the rest of your life] by renunciations. At present you are a perfect type. Don't make yourself incomplete. You are quite flawless now." 
.......After returning home, Dorian continues to think about his new life. Vane is dead and buried, Alan Campbell has shot himself, and Basil Hallward’s disappearance remains a mystery. What has he to worry about? Perhaps the painting. However, his good deed—his sparing of Hetty—may be reflected in the painting. Perhaps the painting has already changed for the better. He goes upstairs for a look. When he beholds it, he cries out in pain.
.......“He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite. The thing was still loathsome—more loathsome, if possible, than before. . . .”
.......Dorian turns around and picks up the knife that he used to kill Basil Hallward. He stabs the painting. There is a loud crash. Servants come running. They summon a coachman and a footman, but no one can break down the locked door to the room that gave out the noise. So they go on the roof, drop down onto a balcony, and break through windows to the room. There they see the portrait of Dorian in the full bloom of youth, unchanged from the day Hallward had finished it—and a dead man in Dorian Gray’s clothes. He is old and withered, with a hideous face..

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Themes
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Self-worship leads to self-destruction. Dorian Gray’s excessive love of himself leads to an obsessional desire to preserve the moment—whatever the moral cost—in order to maintain his looks at the peak of their perfection and enjoy all the pleasures that they bring him. Of this obsession, the narrator says in Chapter 11,
Sometimes when he was down at his great house in Nottinghamshire, entertaining the fashionable young men of his own rank who were his chief companions, and astounding the county by the wanton luxury and gorgeous splendour of his mode of life, he would suddenly leave his guests and rush back to town to see that the door had not been tampered with and that the picture was still there. What if it should be stolen? The mere thought made him cold with horror. Surely the world would know his secret then. Perhaps the world already suspected it. 
Time will have its way. No man can defeat time; it marches inexorably toward old age and death. Dorian Gray ends up old and ugly and dead, physically and spiritually. Yes, he remained youthful looking for many years, seemingly cheating time. But time, in the form of the portrait, caught up with him and gained its revenge. In some ways, Gray’s attempts to preserve his youth resemble the attempts by modern men and women to forestall aging with lotions, special diets and exercises, cosmetic surgery, and youthful fashions. 
Beauty is only skin deep. Beneath his veneer of elegant good looks, Dorian Gray is monstrously ugly. As Shakespeare observed in The Merchant of Venice: “A goodly apple rotten at the heart: / O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” 
Earthly pleasures can never completely satisfy a human being. Dorian Gray never is really happy because he never realizes that the things of the earth—physical beauty and the pleasures of the flesh—can never satisfy man’s insatiable desire for them. 
Evil appears in winsome disguises. Lord Henry Wotton and Dorian Gray are both charming, each in his own way. But their outer charms disguise inner evil. 
An abused child becomes an abusive adult. Dorian Gray’s grandfather, Lord Kelso, reared the orphaned Dorian in a poisonous atmosphere. The old man despised Dorian and even had a special “schoolroom” built for the boy so that he could shut him up in it and not have to endure his presence. When Dorian grows up, he lashes out at Sybil Vane, driving her to suicide; murders Basil Hallward; and blackmails Alan Campbell, who also commits suicide. Ultimately, Dorian turns his wrath against himself.
Implied homosexuality. Dorian Gray is admired by other males in the novel for his “beauty”—the word author Oscar Wilde, who was a homosexual himself, uses again and again to describe Dorian and the word these male characters use from time to time in dialogue in their praise of Dorian. Although Wilde never explicitly describes or refers to intimate relations between Dorian and other males, he indicates that Lord Henry Wotton and other characters either desired such relations or participated in them. Homosexuality apparently is one of the sins that corrupt Dorian and possibly other young men in the novel. 
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Climax
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.......The climax of a narrative work can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. According to the first definition, the climax of The Picture of Dorian Gray occurs when Dorian first notices a change in the portrait, after the death of Sybil Vane. At this point, he realizes that he is sinking in a morass of evil. According to the second definition, the climax occurs when Dorian attempts to "kill" the portrait but instead kills himself. 
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Witty Dialogue

.......The Picture of Dorian Gray is easy to read and understand, thanks in part to long passage of witty dialogue passages that keep the action moving at a brisk pace—like that of one of Wilde's stage plays. (A notable exception in the use of dialogue is Chapter 11, written entirely in narrative paragraphs.) Here is an excerpt of the dialogue from Chapter 3.

"We are talking about poor Dartmoor, Lord Henry," cried the duchess, nodding pleasantly to him across the table. "Do you think he will really marry this fascinating young person?"
"I believe she has made up her mind to propose to him, Duchess."
"How dreadful!" exclaimed Lady Agatha. "Really, some one should interfere."
"I am told, on excellent authority, that her father keeps an American dry-goods store," said Sir Thomas Burdon, looking supercilious.
"My uncle has already suggested pork-packing Sir Thomas."
"Dry-goods! What are American dry-goods?" asked the duchess, raising her large hands in wonder and accentuating the verb.
"American novels," answered Lord Henry, helping himself to some quail.
The duchess looked puzzled.
"Don't mind him, my dear," whispered Lady Agatha. "He never means anything that he says."
"When America was discovered," said the Radical member [of Parliament] -- and he began to give some wearisome facts. Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners. The duchess sighed and exercised her privilege of interruption. "I wish to goodness it never had been discovered at all!" she exclaimed. "Really, our girls have no chance nowadays. It is most unfair."
"Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered," said Mr. Erskine; "I myself would say that it had merely been detected."
"Oh! but I have seen specimens of the inhabitants," answered the duchess vaguely. "I must confess that most of them are extremely pretty. And they dress well, too. They get all their dresses in Paris. I wish I could afford to do the same."
"They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris," chuckled Sir Thomas, who had a large wardrobe of Humour's cast-off clothes.
Really! And where do bad Americans go to when they die?" inquired the duchess.
"They go to America," murmured Lord Henry. 
Allusions and Other References

Allusions or direct references to persons, places, and things from history, myth, and legend play an important role in the novel in that they help to reveal the interests of Dorian Gray and, in some instances, those of Lord Henry and other characters. For example, the following paragraphs tell of one of Gray's interests.

.......On one occasion he took up the study of jewels, and appeared at a costume ball as Anne de Joyeuse, Admiral of France, in [an ensemble] covered with five hundred and sixty pearls. This taste enthralled him for years, and, indeed, may be said never to have left him. He would often spend a whole day settling and resettling in their cases the various stones that be had collected . . . .
.......He discovered wonderful stories, also, about jewels. In Alphonso's Clericalis Disciplina a serpent was mentioned with eyes of real jacinth. . . . When the Duke de Valentinois, son of Alexander VI, visited Louis XII of France, his horse was loaded with gold leaves, according to Brantome, and his cap had double rows of rubies that threw out a great light. Charles of England had ridden in stirrups hung with four hundred and twenty-one diamonds. Richard II had a coat, valued at thirty thousand marks, which was covered with balas rubies. Hall described Henry VIII, on his way to the Tower previous to his coronation, as wearing "a jacket of raised gold, the placard embroidered with diamonds and other rich stones, and a great bauderike about his neck of large balasses." The favourites of James I wore ear-rings of emeralds set in gold filigrane. 
Following is a sampling of allusions and other references in the novel.

Adonis (Chapter 1): In Greek mythology, an exceptionally handsome young man favored by the goddess of love, Aphrodite. A wild boar kills him while he is participating in his favorite sport, hunting. Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis tells the story.
Alexander VI (Chapter 11): Spaniard who became pope in 1492. Alexander (1431-1503) betrayed his church with corrupt rule that ignored spiritual matters.
Alphonso's Clericalis Disciplina (Chapter 6): Disciplina Clericalis, a twelfth-century collection of literary works presented by Peter Alfonsi.
Anastasius (Chapter 11): Anastasius I (430-518), Byzantine emperor from 491 to 518.
Anne de Joyeuse (Chapter 11): Duke Anne de Joyeuse (1561-1587), French nobleman, admiral of France, governor of Normandy, and a leader of Roman Catholics against Protestant Huguenots in France.
Antinomianism (Chapter 11): Christian belief that established laws of morality are not necessary for salvation; only divine grace and faith are necessary.
Apollo (Chapter 19): In Greek mythology, god of prophecy, music, poetry, and medicine. His alternate name, Phoebus, means brightness, and he was thus also considered the god of the sun.
Athena (Chapter 11): In Greek mythology, goddess of wisdom and war.
bacchante (Chapter 3): In ancient Greece, a female member of the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. His Roman name was Bacchus.
Beethoven (Chapter 11): Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), German composer of many of the world's greatest symphonies and piano pieces.
Buonarotti (Chapter 3): Great Renaissance artist Michelangelo Bunonarotti (1475-1564), who painted the Sistine Chapel and sculpted the Pietà and the David and designed he dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Caliban (Chapter 7): Savage, ugly half-man in Shakespeare's play The Tempest. Dorian thinks the theater owner, Mr. Isaacs, resembles Caliban.
Catherine de Médicis (Chapter 11): Great-granddaughter of the powerful Lorenzo de' Medici of Florence. Catherine (1519-1585) married the duc d'Orléans of France, who acceded to the French throne as Henry II. Three of her sons became kings of France.
Charles of Orléans (Chapter 6): Duc d'Orléans (1522-1545) and son of Francis I, king of France. 
Chopin (Chapter 11): Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Polish-French composer of soulful romantic music for the piano.
Clodion (Chapter 4): French rococo (1738-1814) sculptor who portrayed sensuality in the form of satyrs, nymphs, and votaries of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. Lord Henry has a Clodion statuette in his home.
Cortez (Chapter 11): Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), Spanish soldier, explorer, and conqueror of Mexico.
Dante (Chapter 11): Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), author of the great epic poem The Divine Comedy. Acquaintances of Dorian Gray think that he seemed to be of the company of those whom Dante describes as having sought to "make themselves perfect by the worship of beauty."
Desdemona (Chapter 8): Beautiful wife of the title character of Shakespeare's Othello
Diaz (Chapter 11): Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Spanish soldier and author who accompanied Hernán Cortés when the latter conquered Mexico.
Dorian: The historical term Dorian refers to people of ancient Greece, thought to have originated in a region known as Doris, who developed the simple but elegant Doric style of architecture. This style was used in the design and construction of one of the most beautiful buildings in the history of the world, the Parthenon, a temple of white marble on the Acropolis in Athens. When musing about Dorian Gray in Chapter 3, Lord Henry Wotton links Dorian with ancient Greek architecture: "Grace was his, and the white purity of boyhood, and beauty such as the old Greek marbles kept for us." 
Gautier, Théophile (Chapter 6): French novelist, poet, and critic (1811-1872).
Imogen (Chapter 8): Protagonist of Shakespeare's Cymbeline. She defies her father, Cymbeline, and marries the man she chooses.
John the Priest: Probably an allusion to Prester John, the subject of medieval legends that said he was a priest who became ruler of a land east of Persia.
Lodge's strange romance A Margarite of America (Chapter 6): Reference to a 1596 romance by Thomas Lodge (1557-1625), English writer of prose, poetry, and plays.
Louis Quatorze clock (Chapter 4): Clock designed in the lavish style popular during the reign of France's King Louis XIV (1638-1715). He was king from 1643 to 1715.
Manon Lescaut (Chapter 4): Novel by Antoine-François Prévost d'Exiles (1697-1763), about a young man from an upstanding family who falls to ruin over a courtesan. Jules Massenet and Giacomo Puccini both based operas on the book.
Marco Polo: Venetian merchant and adventurer (1254-1324) who spent seventeen years in China. He wrote a book about his experience that became a classic in world travel literature.
Messalina (Chapter 6): Messalina Valaria, wife of the Roman emperor Claudius I. She was known for her decadent lifestyle.
Miranda (Chapter 7): Beautiful young daughter of Prospero, the protagonist of Shakespeare's play The Tempest.
Mohammed (Chapter 11): Arab prophet (570?-632?) who founded Islam.
Montaigne (Chapter 10): Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Frenchman who pioneered the essay form.
Narcissus (Chapter 1): In Greek mythology, a young man of extraordinary good looks and the subject of a story in Ovid's Metamorphoses. One day, while gazing into a pool of water, he fell in love with his reflected image. He was so in love with what he saw that he was unable to turn his gaze away. Consequently, he wasted away as he stared at the image. Like Narcissus, Dorian is in love with himself.
Ophelia (Chapter 8): Daughter of a court official in Shakespeare's Hamlet. She loves Hamlet, but his pretended madness—during which he rejects her—and the death of her father trigger a pathological reaction in her.
Schubert (Chapter 11): Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Austrian composer of symphonic and piano works.
Schumann (Chapter 2): Robert Schumann (1810-1856), German romantic composer of symphonies, piano works, and lieder (songs).
Sobieski (Chapter 11): Jan III Sobieski (1629-1696), king of Poland, famous for driving back Ottoman Turks.
velarium that Nero had stretched across the Colosseum at Rome (Chapter 11): Nero (AD 37-68) was emperor of Rome from 54-68. Wilde commits a faux pas here, for the Colosseum--a huge amphitheater for gladiatorial contests and other entertainment--did not exist during Nero's reign. It was constructed under Emperor Vespasian and completed between AD 80 and 82. The velarium was an awning stretched over seating areas to shield spectators from the sun. 
Wagner (Chapter 6): Richard Wagner (1813-1883), German composer of operas, such as Lohengrin.

Symbols

.......The Picture of Dorian Gray contains many symbols, including the following. 

Cigarette: Lord Henry's "opium-tainted cigarette" represents his corrupt lifestyle.
Collieries: Lord Fermor's collieries symbolize the oppression of the underclasses.
Coverlet: The purple and gold coverlet draped over the portrait symbolizes a pall covering the morally dead Dorian.
Laburnum: One of the most telling symbols appears in the following passage in the second paragraph of Chapter 1: "Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs." A laburnum is a poisonous tree of the pea family." Certainly Dorian turns out to be "poisonous" to many characters and, like the laburnum, has difficulty bearing "the burden of beauty." This symbol appears to foreshadow many plot developments. 
Opium dens: 
Portrait: Dorian Gray's portrait symbolizes the state of Dorian's soul.
Yellow book: Given to Dorian by Lord Henry, this book represents the lord's corrupting influence on the youth.

Epigrams

.......Oscar Wilde indulges his witty pen again and again in epigrams loaded with paradox, irony, and antithesis, frequently couched in parallel sentence structure. Most of these witticisms occur in dialogue spoken by Lord Henry. Here are examples:

    There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. (Chapter 1)
    She is a peacock in everything but beauty. (Chapter 1)
    Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul. (Chapter 2)
    I don't want money. It is only people who pay their bills who want that, Uncle George, and I never pay mine. (Chapter 3)
    We have emancipated them [women], but they remain slaves looking for their masters. (Chapter 8)
    All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime. (Chapter 19)
    Books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame. (Chapter 19)
.......Unfortunately, witticisms such as these occur so frequently that they become tiresome. It is almost as if author Wilde is attempting to set the world record for most epigrams, aphorisms, bon mots—call them what you may—in a single novel. But not only Lord Henry speaks them; so do other characters. Consider these:
    It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him.—Basil Hallward. (Chapter 9)
    Harry spends his days in saying what is incredible and his evenings in doing what is improbable.—Dorian Gray. (Chapter 9)
    A man who is master of himself can end a sorrow as easily as he can invent a pleasure.—Dorian Gray. (Chapter 9)
.......The result is that the characters who speak these witticisms end up sounding alike. The illusion that they are part of a story is destroyed as readers perceive Oscar Wilde manipulating his marionettes and mouthing their lines. Wilde was ever ready to show the world how clever he was. It is said that when he arrived in the United States for a speaking tour, he said, "The only thing I have to declare is my genius."
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Dorian Gray as Faust

.......Dorian Gray acts out the Faust legend, but unlike Faust he does not redeem himself. According to the Faust legendtold in the Faustbuch (1587) and retold in numerous literary works, including Goethe’s Faust in the early 19th Century—Faust sold his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of pleasure. However, Faust redeems himself through good works and repentance. In the first chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian says, “I would give my soul” in order to remain young. Nearly two decades pass and Dorian does remain young—on the surface. Although he makes half-hearted attempts to reform, he ultimately fails to redeem himself.

Novel Foreshadows Wilde's Religious Conversion

.......Before he died, Oscar Wilde became a Roman Catholic. In a passage in Chapter 11, describing Dorian Gray's fascination with Roman Catholic ritual, Wilde perhaps is really writing about himself.

It was rumoured of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion, and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him. The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of its elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolize. He loved to kneel down on the cold marble pavement and watch the priest, in his stiff flowered dalmatic, slowly and with white hands moving aside the veil of the tabernacle, or raising aloft the jewelled, lantern-shaped monstrance with that pallid wafer that at times, one would fain think, is indeed the "panis caelestis," the bread of angels, or, robed in the garments of the Passion of Christ, breaking the Host into the chalice and smiting his breast for his sins. The fuming censers that the grave boys, in their lace and scarlet, tossed into the air like great gilt flowers had their subtle fascination for him. As he passed out, he used to look with wonder at the black confessionals and long to sit in the dim shadow of one of them and listen to men and women whispering through the worn grating the true story of their lives.
Wilde's Aesthetic Theory

.......In the revised version of the novel, published in 1891, the preface articulated Wilde's "art for art's sake" aesthetic theory. "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book," Wilde wrote. "Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." 

Author Information
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.......Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was born in Dublin, Ireland, to highly educated parents. His father was a surgeon and writer and his mother, a poet and political activist. He studied at Trinity College in Dublin and graduated from Oxford University in England in 1878, where he earned a reputation as a wit. While developing his skills as a playwright, poet, and novelist, he married Constance Lloyd, the well-to-do daughter of an attorney, and fathered two children. He worked for a while writing and editing articles for periodicals before devoting himself to his literary pursuits. He was at his best when writing plays, the most popular and most esteemed of which are The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere's Fan. In 1895, after three sensational trials, a British court found him guilty of committing homosexual acts and sentenced him to two years in prison. The jail time ruined him financially and emotionally. After his release, he spent the rest of his life in Paris, where he died of meningitis in 1900 after converting to the religion he had long esteemed, Roman Catholicism.
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Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Write an essay arguing that a major fault of many of the characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray is that they judge others by how they look or what they have rather than by the quality of their character. Include in your essay specific examples from the book. 
  • Does Dorian Gray have any redeeming qualities?
  • Are there characters in the novel whom you admire?
  • Compare and contrast Dorian Gray with Faust, the title character of Wolfgang von Goethe's masterwork.
  • Compare and contrast Lord Henry Wotton with Mephistopheles, the devil figure in Goethe's Faust.
  • Comment on the validity, or lack of it, of this observation in the novel: "Books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame."