The Picture of Dorian Gray

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The Picture of Dorian Gray
Cover of the first edition
Author Oscar Wilde
Country Ireland
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Lippincott's Monthly Magazine
Released 1890
Media Type Print ( Hardback & Paperback)
ISBN ISBN 0-14-143957-2 (Modern paperback edition)

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel to be published by Oscar Wilde, and was first published as the lead story in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine on 20 June 1890. Wilde later revised this edition, making several alterations, and adding new chapters; the amended version was published by Ward, Lock, and Company in April 1891.

The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Dorian is selected for his remarkable physical beauty, and Basil becomes strongly infatuated with Dorian, believing that his beauty is responsible for a new mode of art. Talking in Basil's garden, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil's, and becomes enthralled by Lord Henry's world view. Espousing a new kind of hedonism, Lord Henry suggests that the only thing worth pursuing in life is beauty, and the fulfillment of the senses. Realising that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian cries out, wishing that the portrait Basil has painted of him would age rather than himself. Dorian's wish is fulfilled, subsequently plunging him into a sequence of debauched acts. The portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, each sin being displayed as a new sign of aging on the portrait.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered one of the last works of classic gothic horror fiction with a strong Faustian theme. It deals with the artistic movement of the decadents, and homosexuality, both of which caused some controversy when the book was first published. However, in modern times, the book has been referred to as "one of the modern classics of Western literature."The BBC placed it at #118 in its " Big Read" list, a list of the 200 most popular novels.

Plot summary

The novel begins with Lord Henry Wotton observing the artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of a handsome young man named Dorian Gray. When Dorian arrives at the London Studio he meets Lord Henry Wotton. Wotton's low musical voice enchants the lad as he stands upon a little dais in the afternoon sunlight. The constant flick and dash of the artist's brush melt away, as Lord Henry's doctrine of self-development corrupts Dorian's innocence. "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it [..]" murmurs Lord Henry. "Resist it and the soul grows sick with longing." Listening to Henry, Dorian wishes that the painting would grow old instead of him.

Under the influence of Lord Henry, Dorian begins an exploration of his senses. He starts by discovering a brilliant actress, Sibyl Vane, who performs Shakespeare in a dingy theatre, but although the theatre is a wretched hole of a place, her acting outshines it all. Dorian approaches her, and very soon, proposes marriage. Sibyl, who knows only his Christian name, and refers to him only as "Prince Charming", rushes home to tell her skeptical mother and brother. Her protective brother, James, tells her that if Prince Charming ever harms her, he shall find him and "shoot him like a dog".

Dorian then invites Basil and Lord Henry to see Sibyl perform in Romeo and Juliet. Sibyl, whose only previous knowledge of love was through the love of theatre, suddenly loses her acting abilities through the experience of true love with Dorian, and performs very badly. Dorian rejects her, cruelly saying that her beauty was in her art, and if she could no longer act, he was no longer interested in her. Once he returns home, Dorian notices that Basil's portrait of him has changed. There is a touch of cruelty in the mouth. After a close examination of the painting Dorian realises that his mad wish has come true - the portrait is ageing and will bear his sins while his own outward appearance remains unchanged. He decides to reconcile with Sibyl, but Lord Henry arrives in the morning to say that Sibyl has killed herself by swallowing prussic acid.

Dorian accepts his fate. Over the next eighteen years he experiments with every vice forbidden to man, mostly under the influence of a "poisonous" French novel, a present from Lord Henry. Wilde never reveals the title but his inspiration was likely drawn from Joris-Karl Huysmans's À rebours (Against Nature).

One foggy night, before he leaves for Paris, Basil arrives to question Dorian about the dreadful rumours of his indulgences. Dorian does not deny the debauchery, and endeavours to show Basil his soul. He takes Basil to the portrait, now hidden in the old nursery, which is revealed to have become monstrously ugly under Dorian's sins. In a fit of anger, Dorian blames the artist for his fate, and stabs him to death. He then blackmails an old friend into destroying the body.

Dorian seeks escape from the deed he has done in an opium den. After meeting an old friend of his, along with an old love, who calls him by the name "Prince Charming", he leaves. Sibyl Vane's brother, coincidentally in the same room, has been searching for someone named "Prince Charming" for 18 years. He follows Dorian out and attempts to shoot him; but he is deceived when Dorian asks to be thrust under the lamplight, and in the dripping mist tells James Vane that he would have been too young to have been involved with his sister 18 years ago—his appearance has not changed since. The sailor lets Dorian go, but is approached by the woman from the opium den, who chastises him for not killing Dorian and tells him that Dorian has not aged for the past eighteen years.

Whilst at dinner at Selby Royal, Dorian's country estate, Dorian sees Sibyl Vane's brother stalking the grounds and fears for his life. However, during a game-shooting party the next day James is accidentally shot and killed by one of the hunters.

After returning to London, Dorian informs Lord Henry that he will be good from now on, and has started by not breaking the heart of his latest innocent conquest, a vicar's daughter in a country town. At his apartment, he wonders if the portrait would have begun to change back, losing its sinful appearance, now that he has changed his ways. He unveils the portrait to only find that it has become worse: in his eyes were a look of cunning, and his face took on the subtle air of a hypocrite. Seeing this he begins to question the motives behind his act, whether it was merely vanity, curiosity, or seeking new emotional excess. Another sign appears in the portrait, the stain of blood that appeared with Hallward's murder grows brighter and spreads. He considers momentarily what this could mean, what act would be required to redeem him of this mark. Deciding that only a full confession would absolve him, but lacking any guilt and fearing the consequences, he decides to destroy the last vestige of his conscience. In a fit of rage, he picks up the knife that killed Basil Hallward, and plunges it into the painting. Hearing his cry from inside the locked room, his servants send for the police, who find a bloated, hideous-looking old man with a knife in his heart, and the portrait of Dorian, as beautiful as he was eighteen years ago. It is only through his rings that the corpse can be identified.


In a letter, Wilde stated that the main characters of The Picture of Dorian Gray are in different ways reflections of himself: "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps."

  • Dorian Gray - an extremely handsome young man who becomes enthralled with Lord Henry's idea of a new hedonism. He begins to indulge in every kind of pleasure, whether moral or immoral.
  • Basil Hallward - an artist who becomes infatuated with Dorian's beauty. Dorian helps Basil to realise his artistic potential, as Basil's portrait of Dorian proves to be his finest work.
  • Lord Henry Wotton - a nobleman who is a friend to Basil initially, but later becomes more intrigued with Dorian's beauty and naivety. Extremely witty, Lord Henry is seen as a critique of Victorian culture who espouses a view of indulgent hedonism. He corrupts Dorian with his world view, as Dorian attempts to emulate him.
  • Sybil Vane - An extremely poor but beautiful actress with whom Dorian falls in love. Her love for Dorian destroys her acting career, as she no longer finds pleasure in portraying fictional love when she has a true love in reality.
  • James Vane - Sibyl's brother who is to become a sailor and sail for Australia. He is extremely protective of his sister, especially as he sees his mother as useless and concerned only with Dorian's money. He is hesitant to leave his sister, believing Dorian to be a bad influence.
  • Mrs. Vane - Sybil and James's mother, an old and faded actress. She has consigned herself and Sibyl to a poor theatre house to pay for her debts. She is extremely pleased when Sibyl meets Dorian, being impressed by his status and wealth.
  • Alan Campbell - once a good friend of Dorian, he ended their friendship when Dorian's reputation began to come into question.
  • Lady Agatha - Lord Henry’s aunt. Lady Agatha is active in charity work in the London slums.
  • Lord Fermor - Lord Henry's uncle. He informs Lord Henry about Dorian's lineage.
  • Victoria Wotton - Lord Henry's wife, who only appears once in the novel, whilst Dorian waits for Lord Henry.
  • Victor - a loyal servant to Dorian. However, Dorian's increasing paranoia leads him to use Victor to complete pointless errands in an attempt to dissuade him from entering the room that houses Dorian's portrait.


Aestheticism and duplicity

Aestheticism is a strong theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and is tied in with the concept of the double life. Although Dorian is hedonistic, when Basil accuses him of making Lord Henry's sister's name a "by-word", Dorian replies "Take care, Basil. You go too far" suggesting that Dorian still cares about his outward image and standing within Victorian society. Wilde highlights Dorian's pleasure of living a double life, describing how Dorian returns home sometimes to look at his portrait, and, when looking at the disfigurement of the portrait, "[grows] more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul." Not only does Dorian enjoy this sensation in private, but he also feels "keenly the terrible pleasure of a double life" when attending a society gathering just 24 hours after committing a murder.

This duplicity and indulgence is most evident in Dorian's visits to the opium dens of London. Wilde conflates the images of the upper class and lower class by having the supposedly upright Dorian visit the impoverished districts of London. Lord Henry asserts that "crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders...I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations", which suggests that Dorian is both the criminal and the aesthete combined in one man. This is perhaps linked to Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which Wilde admired. The division that was witnessed in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although extreme, is evident in Dorian Gray, who attempts to contain the two divergent parts of his personality.


The name "Dorian" has connotations of the Dorians, an ancient Hellenic tribe. Robert Mighall suggests that this could be Wilde hinting at a connection to "Greek love", a euphemism for the homoeroticism that was accepted as everyday in ancient Greece. Indeed, Dorian is described using the semantic field of the Greek Gods, being likened to Adonis, a person who looks as if "he were made of ivory and rose-leaves." However, Wilde does not mention any homosexual acts explicitly, and descriptions of Dorian's " sins" are often vague, although there does appear to be an element of homoeroticism in the competition between Lord Henry and Basil, both of whom compete for Dorian's attention. Both of them make comments about Dorian in praise of his good looks and youthful demeanour, Basil going as far to say that "as long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me."However, whilst Basil is shunned, Dorian wishes to emulate Lord Henry, which in turn rouses Lord Henry from his "characteristic languor to a desire to influence Dorian, a process that is itself a sublimated expression of homosexuality."

The later corruption of Dorian seems to make what was once a boyish charm become a destructive influence. Basil asks why Dorian's "friendship is so fatal to young men", commenting upon the "shame and sorrow" that the father of one of the disgraced boys displays. Dorian only destroys these men when he becomes "intimate" with them, suggesting that the friendships between Dorian and the men in question become more than simply Platonic. The shame associated with these relationships is bipartite: the families of the boys are upset that their sons may have indulged in a homosexual relationship with Dorian Gray, and also feel shame that they have now lost their place in society, their names having been sullied; their loss of status is encapsulated in Basil's questioning of Dorian: speaking of the Duke of Perth, a disgraced friend of Dorian's, he asks "what gentleman would associate with him?"


Wilde's description of Mr. Isaacs, the manager of the theatre in which Sybil performs, has come under criticism for anti-semitism. Although a minor character, there are several disparaging references to the manager, especially related to his ethnicity; Dorian calls him a "hideous Jew" and "a monster". Dorian again attacks him soon after those comments, calling him an "offensive brute". Other characters also mention their distaste for the manager; Sybil says that "he is not a gentleman", and that she "hates the way he talks" to her.

Christopher S. Nassaar, Professor Emeritus of English at the American University of Beirut, suggests that Wilde's's depiction of Isaacs is a reaction to the depiction of the Jewish community in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. It is possible that Wilde was reacting against Eliot's portrayal, as she favoured naturalism, whilst Wilde favoured aestheticism. However, anti-semitism was not uncommon in the 19th century, and it is possible that Wilde was merely appealing to his audience; Oliver Twist is another contemporary novel which uses anti-semitic depiction in a similar way. Some newer editions of The Picture of Dorian Gray have gone so far as to replace the word "Jew" with that of "man", or "manager".

Nassaar goes on to say that there is "no trace of anti-Semitism in any of Wilde's other works" and, in his personal life, he had "several Jewish friends". These incidents could exist merely to further highlight Dorian's shallow personality, as the descriptions are often concerned with the man's actions, or with what he wears.Moreover, the term 'Jew' has also been used as a name for moneylenders, derived from the now archaic usage of the word as a verb to mean "to cheat", or "to drive a hard bargain".

Allusions to other works

A picture of Urashima Taro and the turtle he rescues in the fairytale
A picture of Urashima Taro and the turtle he rescues in the fairytale

Urashima Taro

" Urashima Taro" is a Japanese fairytale about a young fisherman who saves a turtle from cruel children. The turtle rewards Taro by taking him to the bottom of the ocean to meet his master, Queen Otohime. As Taro stays with the Queen under the sea, he ceases to age; however, he becomes homesick, and asks to return home. Upon returning to his home town, he opens a jewel-encrusted box that was given to him by Queen Otohime as a gift. A cloud surrounds Taro, and he ages rapidly, the cloud causing him to experience his true age.

Although there is no written proof that "Urashima Taro" had a direct influence on The Picture of Dorian Gray, the notion of deferral of aging is central to both stories: Dorian's primary wish is "to be always young". Both characters indulge themselves: Dorian with men, women, and other vices, Taro enjoying the frivolity of the court and the companionship of the Queen. Both characters feel the desire to return to their original lives. However, Dorian's desire stems from his increasing paranoia over the portrait, and his deteriorating mental condition, whereas Taro begins to miss his old friends and home town. The end of both tales results in the protagonist realising that the friends he once knew no longer associate with him: Dorian's friends desert him because of his questionable reputation; Taro simply outlives his peers. Both realise their true age at the end of the story, becoming withered with the age they had once avoided.


Wilde himself stated that "in every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust." As in Faust, a temptation is placed before the lead character Dorian, the potential for ageless beauty; Dorian indulges in this temptation. In both stories, the lead character entices a beautiful woman to love them and kills not only her, but also that woman's brother, who seeks revenge.. Wilde went on to say that the notion behind The Picture of Dorian Gray is "old in the history of literature" but was something to which he had "given a new form".

Unlike Faust, there is no point at which Dorian makes a deal with the devil. However, Lord Henry's cynical outlook on life, and hedonistic nature seems to be in keeping with the idea of the devil's role, that of the temptation of the pure and innocent, qualities which Dorian exemplifies at the beginning of the book. Although Lord Henry takes an interest in Dorian, it does not seem that he is aware of the effect his actions. However, Lord Henry advises Dorian that "the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing"; in this sense, Lord Henry acts as the devil's advocate, "leading Dorian into an unholy pact by manipulating his innocence and insecurity."


Another Irish tale which was of influence is of Oisín and Tír na nÓg (Land of Youth), a salutory tale of temptation and consequences.

Literary significance

The Picture of Dorian Gray began as a short novel submitted to Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. In 1889, J. M. Stoddart, a proprietor for Lippincott, was in London to solicit short novels for the magazine. Wilde submitted the first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was published on 20 June 1890 in the July edition of Lippincott's. There was a delay in getting Wilde's work to press whilst numerous changes were made to the manuscripts of the novel (some of which survive to this day). Some of these changes were made at Wilde's instigation, and some at Stoddart's. Wilde removed all references to the fictitious book "Le Secret de Raoul", and to its fictitious author, Catulle Sarrazin. The book and its author are still referred to in the published versions of the novel, but are unnamed.

Wilde also attempted to moderate some of the more homoerotic instances in the book, or instances whereby the intentions of the characters' may be misconstrued. In the 1890 edition, Basil tells Henry how he "worships" Dorian, and begs him not to "take away the one person that makes my life absolutely lovely to me." The focus for Basil in the 1890 edition seems to be more towards love, whereas the Basil of the 1891 edition cares more for his art, saying "the one person who gives my art whatever charm it may possess: my life as an artist depends on him." The book was also extended greatly: the original thirteen chapters became twenty, and the final chapter was divided into two new chapters. The additions involved the "fleshing out of Dorian as a character" and also provided details about his ancestry, which helped to make his "psychological collapse more prolonged and more convincing."The character of James Vane was also introduced, which helped to elaborate upon Sibyl Vane's character and background; the addition of the character helped to emphasise and foreshadow Dorian's selfish ways, as James forsees Dorian's character, and guesses upon his future dishonourable actions (the inclusion of James Vane's sub-plot also gives the novel a more typically Victorian tinge; part of Wilde's attempts to decrease the controversy surrounding the book). Another notable change is that, in the latter half of the novel, events were specified as taking place around Dorian Gray's 32nd birthday, on 7 November. After the changes, they were specified as taking place around Dorian Gray's 38th birthday, on 9 November, thereby extending the period of time over which the story occurs. The former date is also significant in that it coincides with the year in Wilde's life during which he was introduced to homosexual practices.


The preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray was added, along with other amendments, after the edition published in Lippincott's received criticism. Wilde used it to address these criticisms and defend the novel's reputation. It consists of a collection of statements about the role of the artist, art itself, the value of beauty, and serves as an indicator of the way in which Wilde intends the novel to be read, as well as traces of Wilde's exposure to Daoism and the writings of Zhuangzi. Shortly before penning the preface, Wilde reviewed Herbert A. Giles's translation of the writings of the Chinese Daoist philosopher. In his review, he writes:

The honest ratepayer and his healthy family have no doubt often mocked at the dome-like forehead of the philosopher, and laughed over the strange perspective of the landscape that lies beneath him. If they really knew who he was, they would tremble. For Chuang Tsǔ spent his life in preaching the great creed of Inaction, and in pointing out the uselessness of all things.


Overall, initial critical reception of the book was poor, with the book gaining "certain notoriety for being 'mawkish and nauseous,' 'unclean,' 'effeminate,' and 'contaminating.'" This had much to do with the novel's homoerotic overtones, which caused something of a sensation amongst Victorian critics when first published. A large portion of the criticism was levelled at Wilde's perceived hedonism, and its distorted views of conventional morality. The Daily Chronicle of 30 June 1890 suggests that Wilde's novel contains "one element...which will taint every young mind that comes in contact with it." Although the element is not named explicitly, the homoeroticism of the novel, especially of the first edition, seems the likely subject. The Scots Observer of 5 July 1890 asks why Wilde must "go grubbing in muck-heaps?” Wilde responded to such criticisms by curtailing some of the homoerotic tendencies, and by adding six chapters to the book in an effort to add background.

Allusions from other works

Several popular songs of the 1980s and later reference The Picture of Dorian Gray or its title character. Morrissey has made many references to Wilde's works; in the song "Glamorous Glue", Morrissey quotes Dorian's affirmation that he is "too much in love" to marry. The Libertines also mention Dorian in their song "Narcissist", questioning the worth of being narcissistic. U2 also reference Dorian Gray in the song "The Ocean"; more recently, James Blunt used the line "hides my true shape, like Dorian Gray" in his song "Tears and Rain". An industrial metal electronica group have also named themselves after the lead character Dorian Gray.

The book have has several times been adapted and re-worked. Will Self updated the novel by placing events in June 1981, a time according to Self when "Britain was in the process of burning most of its remaining illusions." In Self's novel, the homoeroticism that was merely an undertone of the original work becomes an overt theme: Self's Dorian indulges in homosexual orgies. The portrait of Dorian is replaced with a postmodern piece of art involving video cassette recorders and televisions. Rick R. Reid also wrote a variation on The Picture of Dorian Gray; in lieu of a portrait, Reid has a sophisticated hologram which changes with each sin that Dorian commits. The Picture of Dorian Gray was also parodied by contemporary journalist and novelist Robert S. Hichens in The Green Carnation.

Film, television and theatrical adaptations

As with literature, The Picture of Dorian Gray has been the subject of several film remakes. According to the BBC, the most notable adaptation was Albert Lewin's 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray, which won an Oscar for "Best Cinematography, Black-and-White". One of the most noted aspects of this version was Lewin's choice to portray the film in black and white despite the fact that technicolor was available at the time. Instead, he shot the film in black and white, and used a "breathtaking" technicolor effect to show the effects Dorian's actions have on the portrait. The BBC itself created a very good version, as well, with Peter Firth as Dorian Gray.

More recently, Dorian Gray was a character portrayed by Stuart Townsend in Stephen Norrington's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen , which was based on the graphic novel of the same name, written by Alan Moore. Dorian Gray was not originally included in Moore's graphic novel, and Dorian's inclusion was a decision made by Norrington. A "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" is assembled in an attempt to stop the villain "The Fantom" from destroying Venice. Dorian Gray is selected for his immortality; however, the film version expounds upon the novel by suggesting that not only does the portrait keep Dorian from ageing, but also from suffering injuries. In addition, Dorian is unable to look at his own portrait; if he does, then the "spell" will be broken, and his powers will be lost.

The Faustian theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray has also made it a popular choice for television, being adapted for use as a storyline for episodes in some television series'. Star Trek: The Next Generation used the novel as inspiration for its 129th episode Man of the People. In the episode, an Ambassador Vel Alkar uses women as an object to which all of his negative aspects can be channeled. This results in the women's dispositions changing, each becoming more and more irritable. They also begin to age much quicker than is usual until they "burn out" and die. Deanna Troi becomes a near victim, until a plan is created to cause Vel Alkar to receive all of the emotions he has chanelled away from himself. When this occurs, he rapidly ages and dies from his own emotions, much in the same way Dorian Gray does after confronting his portrait at the end of The Picture of Dorian Gray. This theme is also present in the earlier science fiction show Blake's 7 whereby a character named Dorian forces others to absorb his physical and mental defects.

An operatic version of The Picture of Dorian Gray was staged by Lowell Liebermann. Liebermann wanted to base a play on The Picture of Dorian Gray because "the book made an impression on [him] as no other book has yet done". Premiered at the Monte Carlo Opera in 1996, Liebermann put a lot of emphasis on the musical score of the play, saying:

The Picture of Dorian Gray
The entire opera is based on a twelve-note row which is used not serially, but tonally. It is first heard at the beginning of the opera in pizzicato cellos and basses. It is harmonized as Dorian's theme and then as the painting theme. As the painting disintegrates and becomes corrupted, so does its theme. The twelve consecutive scenes of the opera occur in the keys of the consecutive pitches of the note-row. In this manner the entire opera becomes one grand passacaglia, a variation of Dorian's theme, a picture of the picture---the tonal structure generated by a non-tonal device, a further metaphor for the form/content divide that generates the novel's dramatic structure.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
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