The Picture of Dorian Gray (storyline, characters, themes)
The Picture of Dorian Gray begins on a beautiful summer day in Victorian era England, where Lord Henry Wotton, an opinionated man, is observing the sensitive artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of Dorian Gray, their host, and the handsome young man who is Basil’s ultimate muse. After hearing Lord Henry’s hedonistic worldview, Dorian begins to think that beauty is the only aspect of life worth pursuing, and wishes that Basil’s portrait of him would age in his stead.
Under the hedonist influence of Lord Henry, Dorian fully explores his sensuality. He discovers the actress Sibyl Vane, who performs Shakespeare plays in a dingy, working-class theatre. Dorian approaches and courts her, and soon proposes marriage. The enamoured Sibyl calls him “Prince Charming”, and swoons with the happiness of being loved, but her protective brother, James, a sailor, warns that if “Prince Charming” harms her, he will kill Dorian Gray.
Dorian invites Basil and Lord Henry to see Sibyl perform in Romeo and Juliet. Sibyl, whose only knowledge of love was love of the theatre, foregoes her acting career for the experience of true love with Dorian Gray. Disheartened at her quitting the stage, Dorian rejects Sybil, telling her that acting was her beauty; without that, she no longer interests him. On returning home, Dorian notices that the portrait has changed; his wish has been realised, and the man in the portrait bears a subtle sneer of cruelty.
Conscience-stricken and lonely, Dorian decides to reconcile with Sibyl, but he is too late, as Lord Henry informs him that Sibyl killed herself by swallowing prussic acid. Dorian then understands that, where his life is headed, lust and good looks shall suffice. In the following eighteen years, Dorian experiments with every vice, influenced by a morally poisonous French novel, a gift received from the decadent Lord Henry Wotton.
One night, before leaving for Paris, Basil goes to Dorian’s house to ask him about rumours of his self-indulgent sensualism. Dorian does not deny his debauchery, and takes Basil to a locked room to see the portrait, made hideous by Dorian’s corruption. In anger, Dorian blames his fate on Basil, and stabs him dead. Dorian then calmly blackmails an old friend, the chemist Alan Campbell, into destroying the body of Basil Hallward by nitric acid.
To escape the guilt of his crime, Dorian goes to an opium den, where James Vane is unknowingly present. Upon hearing someone refer to Dorian as “Prince Charming”, James seeks out and tries to shoot Dorian dead. In their confrontation, Dorian deceives James into believing that he is too young to have known Sibyl, who killed herself eighteen years earlier, as his face is still that of a young man. James relents and releases Dorian, but is then approached by a woman from the opium den who reproaches James for not killing Dorian. She confirms that the man was Dorian Gray and explains that he has not aged in eighteen years; understanding too late, James runs after Dorian, who has gone.
One evening, during dinner at home, Dorian spies James stalking the grounds of the house. Dorian fears for his life. Days later, during a shooting party, one of the hunters accidentally shoots and kills James Vane who was unknowingly lurking in a thicket. On returning to London, Dorian tells Lord Henry that he will be good from then on; his new probity begins with not breaking the heart of the naïve Hetty Merton, his current romantic interest. Dorian wonders if his new-found goodness has reverted the corruption in the picture, but sees only an uglier image of himself. From that, Dorian understands that his true motives for the self-sacrifice of moral reformation were the vanity and curiosity of his quest for new experiences.
Deciding that only full confession will absolve him of wrongdoing, Dorian decides to destroy the last vestige of his conscience. Enraged, he takes the knife with which he murdered Basil Hallward, and stabs the picture. The servants of the house awaken on hearing a cry from the locked room; on the street, passers-by who also heard the cry fetch the police. On entering the locked room, the servants find an unknown old man, stabbed in the heart, his face and figure withered and decrepit. The servants identify the disfigured corpse by the rings on his fingers to belong to their master; beside him is the picture of Dorian Gray, reverted to its original beauty.
Oscar Wilde said that, in the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), three of the characters were reflections of himself:
Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps.
The characters of the story are:
Dorian Gray — a handsome, narcissistic young man enthralled by Lord Henry’s “new” hedonism. He indulges in every pleasure (moral and immoral) which life eventually leads to death.
Basil Hallward — a deeply moral man, the painter of the portrait, and infatuated with Dorian, whose patronage realises his potential as an artist. The picture of Dorian Gray is Basil’s masterpiece.
Lord Henry “Harry” Wotton — an imperious aristocrat and a decadent dandy who espouses a philosophy of self-indulgent hedonism. Initially Basil’s friend, he neglects him for Dorian’s beauty. The character of witty Lord Harry is a critique of Victorian culture at the Fin de siècle — of Britain at the end of the 19th century. Lord Harry’s libertine world view corrupts Dorian, who then successfully emulates him. To the aristocrat Harry, the observant artist Basil says, “You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing.”
Sibyl Vane — a talented actress and singer, she is the poor, beautiful girl with whom Dorian falls in love. Her love for Dorian ruins her acting ability, because she no longer finds pleasure in portraying fictional love as she is now experiencing real love in her life. She kills herself on learning that Dorian no longer loves her; at that, Lord Henry likens her to Ophelia, in Hamlet.
James Vane — Sibyl’s brother, a sailor who leaves for Australia. He is very protective of his sister, especially as their mother cares only for Dorian’s money. Believing that Dorian means to harm Sybil, James hesitates to leave, and promises vengeance upon Dorian if any harm befalls her. After Sibyl’s suicide, James becomes obsessed with killing Dorian, and stalks him, but a hunter accidentally kills James. The brother’s pursuit of vengeance upon the lover (Dorian Gray), for the death of the sister (Sybil) parallels that of Laertes vengeance against Prince Hamlet.
Alan Campbell — chemist and one-time friend of Dorian who ended their friendship when Dorian’s libertine reputation devalued such a friendship. Dorian blackmails Alan into destroying the body of the murdered Basil Hallward; Campbell later shoots himself dead.
Lord Fermor — Lord Henry’s uncle, who tells his nephew, Lord Henry Wotton, about the family lineage of Dorian Gray.
Victoria, Lady Wotton — Lord Henry’s wife, whom he treats disdainfully; she divorces him.
Themes: Aestheticism and duplicity
The greatest theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) is Aestheticism and its conceptual relation to living a double life. Throughout the story, the narrative presents aestheticism as an absurd abstraction, which disillusions more than it dignifies the concept of Beauty. Despite Dorian being a hedonist when Basil accuses him of making a “by-word” of the name of Lord Henry’s sister, Dorian curtly replies, “Take care, Basil. You go too far…”; thus, in Victorian society, public image and social standing do matter to Dorian. Yet, Wilde highlights the protagonist’s hedonism: Dorian enjoyed “keenly the terrible pleasure of a double life”, by attending a high-society party only twenty-four hours after committing a murder.
Moral duplicity and self-indulgence are evident in Dorian’s patronising the opium dens of London. Wilde conflates the images of the upper-class man and lower-class man in Dorian Gray, a gentleman slumming for strong entertainment in the poor parts of London town. Lord Henry philosophically had earlier said to him 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” — implying that Dorian is two men, a refined aesthete and a coarse criminal.
Photo: “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, 1945 film