The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

picture-of-dorian-gray The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of those novels that literally makes me cringe when I hear my classmates say they are “just gonna SparkNote it.” Dorian Gray is a beautifully written story which delves into the role youth and beauty play in society. The painter, Basil Hallward, and his friend, Lord Henry, lavish praise and compliments upon the subject of Basil’s masterpiece, Dorian Gray. However, the painting essentially captures Dorian’s beauty and youth because while Dorian doesn’t age in the eighteen years The Picture of Dorian Gray covers, his painting does. And, in a twist I wasn’t expecting, the painting also captures the decay of Dorian’s soul, meaning that his appearance in the picture becomes gruesome after his cruel words to Sybil Vane and stained red with blood after his commits murder.

“Often, on returning home from one of those mysterious and prolonged absences that gave rise to such strange conjecture among those who were his friends, or thought that they we so, he himself would creep upstairs to the locked room, open the door with the key that never left him now, and stand, with a mirror, in front of the portrait that Basil Hallward had painted of him, looking now at the evil and aging face on the canvas, and now at the fair young face that laughed back at him from the polished glass. The very sharpness of the contrast used to quicken his sense of pleasure. He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul. He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin and or the signs of age. He would place his white hands beside the coarse bloated hands of the picture, and smile. He mocked the misshapen body and the failing limbs.” (pg. 110)

Still, The Picture of Dorian Gray was not a complete breeze to read; I had to restart the novel after the first fifteen pages and it took until the middle of the fourth chapter before I became completely enamored with this little novel and Wilde’s writing style catapulted him onto my list of favorite authors.

“We have to resume it where we had left off, and there steals over us a terrible sense of the necessity for the continuance of energy in the same wearisome round of stereotyped habits, or a wild longing, it may be, that our eyelids might open some morning upon a world that had been refashioned anew in the darkness for our pleasure, a world in which things would have fresh shapes and colours, and be changed, or have other secrets, a world in which the past would have little or no place, or survive, at any rate, in no conscious form of obligation or regret, the remembrance even of joy having its bitterness and the memories of pleasure their pain.” (pg. 113)

If you’re looking for action, Dorian Gray doesn’t exactly have one as the novel is more of a physiological examination than anything else. It’s an examination of beauty, of vanity.

“I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool. They are all men of some intellectual power, and consequently they all appreciate me. Is that very vain of me? I think it is rather vain.” (pg. 11)

It’s an examination of the influence one has over another. Lord Henry’s “words of wisdom” change Dorian’s outlook on himself, on society, on his fiancé, Sybil.

“Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul.  He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of some one else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s own nature perfectly — that is what each of us is here for.” (pg. 18)

It’s an examination of the impact art — and therefore imagined or exaggerated beauty – has on man’s perception of true beauty. Artists “see things differently” and “think of them differently” {pg. 12} and, therefore, show people, places, things, the world as they see them. Wilde has quite a bit to say about art — his thoughts consume the first handful of chapters in The Picture of Dorian Gray and continue to be spattered throughout the novel.

“Harry,” said Basil Hallward, looking him straight in the face, “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is reveled by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, revels 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. (pg. 8 )

However, Wilde’s thoughts — shown through his characters — are also a contradiction. Hallward believes above all else that his painting of Dorian Gray should never been shown and that an artist “should put nothing of his own life into them,” but he concedes that “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist.”

“An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty. Some day I will show the world what it is; and for that reason the world shall never see my portrait of Dorian Gray.” (pg. 13)

I immensely enjoyed this little gem of a novel; The Picture of Dorian Gray exceeded my expectations. Nevertheless, I’m unsure of how I feel about this being Wilde’s only novel — a part of me wishes Wilde would have written more because this novel is so perfect, but another is grateful that it stands alone because Dorian Gray is so perfect.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ann Arbor, MI: Borders Group, 2006. Print. 190 pgs. ISBN: 9780375751516. Source: Purchased.
Photo © Me. Taken: March 3, 2009.




  1. I just skimmed through your review because I haven’t finished reading this yet, but I’ll come back and comment after I’m done..
    Shock horror, though, that your friends would consider Sparknoting it. It is a very beautifully written book, and I loved the preface about Art. It made my heart flutter 😀


  2. @ Haley: Oh, it’s now easily one of my favorites. My friends and classmates totally don’t understand, but it’s just so wonderful I cringe every time they say they hate it. {I would bet that it’s due to the lack of action.}

    @ tuesday: I tried not to give too much away, but I invariably do. I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying; I figured you would once I read the preface. Actually, I was planning on recommending it to you and then I saw you already had it on your list.


  3. Dorian Gray is a wonderful read, and you’re right: It’s not easy! You know, you say you cringe whenever you hear about a classmate saying they’re going to skip the reading and jump straight to online help, and I agree with you. That said, though, there’s nothing wrong with getting a little help understanding a book, especially one as complex as Dorian Gray.

    Personally, I use They’re fun to read and they really help me out whenever I’m having trouble understanding something. Just thought I’d share.


    1. @ Tyler: I have used online help for more complicated novels, such as Wuthering Heights. I just cringe when my classmates automatically jump to the web instead of reading the novel or even giving it a chance. But thank you for the link; I’ll have to check them out.


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