The Picture of Dorian Gray Book summary
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a novel written by Irish author Oscar Wilde, with an original, magazine version first published in 1890. Critics were harsh, decrying it widely as being immoral, “garbage,” and even “poisonous.”
The following spring, with changes made (including a preface that mocked previous criticism), it was published as a book. Extensive revisions included the addition of new chapters, as well as apparent concessions to critics in the form of less graphic homoerotic references.
Reviews of the book were not as negative, and some even conceded that the book was good. Some speculation was raised—persisting yet today—that certain aspects of the novel were at least heavily influenced by the previous work of other writers, but it is generally accepted that these parallels are merely coincidental. However, it took many years for the book to achieve its current status as a classic.
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” is narrated by an omniscient, non-participant, third-party. It is set in London, circa 1890. It is written in the past tense, with 20 chapters.
The story revolves around Dorian Gray, a very handsome young aristocrat, whose portrait has been painted by famous artist Basil Hallward.
When a visiting Lord Henry asks Basil the identity of the picture’s subject, Basil declines to answer. Basil, in fact, intends to never display the picture publicly, as he feels that it would reveal too much of his OWN feelings and emotion regarding Dorian. Soon, however, Lord Henry meets Dorian, after discovering his identity.
Lord Henry is known for his penchant for stirring up trouble with his words. He tells Dorian that he’d better appreciate his youth, because it is fleeting. Dorian then begins to obsess over this realization, at one point stating that he would trade his soul to remain forever as young as the man in the portrait.
Soon, the portrait appears nearly life-like. Basil even prefers the company of the portrait over that of the living, breathing Dorian.
Dorian meets Sibyl Vane, a sweet, wholesome, young actress. The two fall in love, but Dorian loves her only because she is an actress. He marvels at her skills as an actress, but finds little value in her personality. Nonetheless, they become engaged to be married.
Sibyl’s family is opposed to the marriage, but WOULD approve if Dorian were wealthy. They are unaware that he actually is a man of means. Sibyls’s brother James threatens to kill Dorian, if any mistreatment of his sister ever occurs.
One evening, Sibyl’s performance is terrible. She tells Dorian that this is because Dorian has shown her a new and beautiful reality. Her acting ability has evaporated. Dorian’s disgust at her loss of talent leads him to break off his relationship with her.
Later, he is surprised to see that his portrait has changed, showing evidence of cruelty in the image’s face. These are not evidenced on his face, and never have been. They are only in the picture. He then suspects that his wish has come true, so he decides to be a good and decent person, so that both he and the portrait will retain their youth. He vows to apologize to Sibyl for breaking their engagement, and to proceed with the marriage.
The next day, he learns that she has committed suicide because of the broken engagement. Dorian feels some guilt, but this is short-lived, as soon he feels that her death is entertaining. He also believes her act to be selfish. That evening, he attends the opera with Lord Henry.
The following day, Basil offers his condolences to Dorian, but Dorian’s concern for Sibyl or her family has evaporated. Dorian only wishes to speak of lighter, happier things.
The next day, Dorian covers his portrait and hides it in his attic, locked with a key that only he has. Dorian then begins reading a “yellow book” given to him by Lord Henry.
This book becomes a guide for Dorian, one that he will follow for the rest of his life. Over the course of the next few years, following this guide leads Dorian to lead a carefree but selfish lifestyle, disregarding conventional morality, with the singular goal of satisfying Dorian’s every desire. Dorian retains his youthful good looks, while the portrait’s face ages, and becomes ugly. Even when people speak of his careless and selfish lifestyle, he doesn’t care.
At age 38, Dorian shows the now-ugly portrait to Basil. When Basil implores Dorian to repent, and to void his wish, Dorian kills him, and hides the body.
Dorian then forces an old friend of his to help him dispose of Basil’s body. Later that day, after spending time in an opium den, Sibyl’s brother and Dorian meet on the street. It has been almost 20 years since sibyl’s suicide, but James still seeks retribution. James grabs Dorian, and produces a gun. Dorian tries to claim that he could not possibly be Dorian, as his appearance would have been that of a much older man. James then sees that indeed, this is the face of a young man, and releases his subject with an apology. Dorian leaves, but moments later the woman from the opium den who had called Dorian “prince charming,” appears and asks James why he released him. She tells James that Dorian had looked like a twenty year old youth for several years now, and that his age would certainly have been over 40. James is convinced, and resumes his vow of revenge.
A week later, Dorian is entertaining guests at his country estate when he believes that he has seen James’ face looking in at him through a window. Dorian is terrified, but a few days later, an accidental shooting occurs while Dorian is hunting birds with one of his guests. His guest has accidentally shot and killed James. Dorian is relieved, and now feels safe.
Six months later, Dorian and Lord Henry have dinner. Their discussion turns to the secret of Dorian’s youth, which Lord Henry is curious about. Dorian does not wish to discuss the matter, but requests that Lord Henry never share the yellow book with any other person.
Later that evening, Dorian looks at the portrait again, the face in it continuing to age and become uglier. Dorian takes the knife that he killed Basil with, and tries to destroy the portrait.
Later, a police officer and Dorian’s servants find the body of an old, ugly man, with a portrait of a young, handsome Dorian nearby.
Philosophical, Comedy of Manners
Ward, Lock & Company