The Picture of Dorian Gray Book Summary - The Picture of Dorian Gray Book explained in key points
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The Picture of Dorian Gray summary

Oscar Wilde

One Man’s Obsession With Beauty and Youth, and His Downfall

4.7 (29 ratings)
24 mins
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    The Picture of Dorian Gray
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    The portrait in question

    It is fitting, in a novel that centers around a portrait, that The Picture of Dorian Gray opens with a lush, painterly description of an artist’s studio. The artist in question is Basil Hallward, a well-known artist who moves in aristocratic circles without being noble or wealthy himself. The studio is lavishly furnished – Wilde sets down lingering descriptions of the embroidered birds that flit across the silk curtains – and boasts a profusion of plants, from hothouse roses to delicately scented branches of laburnum.

    Basil isn’t alone in this decadent studio. With him is Lord Henry Wootton, who’ll go on to play a significant role in the rise and fall of the titular character, Dorian Gray. Dorian isn’t present in this opening scene – and yet, in a sense, he is. Both Basil and Henry are admiring a portrait Basil has recently painted of an arrestingly handsome young aristocrat. Henry admires the portrait unreservedly. He tells Basil it’s his best work and urges him to exhibit it. But while Basil agrees this portrait is the best painting he’s ever done, he’s reluctant to display it.

    Henry can’t understand Basil’s refusal to show the painting and Basil struggles to articulate the reasons for it himself. Eventually, he explains: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” Basil has captured something of himself in this portrait – something that he’d prefer to keep secret and hidden. Specifically, he’s captured the enraptured “idolatry” with which he regards Dorian. In the book’s original edition Basil’s fascination is framed as artistic; later revised editions of the book restore the suggestion  – edited out by the original publisher – that Basil’s fascination with Dorian is also romantic. The portrait of Dorian will go on to become a repository for more secrets than the one Basil feels he’s painted into it.

    As the story continues, the reader gets the sense that Basil would like to keep Dorian, not just his portrait, to himself, too. But as luck would have it, as Henry rises to leave the studio, Dorian himself enters. Dorian persuades Henry to stay, while Basil continues work on his portrait. The encounter between Henry and Dorian will prove fateful, as Henry takes the young Dorian under his wing and introduces him to a life of disreputable hedonism.

    Almost immediately Henry impresses on Dorian the importance of preserving his youth and beauty for as long as possible. Seeing Dorian walk through Basil’s sunlit garden, Henry tells Dorian to come into the shade. “You have the most marvelous youth,” he explains, “and youth is the one thing worth having.” Dorian is doubtful but Henry assures him: “Someday when you are old and wrinkled and ugly, when thought has seared your forehead with lines … you will feel it terribly.” Dorian, skeptical at first, is soon swayed by Henry’s passionate arguments. He goes so far as to say he wishes the portrait Basil has painted of him might show the ravages of age and experience on its canvas while his own face remains perfectly preserved.

    Soon after their first meeting, Dorian and Henry are thrown together again, this time at a dinner party thrown by a mutual acquaintance, Henry’s aunt, Lady Agatha. For the most part, the dinner guests are staid, respectable Victorians. So, when Henry starts arguing passionately that beauty and pleasure are important above all else, they disagree. They find Henry’s aestheticism and hedonism troubling – they’re disturbed by his rejection of what is moral in favor of what is sensual. But Dorian is charmed. More than charmed, he’s convinced.

    Shortly after, and still under Lord Henry’s spell, the impressionable young Dorian walks into a theater and has an encounter that will forever alter the course of his life … 


    Art and aesthetics play a central role in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Wilde’s rich, ornate descriptions are intended to evoke all art’s decadent pleasures. But each of the book’s central characters has a troubled relationship to the question of whether art is life, or life is art. Certainly, Basil pours his own life, desires, and experiences into the portrait he creates, transfiguring art into life. Henry and Dorian, on the other hand, attempt to live their lives as art, seeking out only the most beautiful, sensuous experiences.

    Ultimately, while The Picture of Dorian Gray argues for the inherent value of art and beauty, the story also cautions against wholly subsuming a life into art, or making nothing more than art out of a life. Dorian will learn this lesson most keenly, as the line between subject – himself – and portrait, becomes irrevocably and tragically blurred. Reading the lavish descriptions of flowers Wilde includes in these opening scenes, it’s hard not to think of the Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell so dangerously in love with the image of himself reflected in a pool of water that he withered away and died, transforming into a Narcissus flower in the process.

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    What is The Picture of Dorian Gray about?

    The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) is an iconic late-Victorian gothic novel that centers on the young aesthete Dorian, who never seems to age or feel the ill effects of his hedonistic lifestyle, and the supernatural portrait that reveals the truth behind the face Dorian presents to the world.

    Who should read The Picture of Dorian Gray?

    • Literature lovers wanting to meet one of the canon’s most iconic characters
    • Fans of gothic fiction, ready to get acquainted with a classic of the genre
    • History buffs who want the scoop on one of the Victorian era’s most scandalous books

    About the Author

    Oscar Wilde was an Irish author at the turn of the twentieth century. Perhaps best known for his plays, which include The Importance of Being Earnest and Salome, Wilde also wrote poetry, children’s fiction, and one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. He’s remembered for his trademark wit and flamboyance.

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