The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 42-page guide for “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 20 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Destructive Effects of Vanity and The Futility of Attempting to Prolong Youth.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a work of Gothic fiction by Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s only novel, it garnered controversy upon its initial release in 1890, and two subsequent publications altering the original text were issued. The original version was published by Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, but 500 words were excluded without Wilde’s permission due to concerns over indecency. Despite this censorship, Wilde was accused of violating public morality laws. He successfully defended himself later in court, then revised the text and published another version in 1891. This update includes a preface that defends the rights of artists. In 2011, Harvard University Press issued a new edition that includes Wilde’s original manuscript, the monthly magazine version, and the lengthier 1891 manuscript.
The Picture of Dorian Gray chronicles the life of Dorian Gray, a fictional 19th-century British aristocrat. When the narrative opens, a somewhat successful painter named Basil Hallward is painting Dorian’s portrait. A frivolously provocative aristocrat named Lord Henry Wotton—a friend of Hallward’s—sees Dorian’s almost supernatural beauty in the painting as an example of his devotion to upholding formalized artistic beauty above all else. Later, Dorian, too, begins thinking of beauty in these terms, and when he wishes to give his soul in order to retain his beauty, the painting becomes enchanted: It ages and shows Dorian’s moral corruption, while Dorian’s physical appearance remains the same.
Dorian soon falls in love with a penniless, beautiful, and skilled actress named Sybil Vane. However, when Sybil falls in love with Dorian, she no longer feels passionate about acting. Dorian, having only liked her because her acting transported him to a place of pure pleasure, coldly rebuffs Sybil following her disastrous performance as Shakespeare’s Juliet. This leads to Sybil’s suicide, and her brother, James, pledges to hunt down and kill Dorian—although he only knows him by Sybil’s moniker for Dorian: “Prince Charming.” Dorian takes no responsibility, and he detects that Hallward’s painting alters upon her death: A streak of evil cruelty can now be seen in the portrait’s smile.
As the years pass, Dorian retains his princely beauty, while his painted visage grows increasingly wicked, ugly, and aged in appearance. Scandals begin to amass around Dorian, as his close associates meet with social and economic ruin, and some even die. Dorian grows paranoid about the portrait, locking it away in one of his mansion’s disused rooms. He turns to opium to escape his anxiety.
Meanwhile, James overhears someone calling Dorian Prince Charming in an opium den. He is about to shoot Dorian dead when Dorian persuade James that, because of his youthful appearance, he could not possibly be the 40-year-old man that he pursues. James lets him go, only to later learn that Dorian was lying. James continues to pursue Dorian but is later killed accidentally at a hunting party of which Dorian is a part. Dorian celebrates James’s death, but feels weighed down by Sybil’s death. He soon becomes interested in another girl named Hetty. This time, he lets her down gently when they part, though this seemingly kind act isn’t enough to reverse his fate.
Soon, Hallward visits Dorian. He tells Dorian that his enduring beauty makes it impossible for him to believe the now numerous and vicious rumors that swirl throughout London about Dorian’s poor character, and his deleterious effect on those around him. Dorian wrathfully shows Hallward the enchanted painting—partially because he blames Hallward for the now soured enchantment, and partially because he cannot bear holding his secret alone. He then murders Hallward by stabbing him in the neck.
Dorian blackmails a former associate and chemist named Alan Campbell into dissolving Hallward’s body. Campbell performs this deed, and then later kills himself. Dorian sees that his hand in the painting now drips with blood—a symbol of his crime. Dorian tries to destroy the painting with the murder weapon. However, he ends up dead with the knife in his heart. His body transforms into the one the painting had depicted, and the painting once more shows an angelic, beautiful 20-year-old.