The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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Chapter 1

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 1 of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Picture of Dorian Gray | Chapter 1 | Summary



When visiting his friend Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton praises the portrait Basil is working on and suggests that he display it at London's Grosvenor Gallery. Basil isn't sure he's going to exhibit the painting because he's put too much of himself into it. He has become very fond of the young man who posed for the portrait and is afraid that this will be evident to even casual observers. This revelation leads to a discussion of the beautiful model, Dorian Gray. As the two friends talk about Dorian and other topics—art, marriage, character—Henry remembers he had heard Dorian's name previously, at his Aunt Agatha's. A servant enters and tells Basil that Dorian is in the studio. Before they enter the studio, Basil asks Henry not to "spoil" or influence Dorian in any way.


The vivid descriptions of scents and sights signal the importance of the senses. In the third paragraph, Wilde foreshadows one of the major plot twists: Basil's disappearance. The novel's focus on male beauty is introduced here, as this chapter, and many of those that follow, is inhabited only by men. While it was common in Victorian England for men to operate businesses where all the employees were men, Dorian Gray's all-male environment is built around beauty, and the admiration of male beauty. More specifically this chapter establishes the character of both Henry and Basil and their relationship. Both are intelligent and cultured men, but Basil is shaped by his relationship to his art and is more open in his expressions. Henry, by contrast, is stylized throughout. He is brilliantly stylized—his dialogue is a pleasure in itself—but so much so that he's almost a distraction.

Dorian himself does not appear in this chapter. Instead Dorian's portrait does, along with Basil (the artist) and Henry (the critic/commentator). This builds upon Wilde's preface and establishes the art based on Dorian as more important than Dorian himself. It also introduces a number of the novel's themes. The theme of appearance versus reality is set up as Henry sees Basil's representation of Dorian before he sees him in real life. His later comments on the relationship between appearance and reality set Dorian's character and the novel's plot in motion. Chapter 1 also establishes the tension between art and life that is found throughout the novel. This tension can be seen as early as the second paragraph, when Henry sees bird shadows and is reminded of Japanese paintings. It is made more explicit later in the chapter, when Basil speaks of what Dorian has shown him about art: "But in some curious way—I wonder will you understand me?—his personality has suggested to me an entirely new manner in art, an entirely new mode of style. I see things differently, I think of them differently."

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