The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Chapter 1 of The Picture of Dorian Gray why does Basil Hallward describe Dorian Gray as "a dream of form in days of thought"?

In Chapter 1 when Basil Hallward is attempting to explain to Lord Henry what Dorian Gray means to him, he states that Dorian is "a dream of form in days of thought," and then offhandedly asks, "who is it who says that?" The line is from Henry Austin Dobson, a British Romantic poet (1840–1921) with a deep appreciation for art. Dobson experimented with poetic structure in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He led a group of English poets who favored French metric forms in poetry and introduced these forms in their work. Their notion that form should be held superior to thought or meaning is central to the aesthetic philosophy. Dorian's embodiment of the superiority of form is in large part what Basil believes the young man inspires in his painting. Basil sees Dorian as his muse and believes the young man represents beauty for beauty's sake. Dorian's influence allows Basil to see and think of things differently. Now when he paints, he can "recreate life in a way that was hidden from me before."

In Chapter 7 of The Picture of Dorian Gray how does the symbol of the theater help develop tensions in the plot?

The theater becomes very important to the plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is the setting in which Dorian sees and falls in love with Sibyl Vane—not for who she truly is but for what she represents on the stage, for her ability to bring art to life. He is not stirred by her actual love but rather by her ability to portray love. This conflict draws out the tension between art and life in the novel. Sibyl's inability to act after she falls in love suggests that love kills art. After witnessing her disastrous performance in Romeo and Juliet, Dorian tells Sibyl that she has killed his love and "you used to stir my imagination. Now you don't even stir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect." Dorian's inability to love Sibyl when she loses her ability to perform well has the effect of elevating art over life.

What is revealed about Lord Henry Wotton when he suggests history would have been different if cavemen knew how to laugh in Chapter 3 of The Picture of Dorian Gray?

In Chapter 3 Lord Henry says to Mr. Erskine, "if the caveman had known how to laugh, history would have been different." This assertion comes on the heels of Lord Henry's claim that taking itself too seriously is humanity's original sin. Lord Henry rejects seriousness and prefers not to have serious conversations. For example, he won't explain to Dorian Gray why he advised him against going into philanthropy because "it is so tedious a subject that one would have to talk seriously about it." He tells Dorian to stop being so serious and play him some music. In the rare moments when Lord Henry does seem to behave seriously, it is in jest and done for dramatic effect. Perhaps the suggestion here, according to Lord Henry's philosophy, is that since life is merely an imitation of art it need not be taken seriously.

In Chapter 2 of The Picture of Dorian Gray what suggestion is there that an intimate relationship may develop between Dorian Gray and Lord Henry Wotton?

In addition to Lord Henry's flattering descriptions of Dorian as portrayed in the painting in Chapter 1 and his compliments to Dorian in Chapter 2, there are some verbal exchanges between the two men that suggest the intention to begin an intimate relationship. Lord Henry speaks at length about how women approach romance all wrong, expecting it to last always rather than allowing it to be an impermanent affair. He declares that "the only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer." In response Dorian says, "In that case, let our friendship be a caprice," and then flushes red. This type of verbal exchange got Wilde in trouble with readers and the law on the publication of his novel. Homosexual relationships were a criminal offense in Victorian Britain; however, the novel contains many hints that these two men may become involved in an intimate relationship.

In Chapter 3 of The Picture of Dorian Gray what point of view does Mr. Erskine represent?

Wilde is known for working in paradoxes, and Mr. Erskine puts forward Wilde's point of view that paradoxes are the way to truth. Mr. Erskine says, "The way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test reality we must see it on the tight rope. When the verities become acrobats, we can judge them." Mr. Erskine's use of language—transforming truths into flying acrobats—reflects the flair of the aesthetic movement. He also represents the bridge from the past to the future. He confides in Lord Henry that though he finds Lord Henry to be dangerous, he finds his own generation to be tedious. His fondness and suspicion of Lord Henry suggest that he wishes he belonged to a different, more exciting crowd. Sadly he has resigned his ambitions to writing a novel and instead spends afternoons napping at his club with a few dozen of his aged friends.

What is revealed about Lord Henry Wotton's relationship with his wife when Lady Victoria Wotton is first introduced in Chapter 4 of The Picture of Dorian Gray?

When Lady Victoria—also referred to as Lady Henry—is introduced in Chapter 4, she surprises Dorian Gray, who is waiting in Lord Henry's office for him to arrive. The first description of Lady Victoria is her "shrill voice." Upon greeting Dorian, she mentions that Lord Henry has 17 photographs of Dorian. She also mentions that she saw the two men at the opera together, a comment followed by a nervous laugh. Through this characterization, Wilde shows the reader that Lady Victoria is aware—or at the very least suspicious of—a possible romance between the two men. Lady Victoria is portrayed as an unfortunately dressed woman, who despite her efforts to appear picturesque in the fashion of the time only manages to appear untidy. The narrator seems to mock Lady Victoria, whom Lord Henry may have married for the sake of appearances. If, as it seems, Lord Henry is homosexual, he may have married simply to make himself appear heterosexual.

How is the symbol of flowers established in the early chapters of The Picture of Dorian Gray?

The symbol of flowers is invoked in a number of ways to convey beauty throughout the story. Wilde signals the importance of flowers in the opening sentence of Chapter 1, and roses are the first kind to be mentioned. Dorian, as viewed in Basil's painting, is described by Lord Henry as looking as if "he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves." In Chapter 2 when Lord Henry meets Dorian, he flatters him by admiring his "rose-red youth and ... rose-white boyhood." These descriptions of the portrait of Dorian Gray and the man himself establish Dorian as a character meant to represent beauty. The flowers symbol is extended to also encompass passion, when Lord Henry calls out Dorian's passions that arise on account of his beauty. The symbol is invoked in Chapter 4 to signal sexual passion when Dorian describes Sibyl's lips as resembling "the petals of a rose."

In Chapter 2 of The Picture of Dorian Gray how does Wilde explore the relationship between beauty and genius?

In Chapter 2 of The Picture of Dorian Gray Lord Henry Wotton tells Dorian that he has "a wonderfully beautiful face ... And beauty is a form of genius—is higher, indeed, than genius." This epitomizes the tenet of aestheticism that beauty is the highest virtue. Dorian need not trouble himself with genius because he has surpassed it with beauty. When Dorian claims in Chapter 4 that Sibyl is a genius, Lord Henry says that "no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex." Other descriptions of Sibyl show her as a beautiful form, confirming her position to be higher than genius.

What evidence is there of anti-Semitic attitudes in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

The majority of references to Mr. Isaacs, the Jewish theater manager, are disparaging. For instance, the time he is mentioned in Chapter 4 he is described by Lord Henry Wotton as "a hideous Jew," who "was such a monster." The next time he is encountered, he is described by Dorian Gray as "the horrid old Jew." Later in Chapter 7 he is called by the narrator "the fat Jew manager ... [whom] Dorian Gray loathed." Here are three instances of different characters describing Mr. Isaacs in a disparaging way. There are no positive portrayals of Jewish characters in the entire text, and each time the man is described, there are gross attributes ascribed to him. This portrayal demonstrates widespread attitudes of anti-Semitism in Europe at the time.

By Chapter 9 of The Picture of Dorian Gray how have Dorian Gray's ideas about faithfulness evolved?

In Chapter 4 Lord Henry Wotton offers this analogy: "Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect—simply a confession of failure." This dialogue demonstrates Lord Henry's belief that faithfulness is an act of laziness. To be faithful to a single person is a kind of resignation, as is fidelity to a certain set of beliefs. Over time Dorian comes to have a similar belief. When he first meets Sibyl, he says she inspires faithfulness, but by Chapter 9, nearly immediately after Sibyl's death, he implies that faithful relationships are nothing more than tedium.

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