The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does Wilde develop the comparison between Dorian Gray and Narcissus in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Narcissus is a character from Greek mythology who is extremely beautiful and who mocks those who love him. Upon seeing his own image for the first time, he falls in love with it, not knowing the beautiful stranger he sees is actually his own reflection. In the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1, before Lord Henry has even met Dorian Gray, he calls Dorian "a Narcissus." Just as Narcissus is entranced with his reflection, Dorian is overwhelmed when he first sees his portrait and becomes obsessed with the painting, as Wilde reveals: "Once, in boyish mockery of Narcissus, he had kissed, or feigned to kiss, those painted lips that now smiled so cruelly at him. Morning after morning he had sat before the portrait wondering at its beauty, almost enamoured of it, as it seemed to him at times." Another tie between the stories of Dorian and Narcissus is the introduction of the female characters Sibyl Vane and Echo. In the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo, Echo is a mountain nymph who falls in love with Narcissus. Under a curse from the goddess Hera, Echo can speak only the last words of others and cannot start a conversation herself. When she attempts to hug Narcissus, he rejects her. Distraught, she pines away until there is nothing left but her voice. In Chapter 7 Sibyl also suffers rejection and, like Echo, she cannot bear it. Rather than fading away, however, she commits suicide. Ultimately Dorian's obsession with his portrait leads to his death, just as Narcissus withered away because he could not bear to leave the lake shore and his beloved image. Both characters took more pleasure in their own vanity than in the admiration and love of other people. Each character's behavior reflects what is now known as narcissism, or an excessive or erotic interest in one's own appearance.

Why does Wilde allude to Dante in Chapter 11 of The Picture of Dorian Gray?

In Chapter 11 Wilde suggests that to his young dinner guests Dorian Gray "seemed to be of the company of those whom Dante describes as having sought to 'make themselves perfect by the worship of beauty.'" The Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) is commonly known simply as Dante. He is best known for his epic poem The Divine Comedy, which consists of three books: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise). Inferno aligns Dorian Gray with sinners who are damned to various circles of Hell. Certainly in the beginning of the novel, Dorian is guilty of lust after himself and most likely Lord Henry, a desire that under Dante's rules would earn Dorian a place in the second circle of Hell. As the story progresses, Dorian commits more and more heinous crimes. By the end of the story Dorian most certainly belongs in the ninth and last circle of Hell for his crimes of murder.

How is the character of Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray similar to that of the serpent in the Bible's Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1–24)?

In the story of the Garden of Eden, God tells Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The serpent, however, tempts Eve, convincing her to eat this fruit, which she shares with Adam. God then banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden. Wilde's setting and characters hint at the Garden of Eden and the fall of Adam and Eve. Basil Hallward's garden perfumes his studio, as described in sensuous detail: "The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and ... the heavy scent of the lilac or the ... blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear ... a beauty so flamelike as theirs." Here Basil Hallward, a God-like creator, finishes his portrait of Dorian Gray, a character combining the roles of Adam and Eve. Lord Henry represents the serpent, a sophisticated individual who fascinates innocent Dorian. A sense of foreboding warns Basil not to introduce Lord Henry and Dorian. Relenting, he cautions Lord Henry: "He has a simple and a beautiful nature ... Don't spoil him. Don't try to influence him. Your influence would be bad." This conversation is an allusion to Adam and Eve and their corruption by the serpent. The men meet in Basil's studio, and before long Lord Henry and Dorian go into the garden alone. Here Lord Henry begins his temptation of Dorian by flattering his beauty and youth, thereby inciting vanity and pride. He has clear intentions to influence, and by his own admission "there is no such thing as a good influence ... All influence is immoral." Awakening Dorian's vanity, Lord Henry urges him to feel free to ignore society's rules. Initially Dorian is uneasy about Lord Henry: "He felt afraid of him ... Suddenly there had come some one across his life who seemed to have disclosed to him life's mystery." Their conversation opens the door to Dorian's loss of innocence and the Faustian deal he makes when he views his portrait. Lord Henry's seduction of Dorian gradually leads to Dorian's moral downfall and death.

What is the significance of the deviation from a third-person omniscient narrator to the first-person subjective narrator in Chapter 11 of The Picture of Dorian Gray?

In Chapter 11 of The Picture of Dorian Gray the narrator goes to great length to describe the beautiful objects in Dorian's house. The description of such luxury parallels revelations about Dorian's scandalous behavior and the reluctance of some members of society to associate with him. Despite scandalous rumors, the narrator recounts that many remain attracted to his "dangerous charm" and "great wealth." The narrator further asserts, "The canons of good society are, or should be, the same as the canons of art. Form is absolutely essential to it." This reflects Wilde's philosophy that life should imitate good art. Dorian has achieved an aesthetic in his physical life. This aesthetic acknowledges the view of society that "manners are of more importance than morals, and ... the highest respectability is of much less value than the possession of a good chef." Certain aesthetics, it would seem, can come at the expense of sincerity. But, wonders the narrator, "is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not." [emphasis added] In this instance the narrator asserts a position that is attributed to Dorian in the next paragraph. Nonetheless, Wilde has intentionally changed his narrative point of view and inserted a first-person perspective. It is possible that in doing so he has intentional inserted himself into the novel, once again calling into question conventional understandings of the relationship between art and life.

In Chapter 12 of The Picture of Dorian Gray how does Wilde use setting to establish tone when Basil Hallward visits Dorian before leaving on a train to Paris?

When Hallward visits Dorian Gray before leaving on a train to Paris in Chapter 12, the men meet by chance on the street near Dorian's house. It's late at night and dismally cold and foggy. Each man walks rapidly through the mist, and Basil has his overcoat collar turned up against the chilly night air. Wilde includes numerous references to the fog's quality of hiding things: obscuring the men's view of each other, confusing Dorian's sense of direction, and dimming the light pouring through Dorian's open door. There is an uneasy sense of misgiving, with events and people being cloaked and hidden. Of course, Dorian is still concealing the truth about the painting from Basil, so secrets are a natural part of his life. Yet as they stand talking on the pavement in front of his open door, Dorian admonishes Basil to "come in, or the fog will get into the house." This is a clue that Dorian may no longer want to hold onto secrets and that he may soon reveal a secret in the clear light of the house.

In Chapter 13 of The Picture of Dorian Gray how does Basil Hallward's visit serve as the catalyst that completes Dorian Gray's transformation from innocence to evil?

Basil visits Dorian to address concerns he has about his friend's reputation. He has heard terrible rumors but cannot believe them to be true—based on the Dorian he knew well and painted so beautifully. Dorian treats Basil rudely, acting as if he has no time for the man with whom he had gladly spent endless hours. After much discussion of the scandalous rumors, Basil calls for Dorian to deny the allegations and show him his soul. Although concerned for Dorian, Basil isn't totally serious, as he believes only God can see an individual's soul. After reeling with fear, Dorian regains his composure and tells Basil, "I shall show you my soul. You shall see the thing that you fancy only God can see." Having changed so drastically from the kind boy he once was, Dorian revels in the idea of showing Basil the hideous thing his portrait has become. Upon revealing the painting, the reader, Basil, and Dorian see its transformation into a monstrous image representative of a being whom "the leprosies of sin were slowly eating ... away." Once Dorian's true self is revealed, it fans a hatred within him for Basil. Perhaps his rage arises because it was Basil who created the image that so vividly mirrored his beauty, and it was Basil who introduced him to Lord Henry, the serpent that awakened his vanity and his darker self. Like "a hunted animal," Dorian turns upon Basil and kills him. With this murder, his transformation from innocence to evil is complete.

In Chapter 5 of The Picture of Dorian Gray how do the opinions of Mrs. Vane and Sibyl Vane differ on the subjects of Mr. Isaacs and Dorian Gray?

Mr. Isaacs, the theater manager, has advanced money to the Vanes. It seems possible he has extracted sexual favors from Mrs. Vane, who is irritated with her daughter and repeats that Isaacs has loaned them money and is "very good to us ... has been most considerate" and she doesn't "know how we could manage without him." Conversely Sibyl complains about Mr. Isaacs's sexual harassment: "He's not a gentleman ... I hate the way he talks to me." On the subject of Dorian Gray—whom they know only as "Prince Charming," again the women's opinions differ significantly. Sibyl is madly in love and sees Prince Charming as the personification of love itself: "He is like what love himself should be." She believes herself to be far below her prince socially, yet loving him allows her to feel proud and happy rather than humble. Mrs. Vane, on the other hand, has varied feelings about the connection between this young aristocrat and her daughter. With hard-nosed common sense she wants to pry into his background and his intentions. If he is wealthy, she would welcome marriage or a financial arrangement between the prince and Sibyl. She counsels spying to discover his situation. Overall, her narcissism dictates that this is an inconvenient time for Sibyl to become involved with a suitor and that she should be more considerate of her mother's needs.

What is significant about the description of the room where the painting is kept in Chapter 13 of The Picture of Dorian Gray?

In Chapter 13 Dorian Gray brings Basil Hallward to view the portrait that the painter has not seen in many years. The painting is kept in a locked room as if to safeguard its secret. When Dorian unlocks the door and lets Basil in, he urges him to shut the door behind them: no one else is to be allowed in. Basil finds the condition of the room to be puzzling. It seems "as if it had not been lived in for years" and "the whole place was covered with dust." This further emphasizes the idea that it is Dorian, and he alone, who enters this chamber. He does not allow servants to come in to clean and, as his only interest is in examining the portrait to note its changes, Dorian is not bothered by the dust and mildew. He spends his time here inspecting the portrait and his reflection in the mirror and takes a perverse kind of pleasure in mocking the corruption of his painted image. Just as his sins are causing the decline of the portrait, it seems fitting that he is allowing the room to crumble around it.

How does the painting in The Picture of Dorian Gray anticipate and perhaps even chart the way for certain elements of magical realism?

The term magical realism dates from 1925, when it was coined by the German art critic Franz Roh. The genre is known for blending magic into what are otherwise realistic descriptions. Although it predates the term by more than three decades, The Picture of Dorian Gray admirably fits the magical realism criteria. The fulfillment of the wish Dorian Gray utters in Chapter 2—a prayer for his portrait to grow old while he stays young—is not the result of some mad scientific experiment as often seen in gothic tales like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The painting's transformation can be explained only by magic. Interestingly, Wilde never makes a point of explaining this magical transition. In this way the narrative anticipates the magical realism genre in which the real and the magical are presented as equally probable.

Which elements of the gothic does The Picture of Dorian Gray invoke?

The Picture of Dorian Gray invokes a number of gothic motifs, such as the supernatural, the doppelganger, the femme fatale, and even the use of science for a bad purpose. The supernatural is the mysterious force that enables the fulfillment of Dorian's wish to trade places with the painting so that he may retain his youth forever. Dorian utters this heartfelt wish in Chapter 2. The doppelganger—or ghostly double of a living person—is the magical portrait. It can also be argued that Dorian Gray is the doppelganger for Lord Henry Wotton, as Dorian indulges all the sins—and suffers all the consequences—that Lord Henry wishes he could indulge. A femme fatale is a mysterious woman who brings unhappiness to men who become involved with her. Sibyl Vane can be understood as the novel's femme fatale, as it is—at least in part—Dorian Gray's involvement with her that leads to his downfall. Finally, Lord Henry, a student of psychology, contemplating Dorian deep in thought, knows "the precise psychological moment when to say nothing." Here social science is being used to bad ends.

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