The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How are the protagonists of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde similar?

Both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are works highly influenced by the Victorian gothic tradition. Mr. Hyde is created as the doppelganger for Dr. Jekyll so that he can act out his passions with supposed immunity. Likewise, Dorian's adoption of his portrait as his doppelganger allows him to indulge in pleasure as he pleases. This supports the theme of pleasure versus virtue. However, the immunity is an illusion, as both tales end tragically when the protagonists kill their doppelgangers and themselves. Dr. Jekyll's motive is to save humanity from the evil Mr. Hyde persona that he can no longer control. Dorian Gray's motive is that in destroying the portrait he will be getting rid of what he sees as his conscience, as well as the visible evidence of his sins. Dr. Jekyll knows that in destroying Mr. Hyde, he too will die. In Chapter 20 Dorian Gray, however, doesn't anticipate his own death when he slashes the painting with the knife he used to murder Basil Hallward.

How does Wilde portray women in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

In The Picture of Dorian Gray women are given little respect. Wilde introduces Sibyl Vane, Dorian's love interest in Chapter 4. Despite Dorian's initial affection for Sibyl, he learns that he was never in love with her as a person but rather with her capacity to inhabit and become art. He treats her cruelly, and though he regrets it and comes to live with the consequences of his behavior, he never demonstrates respect for the deceased. It may be that Sibyl was created merely as a catalyst for Dorian's dangerous downfall. Lady Victoria Wotton, Lord Henry's wife, is portrayed as a disastrous woman, perhaps so that Dorian can justify his relationship with Lord Henry. Lord Henry himself declares the Duchess of Monmouth "too clever for a woman. She lacks the indefinable charm of weakness." Lady Brandon is seen throwing herself at Mr. Hallward, screaming in "her curiously shrill voice," a description that prompts Lord Henry to call her "a peacock in everything but beauty." Wilde draws women who are desperate to define themselves by their relationships with men and the institution of marriage. Most are weak, and the ones who are strong are criticized for it. Curiously, Wilde had quite a female following, especially in the United States.

What effect do Lord Henry's comments on christening have in Chapter 17 of The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Christening, though mentioned in only one scene in The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a ritual that Wilde revisits in his other works, primarily The Importance of Being Earnest. In Chapter 17 of The Picture of Dorian Gray Lord Henry jokes that he is going to be rechristened. The Duchess of Monmouth says that she would not wish to be rechristened because she is "quite satisfied with [her] own name." Lord Henry mocks the seriousness of the duchess's response by saying that he "was thinking chiefly of flowers." This comment works in two ways. First, it trivializes the Christian rite of passage much in the way it was trivialized in The Importance of Being Earnest; rather than viewing the ceremony as entrance into a religious tradition and relationship with the deity, it is viewed simply as a means to rename oneself. Second, Wilde again uses Lord Henry to elevate art and beauty above morality. Lord Henry's draw to rechristening is neither about naming or renouncing sins but rather the spectacle and temptation of the beauty of flowers, specifically orchids.

In Chapter 18 of The Picture of Dorian Gray how do Dorian's thoughts reflect contemporary Victorian thinking about evolution?

In Chapter 18 Dorian shuts himself up in a room of his country estate and sits "sick with a wild terror of dying, and yet indifferent to life itself." Despite this indifference to living, he cannot help but contemplate life in order to understand his deeds. He decides that he has escaped punishment for his sins because "in the common world ... the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded." Furthermore Dorian believes that in the actual world—which is distinct from the world of the imagination—"success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak." This rumination of Dorian's reflects Charles Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest, a concept that had rooted itself firmly in the Victorian consciousness. While in "the common world of fact," Dorian could have lived his entire life without being punished for his misdeeds, Wilde in another show of reverence for art brings Dorian to justice in a way that could happen only according to the logic of imagination. These contemplations reinforce the themes of art versus life and pleasure versus virtue.

In Chapter 2 of The Picture of Dorian Gray what does Lord Henry Wotton mean when he says Dorian might be the visible symbol of "a new Hedonism"?

When Lord Henry first encounters Dorian Gray in Chapter 2, he claims that Dorian is "quite unconscious" of what he is. Lord Henry declares that Dorian must recognize himself as a symbol of a new hedonism. Hedonism is the belief or doctrine that pleasure must be the chief goal in life. Dorian must deal with this claim in Chapter 9 when he sees that Lord Henry's prophecy of Dorian as this new symbol has come true. Dorian recognizes himself as a symbol through which life can be recreated and saved "from that harsh uncomely puritanism that is having, in our own day, its curious revival." Indeed Dorian's actions throughout the novel are a prime example of this new hedonism that never "would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience."

In Chapter 18 of The Picture of Dorian Gray what can be learned from Lord Henry Wotton's comparison of the Duchess of Monmouth to the Greek goddess Artemis?

Lord Henry encounters the duchess—someone he has previously described as "too clever for a woman ... lack[ing] the indefinable charm of weakness." Now however, he flatters her by saying, "Ah! Here is the duchess, looking like Artemis in a tailor-made gown." The allusion to the Greek goddess is in keeping with Lord Henry's assessment that the duchess is too clever for his liking; Artemis was a powerful female goddess, an archer who protected nature and women alike. Lord Henry cleverly attributes to the duchess qualities he finds to be distasteful while creating the illusion that he admires the woman to whom he speaks. This move secures Lord Henry's reputation while hiding his true character.

How does the subplot of James Vane encountering Dorian Gray in Chapter 16 of The Picture of Dorian Gray advance the main plot?

Early in the narrative James Vane warns his mother against allowing his sister, Sibyl, to become involved with a "dandy" like Dorian Gray, whom Sibyl knows only as "Prince Charming." Not heeding this warning has dire consequences for Sibyl and the Vane family. Until Chapter 16 no one suspects Dorian of being involved in the death of Sibyl Vane. However, when James Vane hears Dorian referred to as Prince Charming, the conflict surrounding Sibyl's death is resurrected, and thus requires some resolution. The scenes that follow build tension in the main plot: Will James Vane be the one to expose Dorian Gray? Or will Dorian remain insulated from the consequences of his sins? When James confronts Dorian outside the opium den, there is the possibility that Dorian will be killed as vengeance for Sibyl's death, but his youthful appearance gets him out of the situation. This resolves the subplot while returning tension to the main plot because the reader is once again wondering how and when Dorian will be found out. The death of James Vane delays still further the resolution of the main plot.

What is the purpose of Dorian Gray and Lord Henry's exchange about the country in Chapter 19 of The Picture of Dorian Gray?

When Wilde was writing, it was common for those in the aristocracy to keep both a country house and a city home. This is a topic he takes up at length in The Importance of Being Earnest and deals with in Chapter 19 of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Chapter 19, after the death of James Vane, Dorian seems to have resolved to reform himself and be good. In an effort to be good, Dorian spends time in the country, a move that Lord Henry criticizes. He says, "Anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there." Lord Henry goes on to explain that resisting temptation is altogether different from avoiding it. The point of this exchange is to tease out the nature of goodness; in order to be good one must be tested by temptation.

In Chapter 19 of The Picture of Dorian Gray why does Lord Henry Wotton liken Hetty Merton to Ophelia, a character in Shakespeare's Hamlet?

After being rejected by her lover, Hamlet, Ophelia drowns herself. When Dorian professes to be on the path to redemption, he mentions that although he truly loves Hetty he has let her go, in part because he does not wish to seduce her. Knowing that Sibyl killed herself after Dorian rejected her, Lord Henry asks "How do you know that Hetty isn't floating ... with lovely water-lilies round her, like Ophelia?" Dorian is much offended by this comment since the implication is that Hetty, like Sibyl, would die because of him. Once again Lord Henry belittles Dorian's attempts to live morally by elevating the art of tragedy above real life. The inclusion of water-lilies in Lord Henry's depiction of Hetty also underscores the impermanence of her beauty, and perhaps even Dorian's commitment to being good.

In Chapter 19 of The Picture of Dorian Gray why is Lord Henry Wotton so pleased that Dorian never made a piece of art in his life?

In Chapter 19 Lord Henry delights in the fact that Dorian has never created anything. He exclaims that "Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets." In this Lord Henry is singing the aesthetic anthem and Wilde's personal credo that life should imitate art rather than the other way around. Lord Henry admires Dorian's artistic self, saying that his appearance is rather extraordinary. This admiration reflects the aesthetic movement's preoccupation with beauty over substance. Lord Henry is glad to see his philosophies manifest in real life through Dorian Gray, whose life he has intentionally manipulated.

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