The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Picture of Dorian Gray | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Picture of Dorian Gray is set in 19th-century England and focuses on the title character as he passes from innocence and beauty to immorality and death.

When the novel opens Lord Henry Wotton is visiting his friend Basil Hallward. Basil is painting Dorian Gray's portrait. Henry admires the painting, but Basil worries he let too much of his feelings for Dorian seep into the image. They go into the studio, where Henry chats with Dorian as the young man poses for his portrait. Henry praises Dorian's beauty. When Dorian sees the finished portrait, he realizes that as he ages his portrait will remain young and beautiful. He wishes he could stay young and that the portrait would grow older in his place. The next day Henry visits his uncle and learns Dorian's family background: his mother was beautiful, but she ran away with a poor lover. Thus Dorian will inherit a lot of money.

A month passes. Attending performances at a theater in a poor section of London, Dorian falls in love with an actress he sees there—a young woman named Sibyl Vane. The two barely know each other. Sibyl doesn't even know Dorian's real name, calling him only "Prince Charming." Nevertheless, Dorian tells his friends they will marry. Sibyl is very happy. Her brother James is suspicious: he doesn't like the large class difference between the pair. James also worries about Sibyl because he's about to leave the country to seek his fortune.

Henry and Basil go with Dorian to watch Sibyl act, but her performance is terrible. Sibyl tells Dorian she used to act to escape life, but now that her life is wonderful she no longer can act as she formerly did. Unfortunately, much of what Dorian loved about her was her acting, so he breaks off their engagement. When he gets home he finds a new line in Basil's portrait: cruelty is now visible in the painted face.

After he leaves, Sibyl commits suicide. Dorian is horrified when he learns about her death the next day. However, Henry talks him into seeing it as something in the past, a learning experience.

Because of the change in the painting, Dorian locks it away where no one will see it. After he has the painting moved, Dorian reads a note from Henry. It includes results of the inquest into Sibyl's death, along with a French novel. Dorian reads this book all day, and he becomes highly influenced by it.

Dorian enters into an extended period of self-indulgence as years pass, and people tell stories about his activities. Some of these are simply sensual, like spending time and money on gems and music. Others are scandalous, immoral, and illegal. However, few people really believe these stories because Dorian appears to retain his youthful innocence and beauty.

On the evening before his 38th birthday, Dorian runs into Basil. Basil warns Dorian about the scandalous stories circulating about him. Basil says he wishes he could be sure the stories were untrue, but that to do that he would have to see Dorian's soul. He laments that "only God can do that." Dorian says he keeps a diary of his soul, and he leads his bewildered friend to see the portrait. Basil is horrified at the sight. Dorian reminds Basil how he wished the painting would age instead of him. They talk about what happened and what it means. Basil concludes Dorian's sins must be terrible indeed for the painting to look like that. Suddenly overcome by anger and loathing, Dorian stabs Basil to death then contacts Alan Campbell, a scientist, with whom he used to be very close. Dorian blackmails Campbell into getting rid of Basil's body.

Late that night Dorian goes to an opium den. While he's there, a woman recognizes him and calls him "Prince Charming." A sailor who overhears this address follows Dorian out onto the street. It is James Vane, who wants to kill Dorian for causing his sister's death so many years before. However, when Dorian shows the man his supernaturally youthful face, James concludes it couldn't be Dorian, apologizes, and lets him go. Once he's gone the woman from the opium den tells James it really is the same man.

A week later Dorian faints when he sees James Vane looking in the window during a party. Terrified, Dorian stays home for three days before joining a group of hunters to shoot game. As he walks with a friend, the man shoots at a hare. He kills it—also fatally wounding a man hiding in the bushes. Later the gamekeeper tells Dorian that the dead man wasn't one of his beaters. A beater is an individual who beats at shrubbery—thus startling wild game into leaving their cover and giving hunters a clear shot at their prey. Curious, Dorian inspects the body and finds it is James Vane.

Dorian decides to change his life. However, Henry declares that Dorian should remain as he is, saying he is perfect. Dorian walks home. Once there he thinks about all the lives he has ruined. He resolves again to change. Since he recently chose not to seduce a young woman, he thinks to check his portrait to see if it reflects that decision. He finds the old sins are still visible, along with a new one: hypocrisy. Dorian decides to destroy the painting.

Dorian stabs his portrait, cries out, and falls to the floor. Although his servants hear the shout, they have no key to the locked room. Finally, they enter through a window and find Basil's portrait of Dorian, once again showing Dorian's face as young and beautiful. A withered body lies near the painting. No one can tell who it is. Finally checking the rings on the corpse's hands, they identify the dead man as Dorian Gray.

The Picture of Dorian Gray Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Basil Hallward paints Dorian Gray's picture.

Rising Action

2 Lord Henry Wotton makes Dorian aware of his own beauty.

3 Dorian wishes the painting would age instead of him.

4 Dorian falls in love with Sibyl Vane.

5 Sibyl cannot act; Dorian dumps her and she kills herself.

6 The first line of age and cruelty appears on the portrait.

7 Henry gives Dorian a book that influences him for years.

8 Dorian indulges in decadent activities for years.


9 Basil reacts to changes in the painting; Dorian kills him.

Falling Action

10 Dorian blackmails Alan Campbell into disposing of the body.

11 James Vane is accidentally killed while stalking Dorian.


12 Dorian stabs the portrait, thus aging and killing himself.

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