The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Quotes


All art is quite useless.

Oscar Wilde, Preface

This final line in Oscar Wilde's preface to his novel concludes a brief (roughly one page) but dense treatise on the nature of art, beauty, and criticism.

Wilde does not say he is commenting on The Picture of Dorian Gray, and indeed, he is careful to speak broadly. He intentionally discusses art as such, beauty in general, and criticism as a practice, rather than tying his comments to this novel in particular. Nevertheless, the fact that he chose to include these points before readers begin the narrative cannot be ignored. In tone, style, and general reasoning this preface is closest to the voice of Lord Henry Wotton, the cultured and cynical nobleman who awakens Dorian to the awareness of his own beauty in Chapter 2. However, it would have been easy enough to put these words in Henry's mouth. They would fit in any number of places in the narrative. Since Wilde did not do this, the reader must therefore apply them to the novel as a whole, including the character of Henry. Do not, this line says, look for meaning or influence from the novel. Instead, as an earlier section of the preface suggests, look for beauty.


Because, without intending it, I have put into it some expression of all this curious artistic idolatry, of which, of course, I have never cared to speak to him.

Basil Hallward, Chapter 1

Dorian Gray does not appear in Chapter 1. Instead Chapter 1 is made up of the conversation between two old friends: Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton. Henry has come to visit Basil while he paints, and the two men talk about Basil's current work, and, specifically, about Dorian Gray, who is the subject of Basil's painting.

This line comes near the end of Basil's explanation about why he won't ever display the painting of Dorian. It aligns with aspects of Wilde's preface. Structurally, it establishes several things for the novel. First it signals there is something special about the painting. Second it signals the relationship between Basil and Dorian is more than that of artist and sitter. This "idolatry" is one of many examples of the barely contained homoeroticism in the novel. And third it indicates how Romantic Wilde is in some ways, for here Basil indicates a creative force working through him.


There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view.

Lord Henry Wotton, Chapter 2

Lord Henry Wotton says this to Dorian Gray during their extended first meeting at Basil Hallward's studio. It reveals some of Henry's quite complex attitudes toward life, part of which involves treating one's own life as a work of art and approaching it objectively and aesthetically.

However, this statement is more than just a reflection of personality. It is at once profound and paradoxical. It is profound because it rises far above common morality. It is one of the lines marking this novel as philosophical. Rebelling against common behavior is common enough. All adolescents do that, at least for a while. It is much subtler to claim that all influence—of any sort—is wrong. The result is a severe form of individualism, in which all individuals are responsible for themselves. It destroys all social responsibility, and even institutions like family, for parents must influence their children.

The paradox comes from the fact that Henry influences Dorian on a fundamental level. Henry awakens Dorian to the awareness of his own beauty and to how fast life passes. Henry also continually postures and shares his philosophy with others, which shows he's continually seeking influence.


Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.

Lord Henry Wotton, Chapter 2

Said to Dorian Gray, this philosophical observation suggests a kind of balance to life, a yin-yang relationship between distinct parts of a human. However, few people of any period would suggest such an original relationship as this. Few have suggested there is a spiritual function to sensory indulgence, as Henry does here, or that one's soul should need curing.

Henry's skill at turning a phrase also reflects on Wilde's tendency to generate witticisms or epigrams. The line has both value and danger. The value is that this line is beautiful in itself and easy to remember. The danger is the line seems complete, and it is easy for the reader to forget, as Dorian does, that this leaves things out, like the rational mind or character.

Dorian remembers this line decades later, as he's headed to the opium den in Chapter 16.


I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me ... Every moment that passes takes something from me and gives something to it. Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now!

Dorian Gray, Chapter 2

Part of a larger emotional outburst to Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward, Dorian's flood of words comes after Henry has awakened Dorian to the power and intensity of his own beauty, which is also when Dorian becomes aware of how short life is and how soon his youthful beauty will fade.

This intense prayer is much more straightforward than most of Henry's speeches in the novel, and this indicates how much simpler and straightforward Dorian's character is than his older friend (at this time). This prayer sets everything in motion. It is like a wish made in a fairy tale and establishes the relationship between Dorian and the painting.

This prayer serves as a prediction of how the novel ends, when the beautiful painting of young Dorian seems to mock the aged, dead Dorian.


Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

Lord Henry Wotton, Chapter 4

This line is one of Wilde's famous epigrams. It appears in this novel when Lord Henry Wotton is talking to Dorian Gray, but it often appears free from its context, a kind of generalized cynical observation about value.

In context the meaning is more complex. Henry isn't home, and his wife, referred to as Lady Henry, is speaking to Dorian. She's quite nervous, and it seems to be because of Henry's relationship with Dorian. When Henry does come home, he says he just spent hours haggling over the price of a brocade. Since he has money, Henry is choosing to do this bargaining rather than spend time with his wife or friend. In context it is clearly Henry who knows the price of things but not the value.


How horrid you are! She is all the great heroines of the world in one. She is more than an individual.

Dorian Gray, Chapter 4

Dorian Gray says this to Lord Henry Wotton when he (Dorian) is gushing about how wonderful Sibyl Vane is. His comments about her are at once heartbreakingly naive and dangerously shallow. He has just said that Sibyl is never herself: she is always playing a role. Dorian's pronouncement to Henry shows how wonderful this is in his mind. Sibyl is larger than life, and more than one person.

In the end, however, a relationship must be between two people, each of whom is precisely that: one person. For Dorian to be in love with Sibyl because she's more than one person is to be in a relationship that is certain to fail (as it does).


Yes ... you have killed my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don't even stir my curiosity ... I will never think of you. I will never mention your name.

Dorian Gray, Chapter 7

Dorian Gray delivers these hurtful lines in an epic rant to Sibyl Vane backstage, after he has brought Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward to see Sibyl act. When Dorian first fell for Sibyl, it was because she was beautiful and because she could act so well (and because of the unexpected pleasure of finding those first two qualities in a tawdry, low-end theater).

Now that she's in love, her performance has suffered. She tells him it is because she's in love that she can't act—that she used to act so well to escape a joyless life. She wholeheartedly believed in her theatrical roles and immersed herself in them fully. Now that she has Dorian's love she sees only the artificiality of the theater, and so she can't act.

This extended speech is Dorian's response to Sibyl. Like many aspects of this novel, it is multifaceted. On one hand it shows great self-awareness for Dorian to know he loved Sibyl for all of these reasons. On the other hand it is both shallow and incredibly self-centered for Dorian to spout all of these things to the woman he had yesterday said he loved. He may be beautiful, but his soul is small and petty.


Surely his wish had not been fulfilled? Such things were impossible. It seemed monstrous even to think of them. And, yet, there was the picture before him, with the touch of cruelty in the mouth.

Narrator, Chapter 7

After Dorian Gray breaks Sibyl Vane's heart, he goes home and glances idly at Basil's portrait of him. He's startled because it seems to have changed. He studies it, looks in the mirror, and contemplates the matter. These lines sum up his conclusion. This sequence establishes the final link in the critical device driving the plot. There is a magical relationship between Dorian and this painting. When he does something wrong, the effects show up immediately on the painting.


But you must think of that lonely death in the tawdry dressing-room simply as a strange lurid fragment from some Jacobean tragedy ... The girl never really lived, and so she has never really died. To you at least she was always a dream ...

Lord Henry Wotton, Chapter 8

After Dorian Gray breaks off his relationship with Sibyl Vane so cruelly, she kills herself. Not knowing this, Dorian has been thinking about his actions and has written her a long letter of apology. Just then he receives news of her death from Lord Henry Wotton, who arrives to console him. As a result the news of Sibyl's death hits Dorian very hard.

He is talking about how terrible Sibyl's death is when Henry delivers a long speech containing this quotation. It recasts Sibyl, changing her from a dead 17-year-old girl into a figure of art. This statement is part of Henry's overall aesthetic approach to life, in which he keeps things at a distance and reshapes them for effect. Like many of Henry's statements, this is deeply profound. Dorian didn't really know Sibyl: she really was a kind of dream or projection, and Henry is insightful to see this. But like many of Henry's statements, this also is distant to the point of cruelty. Sibyl never really lived because she was desperately poor and killed herself due to Dorian's egotistical cruelty. The speed with which Henry reaches this perspective is part of the cruelty. He doesn't deliver his speech years after Sibyl's death, when the pain has passed. He says it a few minutes after Dorian learns about Sibyl's death. The tragic thing is—it works. Dorian moves on.


He had always the look of one who had kept himself unspotted from the world. Men who talked grossly became silent when Dorian Gray entered the room. There was something in the purity of his face that rebuked them.

Narrator, Chapter 11

After Sibyl Vane's death, Dorian Gray enters into an extended period of sensual self-indulgence. However, because of his magical relationship with Basil's portrait of him, Dorian's face does not show the result of any of his activities.

This summary of the effect Dorian's appearance has on others is one of Wilde's subtler critiques of his society. As much as people like to speak of character and to claim they respond to what is deepest in others, the reality is all too often what Wilde describes: people see a pretty face and equate that with a beautiful soul.


And, certainly, to him life itself was the first, the greatest, of the arts, and for it all the other arts seemed to be but a preparation.

Narrator, Chapter 11

At various points in the novel, Lord Henry Wotton nudges Dorian Gray toward treating life aesthetically, which involves making it beautiful but also keeping it at a distance. At this point, after Sibyl Vane's death and after Dorian has read the stylized French novel Henry loaned him (and been so influenced by), Dorian has fully arrived at this position. He is now living the philosophy Henry espouses, so that his own life is a work of art. This frees him to indulge his senses and removes all constraints of ethics and social mores.


A cry of joy broke from his lips. The man who had been shot in the thicket was James Vane. He stood there for some minutes looking at the dead body. As he rode home, his eyes were full of tears, for he knew he was safe.

Narrator, Chapter 18

A release of Dorian's pent-up anxiety about James's threat of revenge, this sequence points to the importance of Sibyl's death in Dorian's life story. He certainly did far worse things—like killing Basil—but his shabby treatment of Sibyl was his first sin. It started him on the path to cruelty, and caused the first change in Basil's portrait of him.


A cry of pain and indignation broke from him. He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite.

Narrator, Chapter 20

In Chapter 19 after James Vane's death, Dorian Gray sets out to change his ways and live a better life. He consciously chooses not to seduce and ruin an innocent young woman. After discussing the choice and the possibility of change with Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian decides, in Chapter 20, to look at his portrait and see if his attempt to follow a more ethical path has made a change in his appearance. These lines reflect what happens when he consults the painting. When Dorian spoke with Henry, he no doubt convinced himself he meant to change. Here, in Chapter 20, the portrait reveals what he really intends, and it is dark indeed. This shows just how extensive and profound the painting's magic is. It doesn't just absorb passing time and the results of Dorian's vices. It also knows him better than he knows himself. It is like a super-powered conscience, a kind of magic mirror reflecting Dorian's inner self more clearly than he can see it himself.


When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.

Narrator, Chapter 20

This description indicates that the fairy tale element of the story has run its course. All of the years and sins that had been transferred to the portrait are suddenly transferred back to Dorian in the instant he stabs the painting. The description is intentionally nameless. The servants who view this tableau see the beautiful painting and their master's rings on the aged corpse and thus deduce the reality.

It is worth noting that when Dorian stabbed the painting, Wilde did not say where he stabbed it. However, the knife is in the dead man's heart, indicating the painting was his heart. This aligns with Dorian's comments from Chapter 12 about keeping a diary of his life locked in a room. This painting was his diary, his heart, and his inner self.

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