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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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

The Picture of Dorian Gray | Symbols


The Painting

By far the most important symbol in the novel is Basil's portrait of Dorian. The centerpiece of the plot, the portrait interacts with Dorian throughout the narrative. When Dorian does something immoral, the results show up on the painting, while Dorian's own face stays unmarked and beautiful. This painting is Basil's best work, but must, because of its magical power, remain unseen by everyone except Dorian.

Basil and Henry saw the portrait when it was first complete. Though it is rarely seen, this picture looms symbolically and metaphorically over the entire book. The picture takes the Victorian ideal of art to its logical extreme. If art is useful because it teaches a moral lesson, how perfect must this painting be since it is an immediate barometer of ethical changes? Basil's final glimpse of his masterpiece occurs when he says that to know Dorian he must see his soul. This viewing proves to be the artist's undoing; his horrified reaction to the portrait leads Dorian to murder his friend.


Though they are far less important than the picture, flowers appear throughout the book. The opening line mentions "the rich odour of roses," and it is to flowers that Dorian turns in Chapter 2 to relieve his soul after Henry awakens him to the power and brevity of beauty. Dorian buys or orders orchids at key moments, such as when he's blackmailing Alan Campbell into disposing of Basil's body for him.

Flowers symbolize beauty and how briefly it lasts. Their fleeting beauty stands in stark contrast to the enduring ugliness that is captured in Dorian's portrait. The title character clings to something that is not meant to last, which brings inevitable repercussions.


The theater, as a type of art, serves as a form of escapism. Lord Henry advises that people should give in to temptation through indulgence, and Dorian uses art as one means of escaping the ethical concerns of his conscience.

The theater is the setting in which one of the characters of great importance to Dorian—Sibyl Vane—is primarily seen. It is the backdrop against which she artistically plays the characters that seduce Dorian into loving her. Once she and Dorian fall in love, it is the setting in which Sibyl—no longer able to act—destroys his love forever. It is the place of Dorian's indulgence while Sibyl's performances excel, and it is the place he rejects when Sibyl's performances are no longer pleasing.

The theater also symbolizes the way all the main characters play roles in their own personal dramas.

The Book

In Chapter 10 just after Dorian hides his portrait and learns the results of Sibyl Vane's inquest, he reads the "yellow book" Henry sent him. This novel changes Dorian's life. He buys multiple copies, rereads it, and lives its philosophy. This book, which he carries with him wherever he goes, symbolizes several closely linked meanings. Most directly it represents Henry's influence over Dorian. Generally, "controversial French novels" were bound in yellow during this period, so this book represents the influence of French literature. These yellow bound books were considered sensational at best, and decadent and immoral at worst, promoting both sexual and philosophical deviance.

Most specifically, this can be read as Joris-Karl Huysmans's À Rebours, a book of the decadent movement that Wilde read (and greatly admired) on his honeymoon. Once this book enters Dorian's life, he begins to live like he is part of the aesthetic movement. He is much more hedonistic. It also provides a means by which Dorian can practice Henry's belief about curing "the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul."

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