The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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

The Picture of Dorian Gray | Themes


Appearance versus Reality

Throughout this brief philosophical novel, Wilde explores the questions of what is real, what is appearance, and what matters most. He does this in a number of ways. The first and most central, of course, is the core detail of the story: the magical portrait of Dorian Gray. It begins as the young man's perfect likeness and the greatest work of Basil Hallward's artistic career. At the moment it is first displayed, appearance and reality are synchronized, at least for Dorian and those around him. However, they begin to diverge as soon as Lord Henry awakens Dorian to his beauty and vanity—and Dorian fervently wishes that his portrait would age in his place. Since Basil is a painter, his artistic calling is an ongoing reflection on the relationship between appearance and reality.

Sibyl Vane is the great love of Dorian's life, and her brief professional career as an actress is devoted to appearing to be something other than what she is. That's who she is, and paradoxically, it is close to her essence. Before Dorian she was skilled at acting because she believed love had no place in her life. Once Dorian changes her reality through loving her, she can no longer counterfeit the characters she used to play so well.

Art versus Life

Closely related to the theme of appearance versus reality is the theme of art versus life. This theme is more complicated, though, as one's appearance can be a simple lie, an accident, or an illusion, whereas art is something more. Art, for Wilde, requires style, conscious display, and an elevated aesthetic quality: it should be beautiful.

When Sibyl loses her artistic ability due to Dorian's love, she then loses Dorian. This makes it immediately clear that Dorian loved her in part (perhaps entirely) because of her art. Take away that art, as Dorian did, and the reason for Dorian to love Sibyl disappears.

Lord Henry also argues fairly consistently for the power and superiority of art. When Sibyl Vane dies, he urges Dorian to think of her death as "a strange lurid fragment from some Jacobean tragedy." Dorian accepts this guidance, and he allows Henry to steer him away from mourning and back to pleasure. Art, then, consoles in this novel just as it reshapes reality.

Reputation versus Character

Reputation is the story others tell about a person; character is that person's real nature. The Picture of Dorian Gray examines what happens when the two diverge. Wilde also casts an interesting and insightful light on how people judge these attributes. Once Dorian starts to indulge himself, many people hear stories about him. In essence his reputation precedes him. These stories are not good and would ruin anyone else, socially.

However, because those around him believe one's character affects one's features, anyone who sees Dorian rejects these stories because of his pleasing physical appearance. They take the "proof" their own eyes offer them over the stories they hear, no matter how lurid or often repeated.

Pleasure versus Virtue

Pleasure takes many forms in this novel: art, beauty, sex, and drugs. Wilde explores pleasure's temptation and its relationship to virtue.

Though it is never made explicit in the best-known version of this novel, one of the main pleasures that is everywhere implied is homosexual desire. Both Basil and Lord Henry admire Dorian's beauty openly, and for an extended time. Their gazes linger in ways that are too possessive and erotic for them simply to be a shared love of abstract beauty. Dorian can manipulate them, especially Basil, and Basil is jealous of Dorian's spending time with others, a response more aligned with romantic love (or sexual desire) than with abstract appreciation. Because homosexual relationships were illegal in this period, before the story appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine it was revised to make its sexual content less overt. Wilde further edited the story before its publication in book form.

The conflict between pleasure and virtue also appears in other ways—ways that really show how dark Dorian's character becomes in the novel. The opening scene of Chapter 9 may illustrate this most clearly. It is the morning after Sibyl has killed herself. Basil visits Dorian to check on him and make sure he's okay. Dorian is completely superficial and ready to gossip about the lightest social affairs. His willingness to focus on pleasure—his pleasure—so soon after his loss horrifies Basil.

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