Admiring and judgmental? We know this sounds complicated, but stick with us.
We get the distinct feeling that the narrator here is torn between fascination and disgust—Lord Henry and Dorian's depraved philosophy is both appealing and revolting at the same time. This narrator is certainly interested in the beliefs espoused by the decadent characters here—the descriptions of Lord Henry's brilliant wit and rhetorical skill (see Chapter 3) express a complete admiration and fascination with this character.
The descriptions of Dorian's incredible physical beauty are also invested with the same kind of near-obsessive, swooning admiration:
Yes, he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth's passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world. No wonder Basil Hallward worshipped him. (2.2)
However, because this was a book intended for publication and sale, the narrator has to come down pretty harshly on these immoral characters—the tone grows increasingly judgmental and critical towards the end of the novel. We start to see that Lord Henry is a truly warped and flawed being, and that Dorian himself grows less and less compelling as he gets more paranoid (after all, desperation is not sexy):
He was prisoned in thought. Memory, like a horrible malady, was eating his soul away. From time to time he seemed to see the eyes of Basil Hallward looking at him. Yet he felt he could not stay. The presence of Adrian Singleton troubled him. He wanted to be where no one would know who he was. He wanted to escape from himself. (16.16)
The tone of the narration is also extremely judgmental throughout with regards to characters who aren't worthy of praise—ones that are either too stupid or too uncultured to merit Wilde's interest, or are just women (for example, Mrs. Vane and Lord Henry's wife, Victoria).
This short novel is an interesting combination of elements—Wilde wrote it in a sort of high literary mode (that is to say, with ornate, self-consciously artistic language and heightened sense of style), but it also has elements of the classic horror story, like the suspenseful build to the final twist. In other words, it's a kind of horror story that's ascended to the level of literary horror story—other examples are Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, or basically any short story by Edgar Allan Poe.
In terms of the "literary" part, you might consider Wilde's concern with showing Dorian's thoughts in depth, as well as his exploration of Basil and Lord Henry. While it shows some levels of psychological detail, the novel is also highly symbolic and allegorical; Wilde was no stranger to metaphor.
On the "horror" side, we've got the grotesque descriptions of the portrait, the terrible murder and consequent, um, disappearance of Basil Hallward, and the general ick-factor of the opium den—and, of course, the dramatic ending, shrieks and all.
You know how some titles are little mysteries in themselves, and how they can make you wonder, "Man, what was that author thinking?" Well, rest easy, because this is not one of those titles.
The Picture of Dorian Gray refers quite straightforwardly to two portraits: first of all, the very literal picture of Dorian painted by Basil Hallward, and secondly, the literary "picture" Wilde creates in the novel.
Both of these works of art show us what the so-called "real" world can't see—the truth of Dorian's soul. The painting itself is at the center of the whole novel; while Dorian's physical beauty remains untouched, the Dorian captured in the painting changes horribly to reflect the corruption of his soul. Just as this picture shows viewers (well, there's really only one viewer—Dorian himself) the true nature of its subject, so too does Wilde's novel reveal Dorian's increasingly evil inner self to us, the readers.
The novel ends, like it begins, with the painting.
Dorian attempts to destroy the portrait, the image of his disgustingly corrupted soul, which haunts him like a conscience. He slashes at it with a knife (appropriately the very same knife with which he murdered his ex-friend, Basil Hallward), hoping to do away with the evidence of his crimes. But the plan backfires dramatically: by stabbing the portrait, Dorian inadvertently kills himself.
The grotesque deformities of the picture come into being in Dorian's own body, while painted Dorian is restored to its original image of spotless beauty. In the end, Dorian gets everything that was coming to him; his choices brought about his own doom.
Questions like "Why?" and "How?" aren't really ours to apply to this ending—the magical element of this story is just one of those things that we're asked to believe. What really matters about it is not its fairy-tale-gone-wrong turn of events, but rather the message that it conveys. The idea here is that nobody can get away with everything; even though Dorian thought that he could dodge earthly punishment and go about his evil business by destroying the portrait (the proof of how vile and corrupt he really was), his death actually comes as a kind of divine retribution for all of his crimes.
Notably, the painting is restored to its original pristine state by this act—this goes back to the statement Wilde makes about art in the "Preface." The artwork is totally removed from questions of good or evil—once Dorian's corrupt life-force is lifted from it, the painting reverts to its natural state of beauty, without a moral stance.
Let's talk about time first. It's important, and not just because it elicits questions like "What are they wearing?" and "How did they clean up after all those horses?"
This novel takes place in the height of the Decadent artistic movement of the late 19th Century, making Dorian a contemporary of his author, Oscar Wilde. Although this trend (which celebrated aesthetic pleasure and sensual experience) began in France, Wilde was the major proponent of it in England.
The influence of French Decadent writers can be seen throughout the novel, from the Gautier poem recorded in Chapter 14 to the extravagant, foppishly luxuriant style of Dorian's clothing and furniture. Although Wilde never gives a specific date for Dorian Gray, his inclusion of the yellow book—a loosely-veiled version of À Rebours by J.K. Huysmans—means that Dorian must be living some time after its publication in 1884.
Interestingly, the Decadent movement took place in the broader setting of the Victorian era, which is mainly known for its prudish, priggish social mores and über-judgmental standards. The contrast between dull middle-class society and the sins of the wealthy and corrupt upper classes makes Wilde's book all the more daring.
Okay, on to location: Dorian moves freely between two major parts of London, the wealthy West End and the decrepit East End. In the West End, mostly in the super-ritzy Mayfair district, Dorian establishes his home, frequents various gentlemens' clubs, theaters, and symphony halls. In the East End, near the dock, the disguised Dorian steals into grotesque saloons-turned-opium-dens for an occasional high, and disgustedly rubs elbows with the various underworld characters whose lives he's destroyed.
The two settings represent Dorian's two sides. In the West End, he is the gallant gentleman, fashionable trendsetter, cultured aristocrat, and scandalous local celebrity. There he enjoys the highest art forms civilization has to offer—opera, theater, painting, French cuisine—to fulfill his refined appetite.
In the East End, however, he becomes a creepy, skulking, unambiguously evil specter (the "devil's bargain")—just as desperate as the next guy for an opium hit and generally trying to find ways to forget his criminal life in the city. Wilde vividly creates a doubled setting for a doubled life.
There isn't an epigraph exactly, but there is a totally on-point "Preface." (Read the Preface here.)
The Preface is a little confusing at first glance—we open a novel expecting to find something along the lines of "Once upon a time…" and instead, we're met with the sweeping claim that "The artist is the creator of beautiful things." This seems totally, totally random, but it actually is very appropriate, both to this novel in particular, and to Wilde's body of work in general.
Critics at the time weren't always the biggest fans of Wilde's work—especially Dorian Gray, which was derided for its so-called "sham moral" at the time—so it's understandable that he had a bone or two to pick with his detractors.
One of the common complaints about Wilde's novel was that it didn't take a strong moral stance, and that it demonstrated the author's own immorality (Wilde was a famously scandalous celebrity). Frustrated with these goody-two-shoes critics, Wilde responded that they had committed "the unpardonable crime of trying to confuse the artist with his subject matter."
This page-long preface, which appeared in the new and revised 1891 version of Dorian Gray (the first was published in 1890), succinctly sums up Wilde's point of view about art: in a nutshell, the artist is not concerned with morals and ethics when creating his art, but simply attempts to make something beautiful. Readers see what they want to see in the novel, so they only have themselves to blame if they find it scandalous.
Wilde really unleashes the rabid hounds of ornamentation on this piece of work. His prose is almost visibly sparkling with gems and gilded bric-a-brac; reading Dorian Gray is like watching an all-out, massively expensive period film. Just take a look at this, the second sentence:
From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. (1.2)
What the what? That is a lot of detail. This accumulation of sensory input forces us to slowly go through Wilde's writing phrase by phrase, savoring the surplus of gorgeousness he piles up in his text.
Interestingly, though, the Wilde writing Dorian Gray is the same mastermind behind acerbically hilarious plays like The Importance of Being Earnest, and he doesn't want us to forget that—so he occasionally punctuates these long passages of florid description with a biting comment or two, usually in his witty dialogue. Our favorite is the sassy comment about the scandalous Madame de Ferrol, whose "hair turned quite gold from grief" (15.9) when her third husband died.
The portrait is the main symbol at work here. It's a kind of living allegory, a visible interpretation of Dorian's soul. Basically, the picture represents Dorian's inner self, which becomes uglier with each passing hour and with every crime he commits. It is the image of Dorian's true nature and, as his soul becomes increasingly corrupt, its evil shows up on the surface of the canvas. It seems that Dorian is not completely free of the picture's influence: as it becomes uglier and uglier, Dorian pretty much loses it. It becomes a kind of conscience, and it reminds Dorian constantly of the evil at the heart of his nature. (Check out our "Character Analysis" of Dorian Gray for more about the man and the portrait.)
This is a thinly veiled reference to J.K. Huysmans' À Rebours ("Against Nature"), an incredibly important novel of the Decadent period. In both the original text and Wilde's summary of it, its incredibly wealthy protagonist devotes his life to seeking as many aesthetic sensations as he can, regardless of what society says. He is a representation of what Dorian could become – a robotic being with no true emotions and no true relationships – looking for only the next new sensation. Upon reading it, Dorian sees aspects of his own life reflected back at him in this character's life. However, Wilde made some notable changes (like the explicit mention of the protagonist's lost beauty, which just makes Dorian even more scared that he'll lose his looks) to make it more fitting to his novel.
Most importantly, the yellow book represents the "poisonous" influence Lord Henry has on Dorian; Henry gives the book to Dorian as a kind of experiment, and it works horrifyingly well. Its hedonistic, decadent message makes it a kind of guide book for Dorian, who lives his whole life in pursuit of its ideals. Ultimately, as we're reminded, it's Lord Henry's fault for poisoning Dorian with the book, which comes to stand in for all of Henry's extravagant, selfish, dangerously seductive philosophical ideas.
These pastimes are symbols of the decadent, hedonistic lifestyle Lord Henry lures Dorian into; they're all different ways of living through sensory exploration. Opium, scandalous love affairs, and theatrical spectacle are Dorian's distractions from his conscience, and he indulges in all of them as a kind of escape. Lord Henry's philosophy, that we should all give in to what tempts us, is played out in Dorian's indulgence in all of these luxuriant, sensual pleasures.
Although we see the story mainly through the lens of Dorian's opinions, we also dip into the minds of other characters here and there, from Lord Henry to Mrs. Vane. We're able to see everyone's thoughts and perspectives, but that doesn't mean we have an objective, or even necessarily fair narrator—in fact, this narrator is super harsh sometimes (see "Tone" for more on this).
However, the narration is really thorough and complete... even if Wilde is snarky.
Dorian Gray is totally young, pure, and beautiful, and his only concerns at this stage seem to be related to staying young, pure, and beautiful. However, this idyll can't last long with Lord Henry Wotton in the works—he seizes upon the young man, and immediately launches into a life-changing lecture about the merits of giving into desire.
It appears for a while that Lord Henry is wrong—Dorian is just loving life, and loving Sibyl Vane. Everything looks peachy, and Dorian seems to have found his own kind of happiness. He's still intrigued by Henry (they hang out just about every day), but his inner innocence resists the corrupting influence of his friend.
Dorian's pure love for Sibyl Vane looks like it might be the antidote to the poisonous theories of Lord Henry… however, Sibyl's last performance and her suicide put an abrupt end to this stage.
After Sibyl's death, Dorian is profoundly changed—he goes over to Lord Henry's side and basically becomes a somewhat more evil version of Lord Henry himself. This begins with the yellow book—it "poisons" Dorian's mind, and changes him completely. Dorian gets sketchier and sketchier, as his portrait grows more and more grotesque.
Oh dear. Poor Basil forces Dorian to confront his own evil deeds, and Dorian really doesn't like it. Things just get worse from here on out—Dorian's sucked into a kind of vortex of evil deeds by a combination of factors (Basil's murder, the appearance of James Vane, his own increasing paranoia).
Once Dorian's troubles all subside (James is dead, and nobody knows he killed Basil), he reevaluates his life. His decision to become good again is basically a desire to eliminate the grotesquely ugly Dorian he sees in the portrait.
Consequently, his modified wish to keep living as he did and just destroy the portrait is similarly a matter of destroying that other self. However, Dorian doesn't realize that he and the painted Dorian are one and the same—so what begins as an impulse to destroy the evidence of his sins ends as a kind of unintentional suicide.
Dorian's nature is unspoiled and his exquisite outer beauty mirrors the pure inner beauty of his soul. He's as innocent as the day he was born… until a certain young Lord enters the picture.
To cut a long story short, Dorian idealistically falls in love with Sibyl, and, upon realizing the fact that she doesn't live up to his expectations, he dumps her. She kills herself, and instead of mourning her and learning a lesson, Dorian reads the yellow book, listens to Lord Henry, and gets over the whole thing.
We're not exactly sure what Dorian's up to over the next decade or so. He's deeply influenced by the yellow book, and consequently changes his mode of living. Though things look peachy keen on the surface, rumors start to emerge about Dorian's secret, evil deeds. We don't know any details, but it seems like our hero has gone completely over to the dark side.
All bets are off—Dorian seems to have lost all vestiges of his former self. He doesn't even have any feelings left for Basil, formerly his best friend; in fact, even after he kills Basil in a fit of passion, he pretty much feels like B. brought it upon himself.
Like Lord Henry, Dorian seems mostly to be filled with a vague sense of pity and contempt for everyone else. To top it all off, he blackmails another ex-friend, Alan Campbell, into covering for his crime.
Dorian is understandably shaken by Basil's murder, but not for reasons we'd expect; rather, he's terrified that he'll get caught. To make matters worse, he discovers that James Vane (brother of Sibyl) is back in town and on the murderous prowl for him. Dorian is wracked with fear of death, first in London, then when James follows him to his country home at Selby.
It seems as though everything has worked out for old Dorian Gray—James Vane is accidentally killed at Selby, which means that there's nobody out looking for him. He feels a profound sense of relief, and wonders if he should change his ways after all.
After thinking that he should turn over a new life, Dorian basically says, "Screw it!" and decides to keep on going the way he's been going. He loves being evil, and realizes that even the thought of becoming good makes him a hypocrite, a new sin to add to his catalog. However, morality triumphs, and Dorian finally gets his comeuppance—by trying to destroy his portrait (read: his soul), he kills himself.
After dumping Sibyl and dealing (quickly) with her death, Dorian reads the yellow book for the first time, and is profoundly changed… for the worse.
Dorian kills Basil in a fit of moral-crisis-driven rage, and blackmails Alan Campbell into destroying the evidence.
Dorian's close call with James Vane makes him reevaluate his life—should he in fact be trying to reform himself? He briefly thinks he can be good again, but, alas, he can't. In an attempt to get rid of the evidence of his sins, he slashes the portrait, and dies.