Study Guide

The Picture of Dorian Gray Themes

By Oscar Wilde

  • Good vs. Evil

    Man, do we love a good, old fashioned catfight between Good and Evil. Seriously, this is the oldest play in the book, but it's still good pretty much every time. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the struggle is for the soul of the protagonist (Dorian).

    As soon as he enters the scene, we can tell that there's going to be a brutal round of tug-of-war over who gets to lay claim to the innocent, untouched soul of this pure young man. Evil looks like it's pulling ahead for a while – but, wait a minute, we smell comeuppance in the air. Good ultimately triumphs here when evil Dorian is punished with a death that's both horrifying and rather embarrassing.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. Can we divide all the characters here into two groups – "good" and "evil"?
    2. If so, who is on each team?
    3. Does either side actually "win" in the end, or is this a lose-lose situation?

    Chew on This

    The ultimate struggle in The Picture of Dorian Gray is between Dorian's warring sides; he himself encompasses both pure good and pure evil.

    The Picture of Dorian Gray offers Christianity, represented by Basil, as the only way of escape from the satanic clutches of Lord Henry.

  • Youth

    Eternal youth is something pretty much everyone dreams of, but nobody attains – nobody, that is, except for Dorian Gray. Sure, it sounds great. After all, youth goes hand in hand with beauty, excitement, and general all-around lovability. Youth is glorified to a extreme degree in The Picture of Dorian Gray, as basically the most valuable quantity known to man.

    However, Dorian's eternal youth comes at a terrible price: he essentially has to sell his soul to get it (something that never turns out well). The moral of the story is, you should enjoy and appreciate youth while you have it – but just give it up when the time comes.

    Questions About Youth

    1. Is there anything more valuable than youth in Dorian's eyes?
    2. If Dorian had not destroyed the portrait, what do you think would have happened to him? Would he have stayed eternally youthful?
    3. What qualities does youth represent in this novel?

    Chew on This

    Dorian Gray demonstrates that the mere image of youth is not youth itself.

    One of the central conflicts of The Picture of Dorian Gray is between youth and experience.

  • Mortality

    Death and age really get a bad rap in The Picture of Dorian Gray. To our protagonist, the most important things in life are youth and beauty – really, they're the only important things. Losing them is so unthinkable that he decides to sell his soul in exchange for eternal youth.

    It might just be us, but this doesn't seem like the best of bargains. Still, it's the way the story goes, and in the end, it turns out – surprise, surprise! – that nobody can actually escape his own mortality.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why is Dorian so afraid of aging?
    2. Does this novel offer us any hope for life after middle age?
    3. What are the various characters' thoughts on the natural process of age and death?

    Chew on This

    The absence of appealing aging characters might lead readers of The Picture of Dorian Gray to believe that life stops at forty.

    Death is interestingly removed from any religious sense of the afterlife; in the novel, death is truly an ending without the possibility of future salvation.

  • Art and Culture

    There's an interesting difference in The Picture of Dorian Gray between these two terms, "art" and "culture." While we might normally view them as two part of the same whole, Wilde asks us to examine them more like two sides of a coin here – they're inextricable, but not identical.

    According to Wilde, art is a good thing; it's purpose is to be purposeless, and the only thing it should be is beautiful. Culture, on the other hand, is not necessarily a good thing – it can be a bad influence. Dorian Gray examines the weird gray area (pun very much intended) between the beauty of art and the fascinating corruption of culture.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What is the purpose of art according to Basil? According to Lord Henry?
    2. How does Dorian relate to the portrait when he first sees it?
    3. How does Dorian's relationship to the picture reflect upon his understanding of art?
    4. What is the nature of "culture" in this novel?

    Chew on This

    The conflict between Basil and Henry essentially represents the difference between "art" and "culture."

    Dorian's immediate one-to-one identification with the portrait demonstrates his failure to understand real art, which, as we see in the Preface, is meant to be purposeless.

  • Innocence

    The Picture of Dorian Gray asks us to consider a lot of Big Issues – and key among them is the idea of innocence. The thing is, it's kind of tough to figure out what's going on with innocence in this text. On one hand, it's a highly prized quality; it makes characters unbelievably beguiling and appealing.

    On the other, we've got the uneasy feeling that innocence isn't all that it's cracked up to be – and perhaps it doesn't even really exist. After all, our protagonist begins as the most innocent, lamb-like, and pure of creatures, but, after about a chapter and a half, he's ready to start exploring his baser urges. Can it be that underneath every pure façade there's a little devil waiting to emerge?

    Questions About Innocence

    1. Do you believe that Dorian was ever truly innocent?
    2. Lord Henry implies that even Sibyl's innocence would rapidly become tarnished – do you believe his cynical view?
    3. Is it possible to eternally remain innocent, or is loss of innocence inevitable?

    Chew on This

    True innocence, according to The Picture of Dorian Gray, is ultimately impossible, for underneath every pure façade, there are latent desires that have not yet emerged.

    Dorian mistakenly equates his innocent-looking beauty with value; he doesn't realize that it was his true quality of innocence that gave him value initially.

  • Morality and Ethics

    Everyone in The Picture of Dorian Gray has his or her own moral scale, and the result is a world in which we're not quite sure what's right or wrong. That being said, some things are definitely wrong – for example, like killing your former best friend, then having his body chemically…um, for lack of a better word, disappeared. The interesting thing is that characters in this novel have a way of adjusting their personal moral and ethical codes to suit their own needs and desires.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. What is the basis for Lord Henry's personal morality?
    2. What is the basis for Basil's understanding of morality and ethics?
    3. Is there a difference between morality and ethics here?
    4. Does morality play a role in any of Dorian's judgments?

    Chew on This

    Lord Henry's ultimate hypocrisy lies in the gap between his understanding of morality and ethics; while he acts in public according to the accepted ethical code of his society, his personal morality is vastly different.

    While Basil is a highly moral character and Lord Henry an amoral one, Dorian is the only actively immoral character we see.

  • Appearances

    You've probably heard this saying about a billion and one times, but since it's so very correct, we think it bears repeating: "Don't judge a book by its cover." Really, don't do it. As we see in The Picture of Dorian Gray, you can never be sure what's lying beneath that fancy-pants, super-exciting cover – it may look gorgeous on the outside, but it could be totally poisonous on the inside.

    The protagonist of this novel, Dorian Gray himself, is a case in point: he's unbelievably beautiful on the surface, but his soul is grosser than gross. However, throughout the novel, he gets away with the most dastardly things, simply because he looks too innocent to do anything wrong.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. What is the relationship between inner and outer beauty here?
    2. The novel suggests that we always mistake beautiful people for good people – do you think that's an apt commentary on human perception?
    3. Why does Dorian place so much value on his body's appearance, when he knows full well what his hideous soul "looks" like?
    4. Does Lord Henry think that there is anything beyond appearance?

    Chew on This

    The flaw in the Decadent philosophy suggested by Lord Henry and the yellow book is the idea that there is nothing beyond surface appearance.

    The confusion of appearance with morality is what causes the downfall of every character that interacts with Dorian.

  • Transformation

    "Transformation" sounds all optimistic and happy (think butterflies!) but, in fact, it can be a terrible thing. Take Dorian Gray, for example. He begins in The Picture of Dorian Gray as a kind of human butterfly – gorgeous, innocent, pure, perhaps even pleasantly mindless.

    However, he then undergoes a dramatic transformation that renders him grotesquely un-beautiful (on the inside, at least)…the splendid butterfly eventually turns into an icky caterpillar. Um, no offense, caterpillars – we think you're awesome too. It's just a metaphor.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. When do we see the first signs of Dorian's metamorphosis?
    2. Do you think Dorian's transformation was inevitable, or was there a point at which he could have turned back?
    3. Do any of the other characters show transformation or development over the course of the novel?

    Chew on This

    The static nature of the other characters (primarily Lord Henry and Basil) serves to highlight Dorian's dramatic evolution over the course of the novel.

    Transformation here is an inexorable process – once it begins, there is no turning back.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    Though married with children, Wilde had male lovers, which resulted to a huge scandal and landed him in jail. Sexuality basically has the same role in The Picture of Dorian Gray – it's a big, impossible-not-to-notice scandal. There's a lot going on beneath the surface here, and as a contemporary reader you'll notice undertones of homoeroticism in this text.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. Do you think that there are suggestions of sexual ambiguity or uncertainty here?
    2. If so, which characters express them?
    3. Why might Wilde have depicted homosexuality (or bisexuality) in such an ambiguous way?

    Chew on This

    Both Basil and Lord Henry express desire for Dorian, but Basil's feeling for him – the admiration of the true artist for the object of beauty – is depicted as somehow more pure.

    The treatment of women in the novel (who are either mindless or "too clever") implies that only men are fit and worthy companions for each other.

  • Friendship

    As in life, everyone has different ideas about the nature of friendship in The Picture of Dorian Gray. To some, it entails great things like devotion, admiration, and loyalty – but, to others, it means a kind of relationship of mutual interest and temporary companionship.

    To others still, "friend" might as well be totally replaced with "frenemy." However you swing it, friendship is an important recurring theme in Wilde's novel, and its different definitions cause a lot of conflict.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What is Basil's idea of friendship? Lord Henry's? Dorian's?
    2. Do we see any true version of friendship in this novel?
    3. Does Dorian ultimately have any real friends?
    4. In the world of the novel, is friendship important?

    Chew on This

    There is no vision of true, egalitarian friendship in The Picture of Dorian Gray; all of the relationships are tinged by other elements, such as idolatry, jealousy, and resentment.

    Wilde's characters are fundamentally friendless and alone, and even if they don't recognize that this is a problem, it makes true happiness impossible for any of them.