The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Novel in 11 Literary Elements
- Sources of inspiration
- Point of view
- Narrative techniques
Sources of inspiration
A variety of sources contributed to the composition of the novel. Let's examine two of them:
- The idea of vanity and obsession for beauty, explored all along the novel, might be traced in one of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," where Narcissus is a beautiful youth who falls in love and becomes so obsessed with his own reflection that he falls into the water and is ultimately transformed into a flower.
- The idea of being young and wealthy comes probably from the legend of Faust, a classic German tale that tells the story of a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly pleasures and knowledge.
The title, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," can be divided into two sections. The first section, 'The Picture,' is a reference to a painting of Dorian Gray produced by an artist named Basil Hallward. The image captures Dorian's youthful charm and physical beauty perfectly. This part of the title hints at the concept of appearance. The second portion of the title, 'Dorian Gray,' is the name of the novel's protagonist. Dorian evolves throughout the novel and the readers can observe how Dorian's life and the painting grow increasingly intertwined throughout the work, with the portrait serving as a disturbing reminder of the character's moral degradation and physical decay. The second part of the title highlights the concept of reality.
However this only scratches the surface! The title suggests a duality between appearance and reality, with "The Picture" representing Dorian Gray's outward, superficial image and "Dorian Gray" embodying his genuine character or inner reality. The idea of a painting capturing a person's essence and revealing their true nature runs throughout the work, and the title foreshadows this idea.
Oscar Wilde uses two portraits to explore the tension between appearance and reality. The first portrait is a literal one, painted by Basil Hallward.
The second portrait is more metaphorical. It represents the internal, hidden side of Dorian's personality that is kept hidden from the world. Dorian's changing portrait is a tangible representation of his struggle between his moral and physical decay.
"The Picture of Dorian Gray" was commissioned by an American publishing house. J.M. Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in Philadelphia, met Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle in London in August 1889. Stoddart needed new stories to print and Conan Doyle presented his second Sherlock Holmes' novel, 'The Sign of the Four', in 1890. Wilde submitted his fairy tale, 'The Fisherman and His Soul,' with the promise of a £200 advance for 30,000 words. Stoddart, however, wanted a composition twice as long, motivating Wilde to start work on 'The Picture of Dorian Gray.' The novel was finally published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890, and it was a huge success.
Gothic, horror, aestheticism, and psychological analysis are all combined in "The Portrait of Dorian Gray." Because of its many gloomy, mysterious, and supernatural elements, can be considered a Gothic novel. There are also horror aspects in this book; for example, as Dorian sinks into depravity, his painting, the representation of his soul, gets progressively more horrifying. Wilde's only novel is a work of aestheticism. Aestheticism is a literary and artistic movement that stresses beauty and art over social or political messages. The novel explores the link between art and life as well as the idea that life itself can be a work of art.
Finally the novel is also a psychological work because it analyzes the aspirations and motivations of its characters.
The structure of Oscar Wilde's novel results in two main sections. The first ten chapters describe Lord Henry's influence on Dorian and his introduction to hedonism. It also introduces the characters and sets the scene. This section is followed by an expository chapter: it serves to set the scene and prepare the reader for what is to come. It is also a link between the first part of the novel and the second one, which begins to reveal the plot and themes. The last ten chapters portray Dorian's adult life, in which he lives out Lord Henry's philosophy and ruins many lives in the process. ///This section also includes a bridge chapter that covers the eighteen years between the two sections. In this section, Dorian experiences a moment of crisis as he weighs his guilt and sees the first change in his portrait. To add a temporary break from the intense action, Wilde uses devices such as dinner parties. This structure reflects the battle between good and evil that takes place within Dorian Gray.
In the beginning of the novel, Lord Henry influences Dorian with his philosophy, which Dorian quickly embraces. Lord Henry claims that only the senses can heal the soul, while the soul is the only cure for the senses, i.e. according to Lord Henry, people can temporarily feel better by using their senses. He believes that in order to thoroughly cure the soul and be happy, one must also feed their inner self. Simply said: while the senses can bring temporary relief, only the soul can provide long-term remedy.
This statement creates a conflict in Dorian as he struggles between his desire for pleasure and his guilt. When he sees Basil Hallward's portrait Dorian Gray wishes to remain young forever while the portrait would undergo the changes of time in his place. As a result, Dorian remains youthful and lovely while the painting grows increasingly ugly and terrifying as Dorian continues to engage in immoral activities. Dorian notices the changes in his portrait after he ends his relationship with Sibyl Vane.
He seems pure outwardly but is morally depraved inside. Later, Dorian kills Basil Hallward and descends into London's opium dens. He tries to express his regret to Lord Henry but fails, and he finally kills himself by stabbing his portrait.
Several settings underline the mood and atmosphere of the story.
The story takes place in London, during the Victorian age, a time of conservatism and emphasis on morality. This serves as a stark contrast to the hedonistic world that Dorian Gray will inhabit.
Another important setting is Basil Hallward's studio, where Dorian's portrait is painted. It is in this studio that Dorian makes his wish to remain young and beautiful forever.
The opium dens of London are also important in the novel. It is where Dorian goes to indulge in his vices and escape from the guilt and shame that he feels. The opium dens serve as a representation of a world that is far removed from the polite society that Dorian is used to.
Finally, the attic where Dorian's portrait is hidden is a crucial setting in the novel. The attic becomes a symbol of Dorian's attempt to keep his actual character hidden from the world.
Dorian Gray is the protagonist and the titular character of the novel. He is a young and beautiful man who becomes corrupted by the influence of Lord Henry Wotton. Dorian wishes to remain young and handsome forever.
Lord Henry Wotton is a wealthy and cynical aristocrat who has a profound influence on Dorian's life. He promotes the pursuit of pleasure and the fulfillment of desires as the chief goal of life.
Basil Hallward is an artist and a close friend of Dorian. He paints his portrait, which is the supernatural element in the novel.
Sibyl Vane is an actress and Dorian's fiancée. Her tragic fate foreshadows the disastrous consequences of Dorian's immorality.
James Vane is Sibyl's brother, who becomes obsessed with avenging her death. He adds to the suspense of the novel's climax.
These characters and their interactions drive the plot of the novel and allow the reader to explore the themes of the story, such as the dangers of vanity and the pursuit of pleasure at the cost of one's soul.
Point of view
In "The Picture of Dorian Gray," the story is narrated by an objective third-person omniscient narrator.
This perspective provides insight into:
- everything that's happening,
- the thoughts and feelings of each character,
- the complex relationships between the characters,
- how they develop over time,
- how Dorian Gray changes and becomes corrupted over the course of the book.
The readers are able to understand the psychological drama of the story and the struggles of the characters.
Oscar Wilde employs various narrative techniques to tell the story.
- Foreshadowing is one of them: for example, in chapter 2, Lord Henry says to Dorian, "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it." This anticipates Dorian's descent into depravity and immorality.
- Use of symbolism, where an object represents a deeper, more significant meaning. For example, Dorian's portrait is a symbol of his soul and inner self. As Dorian becomes more corrupt and decadent, the portrait reflects the ugliness of his soul, while Dorian's outward appearance remains youthful and beautiful.
-Use of dialogue to reveal character and to advance the plot. For example, in chapter 4, Basil tells Lord Henry that he is in love with Dorian, saying, "I love him, and I must make him love me. If I fail, I am lower than your lowest… I am punished for that, Dorian – or shall be someday." This dialogue not only reveals the nature of Basil's feelings for Dorian but also foreshadows the tragic events that are to come.
The function of art is one of "The Picture of Dorian Gray's" central themes. According to Lord Henry the goal of art is to capture life's essence and leave a lasting impact. "We can only have one great experience in life at best, and the secret of life is to reproduce that experience as often as you can" (Ch. 2).
Another theme is the supremacy of youth and beauty. At the beginning of the novel, Dorian is presented as a handsome young man, and throughout the story, his obsession with maintaining his youth and beauty leads him down a destructive path. This emphasizes the importance placed on physical appearance in society. Lord Henry states, "It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But... it is better to be good than to be ugly" (Ch. 2).
The novel also explores the surface nature of society. Dorian's hidden vices and desires reveal the hypocrisy and superficiality of high society.
The theme of negative consequences of influence is prominent in the novel. Dorian's corruption is largely attributed to Lord Henry's influence, as he encourages Dorian to indulge in his desires and ignore societal norms. Lord Henry's beliefs and values are often in contrast to those of the society, and he is the one who introduces Dorian to the idea that beauty is the only thing worth pursuing. As a result, Dorian becomes obsessed with his appearance and youth, eventually leading to his downfall. The novel underlines the idea that people often conceal their true selves and motives behind their respectable public personas.
Throughout his book, Wilde also subtly discusses homosexual relationships, most notably in the relationship between Dorian and Basil. It is possible to interpret Basil's infatuation with Dorian's beauty and youth—and his desire to depict it in his painting—as homoerotic. This theme challenges traditional Victorian ideas of masculinity and sexuality, which placed an emphasis on heterosexuality and the value of adhering to social norms. Through the relationship between Dorian and Basil, Wilde emphasises the complexities of human desire and the challenges that might arise between societal conventions and individual expression.
- Composition - the act of creating something by combining different parts or elements.
- Vanity - excessive pride in one's appearance or achievements.
- Obsession - an excessive preoccupation or attachment to something.
- Metamorphoses - a narrative poem in fifteen books by the Roman poet Ovid, which contains myths and legends that explore themes of transformation and change.
- Protagonist - the main character in a literary work.
- Duality - a state of having two parts, often with contrasting qualities.
- Superficial - shallow or concerned only with surface appearance.
- Embodiment - a visible or tangible representation of an idea or concept.
- Tension - a state of mental or emotional strain caused by conflicting demands or expectations.
- Gothic - a literary genre characterized by gloomy, mysterious, and supernatural elements.
- Aestheticism - a literary and artistic movement that stresses beauty and art over social or political messages.
- Psychological - relating to the study of mental processes and behavior.
- Hedonism - the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good or ultimate goal in life.
- Philosophy - a system of beliefs and values that guide human behavior.
- Morality - principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
- Conflict - a struggle or clash between opposing forces or ideas.
- Immoral - violating moral principles or standards.
- Cure - a remedy or treatment for a disease or illness.
- Guilt - a feeling of responsibility or remorse for a wrongdoing.
- Relationship - a connection or association between people.
LnT "The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Study in Moral and Aesthetic Philosophy" by Richard Ellmann, is a classic analysis of the novel that explores the relationship between art, morality, and aestheticism.
LnT "The Dorian Gray Syndrome: Decadence and the Fin-de-Siècle" by Sarah L. Maier explores the cultural context of the novel and its connections to the decadent movement of the late 19th century.
LnT "Art and the Homoerotic in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Kristin Mahoney focuses on the homoerotic themes in the novel and their relationship to aestheticism.
LnT "Aestheticism and Social Anxiety in "The Picture of Dorian Gray"" by David Trotter examines the ways in which the novel reflects the anxieties of Victorian society about aestheticism and the changing values of the time.
LnT Oscar Wilde's novel ranks 16 among "20 classic novels you can read in one sitting". DailyWritingTips' summary reads thus: "A beautiful young hedonist sells his soul for the price of agelessness, while a portrait of him painted by an admirer marks his physical dissipation. Wilde's first novel was attacked for its homoeroticism and the scandalously frank depiction of debauchery but was received more favorably when the author toned down the former. Rich with allusions to, among other works, Faust, The Picture of Dorian Gray stands on its own as a tragic morality tale."