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The Picture of Dorian Gray: Plot, Characters & Vanity

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  • 0:05 Context for the Novel
  • 2:14 Dorian Gray's Faustian Bargain
  • 6:57 Basil Confronts Dorian
  • 10:40 Major Themes in the Novel
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel Oscar Wilde ever published. Personally, I think he was at his best when he stuck to plays (don't get me started on his poetry), but no examination of Wilde's work is complete without this book.

Context for the Novel

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel Oscar Wilde ever published, which is worth keeping in mind. I personally think Wilde was at his best when he stuck to plays (and do not get me started on his poetry, because I think it's terrible), but no examination of Oscar Wilde is really complete without taking a look at The Picture of Dorian Gray.

He published the first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890 in a magazine called Lippincott's Monthly, and it was not well received. Readers and critics considered it to be incredibly immoral. These days that probably would mean that the book would get a lot of attention, make a lot of money and get made into a movie with those kids from Twilight. But this was at the end of Victorian era, and morality was a bigger deal then, so a book being called 'immoral' meant it wasn't going to be successful. So Wilde decided to write a second version of the book, with a preface and some additional chapters that he thought would address some of the criticism he received and explain his position as a follower of aestheticism, which just means that he thought something beautiful didn't have to serve a larger purpose. It didn't have to be moral or educational or take a political stance; it could just be beauty for beauty's sake.

It's also worth noting that he published The Picture of Dorian Gray around the time that he began his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, also known as Bosie. Wilde was married to a woman and they had kids, but he also carried on multiple relationships with men throughout his life. (The video on Oscar Wilde goes into more detail about this if you're curious.) His relationship with Douglas would end up being the end of him. It really upset Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensberry - if that title sounds like something Oscar Wilde himself would have made up, it's his real name, the real name of Lord Douglas's father - and he was in a position of enough power to get Wilde into some trouble for his relationship with Bosie. He got in trouble for what were then called 'acts of gross indecency.' (There's actually a great play about this scandal and the trials of Oscar Wilde that resulted. The play is called Gross Indecency, but that's neither here nor there unless you like plays written about lives of authors, which I do.)

Dorian Gray's Faustian Bargain

Anyway, back to Dorian Gray. Not surprisingly, the center of this book is a picture of a man named Dorian Gray. Dorian himself was very young and beautiful. I like to think of him as Chuck Bass from the TV show Gossip Girl, but I'm probably searching for too much meaning in Gossip Girl. Really, if you envision any pretty boy, that'll do.

As the book opens, Dorian's portrait is being painted by a man named Basil Hallward; that is an amazing name if ever there was one. Only British people can get away with naming people after herbs. So he's painting, and Basil's friend Lord Henry Wotton (another fantastic name) is lurking around and seems to have taken a liking to Dorian. Basil is concerned that Lord Henry isn't going to be the best influence on Dorian - he's a bit of a ne'er-do-well. It's worth pointing out that one of the objections that many readers had to this novel was that it seemed to have a lot of homoerotic undertones, and this little triangle that begins with Basil, Lord Henry and Dorian right at the beginning hints at that, though there's nothing overtly sexual or romantic about their relationship at all.

Lord Henry tells Dorian that it's such a shame that his beauty will fade and that everyone has to grow old and get ugly and die, and this affects Dorian greatly. He's actually bitter at the portrait, because it will forever be young and beautiful the way he is now, and he's going to continue to get old and less attractive. (Remember, George Clooney wasn't born then. People didn't know how good older men could look, so Dorian just assumed he wouldn't age well. I guess we'll never know.) Dorian then makes what is commonly called a Faustian bargain, or a deal with the Devil. If you haven't heard of that term, it refers to a story by the German author Goethe about a German man named Faust who strikes a deal with the Devil to gain magical powers during his lifetime but then agrees to sacrifice his soul for all of eternity (an interesting choice).

Dorian's Faustian bargain is he would offer up his soul if only the portrait would show all the effects of aging, and Dorian could remain young and beautiful for the rest of his life. He doesn't literally strike a deal with Satan; he says it in passing not thinking anything will come of it. Much to Basil's dismay, Dorian and Lord Henry soon take up and are hanging out together. They embrace a life of what Lord Henry calls New Hedonism. Hedonism is similar to aestheticism in that it advocates for a life lived only for pleasure; it says that pleasure is really the only good in life. So like aestheticism, which says that artists don't need to strive to do anything more than make something beautiful, hedonists believe that people don't need to live for a higher purpose other than to enjoy themselves. If you've ever seen a rap video with parties on yachts, flowing champagne and girls in bikinis, that's sort of a modern-day embodiment of hedonism.

So Dorian's off embracing the hedonist lifestyle with Lord Henry and having a great time, and he encounters a pretty young actress named Sibyl Vane. It's spelled V-a-n-e, but it's hard to ignore that it sounds just like 'vain' (as in 'you're so vain'). Wilde had a lot of fun naming his characters, and Sibyl Vane is no exception. Dorian is attracted to Sibyl's good looks, but he also likes that she's an actress; he thinks that's appealing. She is swept off her feet - she thinks of him as her Prince Charming - and the two quickly get engaged. After her relationship with Dorian progresses, Sibyl realizes that she just can't pretend to be in love on stage with some random actor after finding true love with her real Prince Charming, so she gives up acting for Dorian. Dorian's not pleased; he's really disappointed because Sibyl's status as an actress was part of her appeal, so he dumps her. It seems unfair, but that's who Dorian is.

After he drops Sibyl, Dorian goes home and takes a look at his painting. He notices it's got a really ugly sneer on the face that wasn't there before. It takes a minute, but then he realizes that his bargain with the Devil was real. It seems like the Devil accepted, and now his painting is going to reflect all of his ugly behavior and, presumably, reflect all of the signs of aging. This understandably freaks him out a lot, so he decides he's going to go back and make up with Sibyl and undo the damage that he's done. But it's too late. He finds out that she has committed suicide, presumably in her heartbreak from getting dumped by him. Yikes. Lord Henry, who is, as Basil feared, not a good influence on Dorian at all, encourages Dorian to get over Sibyl and continue living his awesome hedonistic lifestyle. Realizing what living like this will probably do to his portrait, Dorian decides that he'll hide it away in his house where only he'll be able to see it - to hide the evidence of this crazy deal with the Devil he's made and also the proof that he's kind of a bad guy.

Basil Confronts Dorian

Nearly 20 years pass (the book says 18 years) with Dorian continuing to live life for pleasure. Lord Henry gives him some dirty French book that apparently guides him to some pretty terrible behaviors. He continues to look fabulous doing it, and the painting continues to get older and uglier. After awhile, Basil gets a little suspicious and wonders what's up with Dorian and why he's been behaving like this for so long (Basil is the one who painted the magic painting in the first place). He decides to stage a one-man intervention and confront Dorian about this Jersey Shore lifestyle he's been living. Dorian admits that he's been behaving pretty badly and decides he's going to show Basil the portrait as evidence of what's been going on these past 20 years.

Basil, understandably, is very upset, completely freaked out, and he tells Dorian that he has to change his ways. He has to repent; he can't keep going on like this. Instead, Dorian kills Basil and blackmails (strong arms) a friend of his into helping him destroy Basil's body. Because he's Dorian, he decides the best plan of action after committing homicide is to head to an opium den. (Again, I can't vouch for anything that he does.) At this opium den, he encounters James Vane, who is the brother of Sibyl, the girl that he got engaged to and then dumped and she committed suicide. James recognizes Dorian and wants to kill him essentially, because Dorian's the reason his sister died, but Dorian cleverly says 'Look at me, is there any way someone this young could have been the guy who dumped your sister 18 years ago?'

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