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Dorian Gray Character Analysis

Instructor: Angela Gentry
Examine Oscar Wilde's complex character, Dorian Gray, and how his dissociations from his conscience through his own portrait transformed him into a narcissistic monster. Check your understanding at the end with a quiz.

Dorian Gray's Youth

At the beginning of Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, painter Basil Hallward gravitates toward Dorian Gray, an up-and-coming socialite, for his youth, grace, and natural beauty. With the world before him and seemingly everlasting life, Dorian adopts the ideologies of Lord Henry, an acquaintance of Basil, which center largely on hedonism, the philosophy that pleasure is an intrinsic good, and casts off moral constraints in favor of seeking his own amusement and entertaining vanity.

Upon seeing Basil's portrait of him, Dorian's shallow values rise to the surface. He cries when he thinks he will lose his beauty to old age and decay. Thus, he makes a wish that the portrait only would show age and that he would retain all the youth and vigor captured in the image. Oscar Wilde never sheds any light on why such a whimsical wish is granted, but it becomes a fantastical element to an otherwise realistic novel that determines its overarching themes.

Transformative Philosophies

Dorian's demise begins as soon as he makes his wish and begins actively living the hedonistic lifestyle Lord Henry purported. Lord Henry captures his own philosophy well when he says, 'Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of regret. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden itself...'

Dorian embraces this fully and denies himself no temptation. Because of his fateful wish, Dorian lives a truly compartmentalized life, where the ugliness and foulness of his soul only appear on the portrait and never on his countenance. In a sense, the portrait and his own twisted conscience absolve him of any personal responsibility, and there are no barriers to his becoming a full-fledged narcissistic monster.

Dorian Exposed

As any self-reflective person will recognize in his/her own life, Dorian vacillates between self-loathing and self-love. He sees himself as both a victim of his own beauty and youth, as well as a perpetrator. When his love in life, actress Sibyl Vane, commits suicide because of his rash dismissal of her and her talents, he trumpets her tragedy of suicide as a form of art, rather than perceive himself as someone to blame in the matter. And later, when he murders Basil, he is much more concerned with the fear of exposure, that someone will find his hideous portrait, than he is with the shame of his own morally deficit actions.

Dorian's Relationship to the Portrait

What's striking about Dorian's situation is that he assumes he is safe from discovery. Lord Henry originally promised that any temptation satiated would only leave the memory of pleasure, yet Dorian sees the ugliness and horror of his decisions whenever he looks at the aging portrait of himself. Although he would like to compartmentalize, Dorian's life is inexplicably tied to the portrait, which is a perfect example of the literary grotesque, that which overwhelms us with feelings of bizarreness, as well as pangs of empathy. There is a point where Dorian half-realizes the portrait's tie to himself:

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