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“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde: summary of the plot

The picture of Dorian Gray is a novel by the Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), considered the manifesto of Aesthetics and poetics of art for art’s sake, for which the expression artistic is free and independent of the principles of morality. The novel, published in 1890, has many cultural and literary influences: from Goethe’s Faust (1808) to Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel Controcorrente (À rebours, 1884), passing through Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1836) and for Balzac’s novels.


The story takes place in London in the 19th century: the refined and snobbish Lord Henry Wotton is contemplating the latest creation of his painter and friend Basil Hallward. The painting, costing Basil’s effort and dedication, portrays a young man of extraordinary beauty, Dorian Gray, whom the painter has only recently attended but to whom he already feels deeply connected. Lord Henry, a cynical dandy who supports the pure pursuit of personal pleasure and viveur with an always ready pungent joke, proposes to Basil to expose the portrait, but he categorically refuses because he claims to have placed in it the secret of his soul. Knowing that Dorian already senses the charm he has on him, he does not want Lord Henry to intrude on their bond, also fearing that his hedonistic positions will insinuate themselves into the young mind of the defenseless Dorian. However, fate has the upper hand over the painter’s wishes: Dorian Gray enters the house just at that moment and immediately shows interest in Lord Henry. The two spend the afternoon chatting amiably, and Dorian is immediately conquered by the charm and words of the refined aristocrat, especially when he, praising youth as the only good to really possess, maintains that beauty is a fatally transitory and passing quality. Bewitched by the sensual aestheticism and the exaltation of Lord Wotton’s end in itself, Dorian understands that his greatest asset – the physical aspect – is destined to be soon consumed by time. In front of his portrait, he therefore proclaims aloud that he wants to give up his soul in exchange for eternal youth: the weight of the years and his sins must not appear on his face, but on the image of the painting.

After this meeting Dorian, who is an orphan of both parents but particularly rich, changes his attitude, moving away from Basil and instead tightening ever closer relationships with Lord Henry, who is pleased with his influence and who, on the occasion of lunches and receptions to which Dorian is present, he shows off with his guests his scandalous moral conduct and his provocative ideas on marriage (also expressed in the relationship with his wife Vittoria) and on social reputation. Meanwhile, Dorian has fallen in love with a young actress of a low-ranking theater, Sybil Vane, after seeing her starring in Romeo and Juliet. If Dorian loves Sybil because he appreciates her acting skills, the girl’s love for her “prince charming” (as she calls him) is pure and sincere. However, Sybil’s brother James, who is about to emigrate to Australia, does not look favorably on Dorian, and threatens to kill him if his sister suffers. One evening Lord Henry and Basil, worried about Dorian’s relationship with the unknown Sybil, go to the theater with the young man to admire the girl’s artistic talent. However Sybil, engaged in the role of Juliet, proves to be a bad actress. His interpretation is so poor that even the ignorant audience of the theater loses interest in the show and Dorian is ashamed of having made his friends waste time. Sybil, recognizing that he had played very badly, confided in Dorian’s ecstasy that he felt a great change within himself: if before knowing him, theater was his only reason for living, now that he has discovered love, he has understood that to be able to act more, since according to her it is not possible to pretend to love on the stage of a theater. Dorian reacts angrily, saying that he fell in love with her precisely for his artistic talents, without which Sybil is just a nice looking starlet. Sybil is desperate, but Dorian is immovable in her intention to abandon her forever; he wanders through the streets of London for one night and, upon returning home, discovers that an expression of cruelty has appeared on the face of the portrait. Dorian, while realizing that his desire for eternal youth has come true, is very frightened and decides not to see Lord Henry again and to ask Sybil for forgiveness. The young man then wrote a passionate letter to Sybil Vane, begging her to forgive him and reiterating the intention of wanting to marry her. Dorian has just finished the letter when Lord Henry arrives who tells him about Sybil’s suicide, which happened the night before in his dressing room. The protagonist, aware of being the involuntary cause of the death of the beloved woman, is unable to experience real pain. Once again dominated by Lord Henry’s egostical reasoning about love, death and women, Dorian decides to devote his life to the pursuit of pleasure, taking advantage of the gift of eternal youth that the portrait of Basil assures him without limits. He will live as the protagonist of a French novel – it is À Rebours, a 1884 novel in which Joris-Karl Huysmans recounts the dissolute life devoted exclusively to self-worship by the young Jean Des Esseintes 1 – regardless of the rules of morality and company judgments; for this reason, Dorian hides the picture that depicts him increasingly old and degenerated in an old and dusty studio, hidden from everyone’s eyes and far from Basil, who also claims it to be exhibited in Paris. Furthermore Dorian categorically refuses to pose again for his painter friend, who interprets the refusal as the end of his artistic life.

In the following eighteen years Dorian did not miss any desire and no corruption, becoming the subject of a thousand voices and gossip about his way of life, while maintaining the youthfulness of his face and body. The protagonist divides his life between the sordid taverns of the port and the good London society, of which he is a point of reference despite the scandals and provocations that surround him. The hedonism and aestheticization of all aspects of one’s existence and the search for all forms of pleasure, luxury and the most refined pomp. In parallel with Dorian’s descent into lust, the portrait ages and degenerates visibly, accumulating the weight of the protagonist’s years and vices on himself. Dorian himself develops a morbid relationship with his own image in Basil’s painting: on the one hand he detests it and is disgusted by it, but on the other he is unconsciously attracted to it, so much so that he cannot stay too far from her. His lifestyle, meanwhile, has isolated him from high society, scandalized by his libertine and careless attitudes of morality and modesty but still fascinated by his eternal youth. One evening, after years of distance, Basil goes to Dorian, who is on the eve of his 38th birthday. The painter, leaving for Paris, reports to the old friend all the rumors about him, which he does not want to believe. Distraught, Basil asks Dorian, somewhat disturbed by the visit, to deny the rumors about him or at least to explain what they refer to, not wanting to believe until the very end the moral degeneration of the beloved Dorian. The latter instead shows the painter his painting, which bears all the signs of corruption; Basil is horrified and tells Dorian Gray to repent. The protagonist, in a fit of anger, grabs a knife and kills Basil. Shocked by the murderous raptus but unable to really repent, Dorian contacts an old friend, the chemist Alan Campbell, and blackmails him to destroy Hallward’s corpse with nitric acid. Dorian also manages to hide the crime from his friend Lord Henry and suffocates his guilt by going to an opium shop in the port area. Here he has an argument with a prostitute who, while Dorian is now going out, calls him “Prince Charming”. On hearing the epithet, a sailor chases Dorian out of the tavern and assails him. This is Sybil Vane’s brother James who wants to avenge his sister. Dorian manages to save himself thanks to an escamotage, explaining to James that, despite the similarity, he cannot be Sybil’s ex-boyfriend, given that eighteen years have passed and he is still very young. James lets him go but when the prostitute returns to the tavern he reveals that Dorian Gray is much younger than he actually has.

The episode leaves a strong mark on Dorian’s psyche, who is obsessed with the idea of ​​being killed by James; Dorian retires to his country estate but discovers James secretly spying on him from a window and is further crushed by fear and anguish over the crimes committed. During a hunting trip, James is accidentally killed while, armed with a gun, he was hiding in the bush. Dorian is so safe and decides to change his life, confessing to Lord Wotton that he wants to become a better person. However, his attempts are unsuccessful and his image in the painting does not change his repellent aspect at all. Dorian, now desperate, also receives news of Alan Campbell’s suicide, while everyone in town talks about Basil’s mysterious disappearance. He also tries to confess all his faults to Lord Wotton who, however, with his usual cynical and detached attitude, does not believe him and indeed is surprised at how it is possible that Dorian, after so many years, is still incredibly young and beautiful. While contemplating his portrait, determined to regain the purity of his youth, Dorian has an attack of anger and, with the knife with which he killed his friend Basil, hits the painting to destroy it.

The servants of the house, hearing a heartbreaking scream, force the door of the room with the help of some policemen. On the wall there is the portrait of a splendid Dorian Gray in the flower of his youth, while on the ground, deformed by wrinkles, there is the corpse of an old man with a dagger stuck in his heart, who will be identified as Dorian Gray only thanks to the rings he wears on his fingers.

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