Book Club

The picture of Dorian Gray

Summary and review of Oscar Wilde’s novel

The picture of Dorian Gray is a novel written by the Irish author Oscar Wilde, considered one of the greatest exponents of aestheticism. The English novel describes the story of Dorian Gray, a very handsome young man who is portrayed by a painter who eventually decides not to exhibit the painting he made. The young Dorian Gray is troubled by the fear of growing old, therefore with a sort of spell he obtains that every sign of his old age does not reflect on his physical appearance, but on his portrait.

The boy, therefore being aware of his beauty, gives himself to the most unbridled pleasures, keeping his face always perfect. The young man feels ashamed for the painter Hallward, thus deciding to kill him. In desperation, Dorian decides to destroy the painting that portrays him, but in the end it is the boy who gets the worst of it by falling to the ground dead. At the end the painting will portray a handsome young man, while on the ground there is a dead old man.

Plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray

The novel, which is one of Oscar Wilde’s most important books, tells the story of Dorian Gray, a handsome boy who arouses, in what until then was a painterly, an artistic vein with which he paints a beautiful but which he will not exhibit because “there is too much of himself in this picture”. A friend of the artist, hearing about Dorian so well, decides that he wants to know him, but he commits what the painter and, at the beginning Dorian himself, interpret as a mistake: trying to change him. Lord Enrico Wotton, the artist’s friend, certainly had what it takes to be a politician: good oratorical skills and his theories, in this case about how things go in the world, with which he manages to change, or rather to start , the life of Dorian. He therefore takes courage and confidence, both in himself and in Lord Henry, to the chagrin of the painter. He falls in love, therefore, with a good actress who, however, worked in a “second-class” theater. When she informs Dorian of her decision to stop acting for her sake, he replied that he would leave her because she had destroyed her best feature of her. Out of her desperation, the girl kills herself and Dorian, to whom the painter had donated the painting, notices a slight change in the latter, which he thinks is due to his reckless reaction in front of his beloved. In fact, he had expressed a wish at the moment of the donation of the work to him by the artist – friend: “This beautiful painting will remain like this, with all its beauty, and instead I will make ugly and he will mock me. I wish it could grow old. at my place!”. But, as you know, you have to be careful about the wishes that are expressed: they could come true. Dorian, completely detached from reality, was now living in a kind of limbo, in which the aging and ugliness of the painting was a terrible problem. Furthermore, Basilio (the painter, who in the meantime has asked him, in vain, both to exhibit the painting and to return to pose for him) confides the reason for which he did not want to exhibit the painting, but does not confide in him. hers, in secret, as she thinks they would both be upset. Therefore, to prevent anyone from discovering his secret, he puts it away in an old and now disused room in his house, but sees spies everywhere, in fact the first suspect of him is Vittorio, his waiter. There are many rumors about him about some sinister actions of him, and Basilio, before leaving, wants to know why, so Dorian invites him to look at the painting. At which Basilio is desperate for what Dorian has done with his life, but the painting “suggests” to the boy (now 38 years old) a deep hatred towards Basilio, whom he kills cruelly with stabbings. This is the apotheosis of his sadistic wickedness; to have killed a friend and remained completely indifferent, as if in Basilio’s place there had been a fly. (Here, however, we have a serious forgetfulness of Wilde: he did not immediately describe the presumable ugliness of the painting; and after the descriptive rants made so far, it makes no sense not to point it out; I had thought of a change of tone that coincided with the change in history , but then, disappointed, I observed that the descriptive technique remained the same). But then, even if he doesn’t feel sorry for it, he regrets it for fear of being indicted, and asks for help, to get rid of the body, from a biologist or a doctor (I presume), who will subsequently commit suicide; and, unable to forgive himself for killing an innocent, he prefers oblivion, in this case by means of opium. Here he meets Sibilla Vane’s brother, the beloved actress, who died eighteen years earlier, who wants to kill him, and here her beauty serves him to convince him that when his sister died, he was a little boy, but the encounter upsets him and it scares him, so much so that when a friend of his hunter kills a colleague by mistake, without any fault, he is convinced that something similar must happen to him. He then discovers, rejoicing not a little, that the man killed was Giacomo Vane, Sibyl’s brother. He was safe, and with the will to become good. He wanted to start a new life now. But the portrait had deteriorated, unsettling Dorian Gray. He kills himself, convinced that he cannot change, and the picture presents itself, to those who see the scene, as it was in the time of his ancient splendor.

When Oscar Wilde publishes The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) he does so with the express intent of shocking public opinion by mixing a typically decadent taste of sin with supernatural elements of the Gothic tradition. The hallucinatory story of the young idol of London society, in fact, strikes for its moral contents, unacceptable by a puritanical England and also for the preface, a true manifesto of aestheticism. However, between the lines, one cannot fail to notice a message of moral balance: the protagonist, in his pact with the devil, ends up being entangled and punished like the Faust of the legend. The principle “art for art” thus loses its absolute value, marking the defeat of a man whose beauty and worship of him will not be enough to wash away the ugliness of the soul. The accusations of the right-thinking people will therefore have seemed ridiculous to the author who, moreover, warns us right from the preface: “Those who find filthy meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being fascinating, which is a defect. There are no moral books and immoral books . Books are well written, or poorly written. That’s all. “
In the story of the protagonist some critics have tried to identify autobiographical elements, but the dominant opinion seeks them rather in the other two main characters: the painter Basil Hallward, fascinated by Dorian Gray on an exquisitely aesthetic level, and Sir Henry Wotton, eloquent and brilliant dandy. The novel can also be interpreted as a violent critique of aristocratic London: the cynicism of conversations in Victorian salons and the emptiness of human relationships corrupt a boy who, at the beginning of the novel, appears to us a splendid human example, naive and proud in his its youthful beauty. However, we must not let ourselves be carried away by this “literary rehabilitation”. The condemnation of vice is not an element that can put the novel out of a decadent atmosphere. In fact, the esthete does not know how to renounce the cult of beauty and lives this in a morbid way. Hence the theme of transience and self-destruction.
Also evident is the crisis of values ​​- a symbol of positivism. In the words of Henry Wotton we find a bitter confirmation of this: “The basis of optimism is nothing but terror, […] we praise the banker for being able to keep our checking account uncovered, and we find good qualities in the robber, hoping that he will save our pockets, […] I have the greatest contempt for optimism “.
As with other decadent masterpieces, however, the reading “between the lines” is justifiable up to a certain point. The meaning and the message cannot be far removed from the story and from the terms in which it is placed. The sieve of the interpretation can in fact identify the large grains of medieval allegories but it is more difficult to grasp the background of a tormented soul like that of an intellectual of the late ‘800. To understand we must therefore insert ourselves deeply into the decadent mentality and accept the words for what they evoke. It is no coincidence that Wilde decides to use long-standing literary topoi that ignite ancient reminiscences in the reader, such as that of the pact with the devil.
From a stylistic point of view it is finally interesting to note the evolution undergone by the figure of O. Wilde in The portrait of Dorian Gray: considered by his contemporaries to be a refined and “difficult” author, he later became, due to his syntactic simplicity, one of the first writers who pick up foreigners who learn the English language.

The environment:

“The picture of Dorian Gray”, a novel by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), was published in installments in 1890 in Lippincott’s Magazine and in volume the following year in London.
The story is set in the UK capital and nearby countryside locations. It takes place mainly indoors: the studio of the painter Basil Hallward, where the fateful meeting between the protagonist Dorian Gray and Lord Henry Wotton takes place, their respective homes, in particular, the attic of Do-rian Gray’s house, and other homes of the noble London ladies. Relevant is the description of the rich gardens, often a starting point for Oscar Wilde for a formal aesthetic exercise. In chapter XVI there is a glimpse into the infamous suburbs of London. There are also theaters, in particular the small theater in which Sybil Vane plays, very important places in the story, if it is true that art is life and reality, according to the absurd logic of the protagonist.
The time in which the story takes place is not specifically indicated by the author, but can be deduced from some details, such as the gift of Lord Henry to Dorian Gray of a book published in 1884. A London nobility is described, such as be at the time the author lived. The whole story takes place over the span of Dorian Gray’s life, from adolescence-youth to mature age.


The leitmotif of the book can be identified in the reversal of roles between reality and fiction. In this sense we can divide the characters into two categories:
The protagonists, who consciously accept this exchange, like Dorian Gray and Lord Wotton;
The antagonists, who unwittingly oppose the choice of the former, but are overwhelmed by them, such as the painter Basil Hallward, the young actress Sybil Vane, her brother James and the chemist Alan Campbell, who commits suicide, the victim of an atrocious friendship.
In the background, the crowd of men and women from London society and the slums, more or less hinted at and identified. In the final part of the novel the author mentions a character, a young girl, Hatty, who does not appear directly in the story, but is presented by the words and memory of Dorian Gray. He abandons this girl, in the vain and insincere attempt to do a good deed, in a life now strewn with unworthy actions and evil thoughts.


At the beginning of the novel there is an exchange between fiction and reality, or fiction, through art, becomes reality: in fact, the portrait becomes real which, hidden by a brocade cloth, is subject to aging and the ills of -the life; Sybil Vane becomes real when she plays on the stage, as different from herself and her own humanity. The fiction is instead represented by Dorian Gray, eternally young and immoral; Sybil too is fiction, in her thought, when she is herself, a young girl in love, and she neglects the unreality of acting; she is therefore forced to commit suicide by those who despise her humanity of her. But death, finally, restores the balance and gives everything back its right place: with the deaths of Sybil and Dorian, truth and morality will triumph. Contrary to expectations, therefore, “The portrait of Dorian Gray” does not end with the defeat of reality and immorality, but with the affirmation of these values, even in the final tragedy. At the end of the novel there is the dissolution of a tension that grows in the story and calms down only in the final death.

External events:

In the novel there are no events external to the events such as to modify their course.

The representation of time: order and duration:

The novel takes place over the span of Dorian Gray’s life, from the end of adolescence to late maturity (about 20 years), and in the story the chronological order of the unfolding of the facts (fabula) is respected, even in the illogical lack of aging of the protagonist. There are no alterations due to analysis or pro-lexes, even if some crucial events (death of Sybil Vane, separation of Dorian from Hatty) are told by the same characters after events. The ellipses present in the story are limited: above all, those concerning Basil Hallward, who reappears on the scene, after a long absence, when he decides to leave for Paris, and James Vane, during his stay in Australia.
The form of duration that characterizes the entire novel is the summary, given that the story stretches for about 20 years. In the various chapters the scenes are very frequent, due to dialogues between the characters or their reflexive pauses.

The representation of space:

The characters move mainly in interiors described as real, even if the author’s style in their description is so bombastic that the houses and gardens are almost fantastic. These places are the right background for the events and characters of the characters, precisely because they are exaggeratedly refined, with shades of fiction, similar to the characters.

Character building:

The characters, or at least some, are presented in their physical characters, but in an idealized and stereotyped way. Dorian Gray’s beauty and gentleness are highlighted, through the reference to blond curls, blue eyes, well-defined red lips. Lord Henry is described as a tall and graceful young man, with an olive face, with a low voice and hands “as white and fresh as flowers”. What is most interesting is the psychological description, the internal setting of the characters, which is revealed by the repeated dialogues and internal reflections. The protagonist initially undergoes a transformation, under the influence of Lord Henry, which leads him to deform his personality, to externalize a side of his character in an altered way. After that, throughout the novel, he will be constant in choosing him, always conditioned by the ideas of Lord Henry. In the end, when he tries to redeem himself, he can no longer be his own master.

The point of view: external narrator or internal narrator ?:

The story is conducted according to the point of view external to the story and does not undergo changes in the course of the narration. The element that allows us to identify the point of view is the constant use of the third person.

Distance: the techniques of representation:

In this story, the main representation technique is that of the dialogues and internal reflections of the characters. However there is information about the environments, the appearance of the characters and their actions.

Language choices:

The language is sought in the construction of expressions and in the choice of words. No use is made of the dialect, nor of specific subcodes. The presence of many dialogues, made with a hypotactic construction, limits the parataxis to the descriptive parts.


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