Literary analysis of The Picture of Dorian Gray

This is going to be an epic post. Well, maybe it’s not as long a read as it was a long write. Each time I write a long post I think “whoa now THIS one is epic and I must start making my posts more manageable!”
I thought about breaking this into two posts but that would just cut off a thought midstream. Besides, this is a book blog, so I am just going to go ahead and assume you enjoy a novel ;)

Here I’ve used the elements of literature analysis I posted about the other day and this post is a perfect example of the analysis rabbit hole I mentioned. I actually thought I was done with this Monday when I wrote it down on paper. But as I typed it up more and and more thoughts came into my head about the story.

Note that as always with ‘book reviews, analysis and interpretation’ this is just my own view of Dorian Gray. And when I say something means or IS this, I simply mean it is today, to me, and tomorrow it may be something completely different.

Finally, spoilers abound. Sorry but it can’t be avoided in detailed analysis.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Published 1890

Plot Summary

Meet Basil Hallward painter and admirer of Dorian Gray. Meet Lord Henry, aka Harry, Basil’s hedonistic and quotable friend. Meet Dorian Gray a beautiful and unaffected youth.
All three men admire a portrait Basil has painted of Dorian. Lord Henry makes Dorian aware of his own beauty, power, and potential for pleasure.
Dorian, now self conscience of his beauty and youth, wishes the painting would age in place of himself.

Rising Action:
Lord Henry and Dorian meet again at a party where Henry deepens his corrupting influence over Dorian.
Dorian meets and quickly becomes engaged to a Shakespearian actress Sibyl Vane.
Dorian Basil, and Harry attend Sibyl’s play. Her acting is terrible because knowing real love she can no longer pretend.
Dorian is mortified and disillusioned, he cruelly dumps Sibyl.
When he returns home, Dorian sees that the painting bares the brunt his cruel actions.

Turning Point 1:
Sibyl kills herself because Dorian no longer loves her
Lord Henry convinces Dorian it’s not that big of a deal.
Dorian indulges his narcissism and choses to view Sibyl’s death as merely an artistic ending.

Falling Action
Basil is disgusted with Dorian’s reaction to Sibyl’s death and Lord Henry’s bad influence on the young man.
Basil admits his love/obsession to Dorian and attempts to act as a good influence but Dorian ignores him.
Lord Henry gives Dorian the Decadent book A Rebours. Dorian becomes obsessed with its message of living for the senses.
Dorian spends the next 20 years or so living only for pleasure.

Turning Point 2:
Basil confronts Dorian and tries to warn him about the consequences of sin.
Dorian mocks Basil’s morality and shows the painter how he managed to escape the tell-tell signs of sin.
Dorian becomes angry at Basil for creating and acting as his conscience and murders him.

Falling Action 2
Dorian blackmails a friend into getting rid of the Basil problem.
Dorian goes to a party and enjoys living a double life.
Dorian visits an opium den where he is spotted by Sibyl’s brother James who has sworn revenge.
Dorian escapes death because his youth makes him appear innocent.
James realizes his mistake and continues to pursue Dorian.
Dorian has much forboding but before James can get to him, James is shot and killed by a rabbit hunter
Dorian is elated that once again he escapes consequences.

Dorian brags to Henry that he has begun a new virtuous life by not corrupting a girl he met.
Dorian visits the painting hoping to see an improvement but when the painting is as evil as ever he realizes that he was only kind to please his vanity and for the novelty of feeling.
Dorian attempts to finally kill his conscience by stabbing the painting.
Servants hear a scream and thud, finding in the attic a beautiful painting and a loathsome old man with a knife in his heart.


London, England late Victorian period
Society in general is very conservative and self conscience. Contrast this with the Decadent/Aesthetic movement which was at its high point. Aestheticism was a reaction against industrialization, Romanticism, and Realism. It espoused art for art’s sake or in other words, Art independent of use, moral, political, or social concerns. For some, Aestheticism may also include embracing artifice over the natural world and living for the senses/experience.

With in the text, Dorian moves back and forth between the rich aristocracy of the West End and country estates and the opium dens of the poorest areas of London, specifically Bluegate Fields.

Character Analysis

Protagonist: Basil Hallward
Basil is the protagonist because his is the most sympathetic character. Also he creates the conflict by introducing Lord Henry to Dorian and by painting Dorian’s portrait.

Focal Character: Dorian Gray
All action is centered on Dorian but his self centered nature does not induce sympathy.

Antagonist: Lord Henry
Henry is the antagonist because he pulls Dorian down the path of self destruction with his hedonistic preaching and by giving Dorian the book A Rebours.
Henry opposes Basil by acting as a bad influence while Basil acts as a good, moral influence.

Deuteragonist: Lord Henry
It is interesting that Lord Henry is the side-kick as well as the antagonist.

Tritagonist: Basil Hallward
Playing the 3rd most important character, illustrates Basil’s powerlessness and the hopelessness of good prevailing.

Foil Characters:
Lord Henry: Amusing, Flippant, Superficial, Does nothing, Immoral

Basil: Boring, Serious, Sensitive,  Creative, Moral

Lord Henry and Basil represent the two paths that Dorian could take.

Adversaries: James Vane
James is Dorian’s adversary because he attempts to make Dorian reap the consequences of his actions.

Narrator: 3rd person limited


Myth of appearances-Double life-Homosexuality
Good-Evil influence


Character symbolism
Basil: The Good Artist
Basil’s painting is pure and beautiful, existing only to give pleasure to the viewer, until it is acted upon by an outside force and put into a role that is unnatural.
The artist is blamed and sacrificed for his art.

Lord Henry: Aestheticism Misunderstood
Lord Henry acts as a superficial mouth piece for the Aesthetic movement. Because his is simply words with no action, Henry is not effected by any of the events.
Henry is words without understanding.

Sibyl Vane: The Greek Tragedy
Sibyl is a prophecy of the results of narcissism and the pursuit of pleasure without responsibility.

James Vane: Guilt
James represents the pursuit of our conscience, but perhaps also the injustice in a chaotic world

Object symbolism

The Painting: The Soul
The painting represents Dorian’s soul. It is born beautiful and pure but slowly grows uglier, corrupted by selfishness and vice. It acts as Dorian self conscience. No man can live without his conscience.

The Book: I’m kind of a big deal
The book given to Dorian by Lord Henry is the Decadent novel A Rebours (translated to: Against Nature) by Joris-Karl Huysmans. The book acts as an extension of Henry’s influence and emphasizes Dorian’s homosexual awakening. The book represents an appreciation for beautiful things and self reflection to the point of obsession.
A Rebours may also represent society’s marginalization of homosexuality. Prejudice pushes homosexuality to the fringes causing a fetish behavior and forcing gay men to lead a secret double life instead of allowing open meaningful relationships to form.

Conflict 1

Dorian Vs Himself
An internal conflict made external with the use of the painting
Dorian’s external beauty contrasts with his inner ugliness. At the turning points of the story he has the opportunity to choose between vice or virtue. Dorian could take a path of responsibility, empathy, and morality but instead he choses superficiality, egoism, and the emotional shallowness of a psychopath.
Dorian starts out young, beautiful, and innocent but is corrupted by his unchecked pursuit of pleasure
Leading to the Moral: Excessive pursuit of pleasure corrupts the soul

Conflict 2

A second conflict exists between the Protagonist and Antagonist
Basil Vs Lord Henry
Relational conflict
Basil represents morality in art and Lord Henry is the aesthetic ideal of art without reference to morality. Through out the story Basil attempts to act as a positive influence. He is an example of art as useful and morally directing. Basil’s ending illustrates the inevitable failure in this way of thinking.

Lord Henry’s aesthetic philosophies are continually called immoral by characters in the book but his opinions actually do not have a bad influence on the other characters, his quips simply entertain, amuse and may even be said to enlighten. The only character who is negatively impacted by Lord Henry is Dorian. It is Dorian’s choice to use Lord Henry’s philosophy as fuel for his selfishness and narcissism.
Leading to the Moral: Art is immoral because it exists outside of morality. Art reflects society’s principles and actions rather than forming them.
Having written all this I am now going to pull a Wilde and refute everything I just said.
A third conflict can be seen in the novel in which Dorian is the protagonist and a sympathetic character

Dorian Vs a homophobic society
In this view Dorian is less in control of the events of the story because once he chooses to accept his homosexuality his personality is torn in two (inner and public selves) and he is pushed into the role of criminal by Victorian society’s views and laws against homosexuality. 

Sibyl represents Dorian’s inability to form a relationship that will conform to society’s expectations. Because of who Dorian is and what he cannot change about himself, the death of this relationship is inevitable and not within Dorian’s control or his fault.
Now we see James Vane as a representative of the law hunting down the gay man and Jame’s death as symbolic of society’s inevitable failure to police human nature.

In this analysis Lord Henry is almost a heroic character because he awakens Dorian to himself and embraces Dorian as a friend no matter his actions or nature. Basil is a sadder and repressed character. We know longer feel a sympathy towards Basil because he encourages Dorian to live a false life that conforms to society’s “morals”.
We can now see the ending as symbolic of the impossibility for Dorian to live as a complete man with in Victorian society.