Study Guide Excerpt: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Dorian Gray is the son of Lady Margaret Devereux, an incredibly beautiful aristocrat, and an unknown lower rank soldier. Orphaned at a young age, Dorian continued to live in the family home, a richly decorated house, surrounded by valets and a governess. Dorian is incredibly beautiful, wealthy and easily influenced. He is regularly painted by the well-known artist Basil Hallward. Possessing a peculiar charm, Dorian generates fascination among his friends. On meeting Lord Henry Wotton, though, he becomes fearful of losing his youth and beauty, and fascinated with ‘new Hedonism’ and the idea of living a life devoted to pleasure. The character of Dorian is transformed radically throughout the story. Primarily, this is down to his friendship with, and the influence of, Lord Henry. At the beginning of the novel, Dorian epitomizes, youth, innocence, and beauty. He is a shy young man, who blushes when he first meets Lord Henry. Soon, he adopts an amoral and narcissistic lifestyle. By nourishing his artistic sensibilities with refined and forbidden pleasures (including drugs, lust, sometimes homosexual relations, as Wilde suggests), Dorian’s soul is demeaned. Thanks to the wish he made: “If it were I who was to be always young and the picture that was to grow old! For that - for that - I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!” (28), he keeps all the appearance of his charm, but his portrait is degrading in his stead. However, Dorian remains clear-sighted from the beginning to the end: he quickly realizes that Lord Henry’s cynicism is terrifying and poisonous, but he finds it too fascinating to resist; he understands almost immediately that his portrait reflects his conscience, but chooses to take advantage of this fact; twice he swears he will become good again, but he quickly realizes that he will never manage to do so, as it would mean going against his nature. Although he appreciates his double life, in which his undying charm protects him from the ever worse rumors spreading about him, his secret weighs heavily on his mind: he becomes increasingly paranoid (especially after having killed Basil) and is tormented by a huge feeling of guilt. He bitterly regrets his lost innocence. However, the end of the text reworked by Wilde in 1891 makes it more obvious that Dorian is not really feeling remorse; he is simply seeking peace.
Lord Henry Wotton
Lord Henry Wotton is a nobleman and a close friend of Basil Hallward. Urbane, witty, and a typical dandy, Lord Henry is a model of immorality, perpetually armed and ready with well-phrased epigrams criticizing the moralism and hypocrisy of Victorian society (34). Refined, cynical, turning scandalous and flighty pleasures into a way of life, he often expresses his vision of the world through aphorisms and improvised speeches (probably more for the fun of it than out of real conviction, as he says he systematically forgets his own words). He fascinates Dorian with his way with words and his pleasure-seeking philosophy of ‘new Hedonism’. Aware of his influence, he introduces the young man to his way of living. Lord Henry maintains a level of honesty, as he does not hide his vices or his real motives, which causes him to be proud of himself and results in his reputation for being horribly exquisite. For him, arts and pleasures are everything. Beauty is of the essence, to the point where he states that he believes it futile to judge a person on the basis of anything else but their appearance. Disenchanted and materialistic, of flighty interest, he enjoys the present moment, and his friends, without getting really involved, and without caring for the past. It is certainly because Dorian Gray is a never-ending source of fascination for him that they remain close up to the end.
Basil Hallward is an artist and a friend of Lord Henry. He becomes obsessed with Dorian after meeting him at a party. A talented painter, he is yet unable to reach the peak of his art without Dorian’s presence. He is, as he says himself, fascinated by Dorian’s beauty and personality. He claims that Dorian possesses a beauty so rare that it has helped him realize a new kind of art; through Dorian, he finds “the lines of a fresh school” (13). Dorian has become for Basil, from the moment they met, all his art: he seems to embody an unknown yet universal artistic ideal. It is in a moment of great inspiration that Basil paints the picture of Dorian Gray - which proves to be his masterpiece. Basil is a conservative soul, with traditional bourgeois values of goodness and charity. The amoral influence of Lord Henry (his friend from Oxford) over Dorian, which he foresees from the beginning, is a catastrophe to him: by perverting his “beautiful nature”, this influence risks undermining that which makes Dorian so unique in his eyes (16). The interest he takes in Dorian has a permeating egoistic dimension, for which Dorian reproaches him from the beginning, accusing him of basing their friendship on nothing but his youth and good looks – as soon as he grew old would be the end of it. Initially refusing to exhibit his portrait of Dorian, out of fear that his worship for him might be visible, and that people might discover the intimacy of his soul, he finally considers this notion as stupid. After Dorian distances himself from him, he starts to believe that art hides the artist more than it shows him – which is a return to one of the arguments mentioned in the preface.
Sibyl Vane is a poor, but beautiful and talented Shakespearean actress. She is playing Juliet, in a sordid theater, the first time Dorian sees her. Her beauty moves Dorian, whom she keeps calling her ‘Prince Charming’. However, in Dorian’s eyes, she is the sum of all the Shakespearean characters she plays on stage, and never Sibyl Vane. More than innocent, Sibyl is unaware of the effect she produces on men. She has no experience of life and inherited from her mother (who seems to be constantly living in a permanent theater play) a vision of the world which is full of clichés. Sibyl sorely lacks personality; she is still a naive child who lives in the wondrous stories in which she acts. Sibyl’s love for Dorian compromises her ability to act. On meeting Dorian, she plans to leave the theater, and her characters, to experience real love with ‘Prince Charming’.
James Vane is Sibyl’s brother. He works as a sailor and is a coarse and silent young man. He seeks to look after and protect his sister and is, as such, concerned about her relationship with Dorian. James doesn’t believe that his mother is motiveless in wanting the relationship to continue. He thinks that Dorian’s wealth is preventing Mrs. Vane from looking after her daughter’s best interests. Although he does not seem to be very smart, James is the only one in the family who is realistic. As he hates the upper classes, he swears to kill Dorian if he ever harms his sister. James’ father, an aristocrat, never married his mother; therefore, this hatred comes from the instinct of his proletarian class.
Mrs. Vane is Sibyl and James’s mother. She is a former actress who still seems to be living in a permanent theater play. Her daughter has to play in a tawdry theater in the slums as Mrs. Vane owes the theater owner a lot of money. She is a tired woman who has had a hard life. The family lives in poverty because Mrs. Vane was not married to the father of her children, and he died without making provision for them. She thinks Dorian Gray will make a good husband for Sibyl because he is rich and cultured.