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Analyzing Symbolism, Setting and Philosophy in Oscar Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' (1890)

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

'Picture of Dorian Gray' meaning and analysis

'Picture of Dorian Gray' meaning and analysis

Folk Hedonisim

When the term "hedonism" is used in modern literature or by non-philosophers in their everyday talk, its meaning is quite different from the meaning it takes when used in the discussions of philosophers. Non-philosophers tend to think of a hedonist as a person who seeks out pleasure for themselves without any particular regard for their own future well-being or the well-being of others. The Picture of Dorian Gray reflects the belief of folk hedonism, which is what this article will refer to when speaking about this text's perceptions of hedonism.

Hedonism and The Picture of Dorian Gray

The text suggests that hedonism, as part of the innate nature of one’s character, can be seen through Lord Henry’s conversations with Dorian. Lord Henry’s perception of life is conveyed through Wilde’s use of an extended metaphor and juxtaposition. Henrey conveys his belief in hedonism by stating that “Life is not governed by will or intention.”

Through this, Wilde questions the notion of determinism (the belief that everything is formulated to follow a predestined future) as he questions the basis of life throughout the text. This statement is followed by “Life is a question of nerves, fibres and slowly built-up cells in which thought hides itself and passion has its dreams.” This suggested that our actions and future are steered by our passions.


Love in the Book

Dorian Gray conveys a dark message about romance, as contrasting attitudes are presented from the beginning of the text to the ending of the text. For example, in chapter 2, it is clear that Dorian’s discovery of love is stimulated by a ‘pure’ and civil love for Sibyl Vane, promoted by a fairytale-like atmosphere as Sibyl refers to Dorian as “Prince Charming.’ This suggests that romance at the beginning of the novel took on a conventional tale of love shown through Disney films. This is conveyed through Dorian's excitement as he tells Basil and Henry that this was his 'greatest love.' However, the happiness that Gray gains within this romance doesn't seem to fulfil his desires any longer after Henry introduces him to hedonism.

Dorian’s pure attitude towards his lover metamorphoses under the influence of Henry. This romance is changed into scepticism and a desire for the carnal lust that he never experienced beforehand. Henry persuades him to believe that his love for Sibyl was not his ‘greatest love’ but his ’first love.’ In context, this presents the influence and the impact it poses due to this Hellenic idea implanted into Dorian’s insight into the past, he turns Sibyl away.

Due to this Dorian is provoked by an emotive discovery or regret and anguish as ultimately. Dorian is anguished by her death, however, he quickly recovers, choosing to numb his emotions by succumbing to hedonistic activities. This is the point of his transformation. The transition to giving himself over to hedonism makes him an empty vessel, unable to create fulfilling relationships or value what he once had in the past. This suggests that emotion and romance can be tainted and destroyed in the process of valuing lust over love.

This transition also taints the pure love that Basil once had for Dorian. Within the first chapter, Basil is shown to adore Dorian, warning Henry to stay away from him in fear that he would become corrupted. Basil acts continue to love Dorian despite the man he turns into. Basil tries to help Dorian, suggesting ways Dorian could break away from the portrait that he had sold his soul to. Dorian destroys the last of his innocence when he is fuelled with panic, and in that panic, he kills Basil, the only person who truly cared for his well-being.

The film based on the novel

The film based on the novel

There’s a hell and heaven in everyone

— Dorian Gray

The Different Faces of Friendship

Dorian tells Basil there’s a ‘hell and heaven in everyone.’ In this case, Basil is an angel-like figure in Dorian's life. Basil is presented as the pure side of friendship in Dorian's life, admiring him from the moment he met him. This was clear through the way Basil stated how he adored Dorian, comparing him to Adonis, who was a mortal in Greek mythology who was admired by Aphrodite and Persephone. He paints a picture of Dorian as a way to capture the purity of his soul in a single time and place.

He warns Lord Henry to stay away from Dorian in fear that he would corrupt him. Basil visits Dorian in Chapter XII to inform him that "dreadful things" are being said about him. When he does perceive the interior of Dorian's heart as Dorian reveals Basil's painting, which now betrays the soul he once thought was pure, Basil is greatly shaken, realising that his love of the aesthetic has been corrupted by Dorian Gray.

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I wonder do I know you? Before I could answer that I should have to see your soul.

— Basil to Dorian

'The Picture of Dorian Gray,' 2009. Henry is at the left, Dorian is in the middle, and Basil is on the right

'The Picture of Dorian Gray,' 2009. Henry is at the left, Dorian is in the middle, and Basil is on the right

In contrast to Basil, Lord Henry acts like the devil on Dorian's shoulder. Henley admired the hedonistic life, however, he does not, in fear of destroying his position within society. When he meets Dorian and hears of his purity from Basil, he wishes to twist it, telling him, "Sin is the only real colour element left in modern life." Lord Henry exploits Dorian's vanity and self-indulgence for his own pleasure, acting as Dorian's role model. As a result, Dorian eventually becomes a clear personification of Henry’s aesthetic desires.

I wish I could change places with you, Dorian. The world has cried out against us both, but it has always worshipped you....You are the type of what the age is searching for, and what it is afraid it has found. I am so glad that you have never done anything...Life has been your art.

— Lord Henry

The Yellow Book Against Nature, 1884, by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Basil’s infatuation, along with Lord Henry and his Yellow Book becomes the driving factor that catalyses the corruption of Dorian's soul. The Yellow Book, known as Against Nature 1884, by Joris-Karl Huysmans, is given to Dorian by Henrey, becoming the inspiration for Dorian's life, almost like his bible. Due to this book, Dorian becomes obsessed with the prospect of self-indulgence, causing his inner metamorphosis into that of a monster, him becoming an individual whose truths have become too harmful to others.

Over time, coming to terms with who he has become, Dorian begins to resent the text. In a confrontation with Lord Henry, Dorian states, “You poisoned me with a book once, I should not forgive that.” Wilde’s use of the metaphorical device likens the Yellow Book to a poison that had manifested and corrupted his soul. Wilde’s use of truncated sentences highlights these key ideas, putting forth Dorian’s regrets.

Yes, Mr Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away.

— Henry to Gray

The Role of Sin

The nature of hedonism in itself is a concept which encompasses characters' lives within The Picture of Dorian Gray. Hedonism is seen as an escape, this concept is solely based upon the preservation of one’s youth and beauty. Henry emphases the importance of the physical dimension in determining one’s value, telling Gray that his youth was his most significant feature, which is limited by his mortality. The concept of being able to sell your own soul for immortal youth is then drawn into the text, as Dorian accidentally sells his soul to Basil's painting. It then appears that Dorian uses sin to maintain his youth, his physical form unaffected. However, the painting of him, which acts as a window into his soul, becomes twisted, ageing, decaying and becoming rot with maggots. This makes it clear that performing sins to retain your youth is a betrayal of god’s will and the natural order.

Dorian's portrait over time

Dorian's portrait over time

Opium Dens

Dorian constantly visits opium dens, which he describes to be “where one can buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins can be destroyed by the madness of sins that are new.” By the mention of the concept of sins, this text implies that within the text, there is a divide between the morally good and bad in the world. As seen through the description of soma, as an enforced drug upon the people of the World State, “euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinate,” hedonism is seen as a way individuals can release themselves from the truth and underlying terror of their respective societies


Dorian refers to the social system in England as the ‘native land of hypocrites.’ This is hypocrisy is evoked through his behaviour and the usage of juxtaposition. The author utilises the setting, the west and eastern ends of England, to depict binary sides to Dorian’s persona. This is clear through the way that Dorian acts as a socialite in the west end, depicting himself as the socially acceptable autocrat.

In contrast, the east end of England during this period was historically plagued by criminals. There, Dorian acts as the devil side of his persona where he associates with the people he had ruined. On this side of England, Dorian indulges in his illicit vices, such as opium dens, brothels and other places.

Drunkards had reeled by cursing, and chattering to themselves like monstrous apes. He had seen grotesque children huddled upon doorsteps, and heard shrieks and oaths from gloomy courts. (this is dialogue describing the eastern side of London)

— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

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