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The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde

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Plot Overview

Oscar Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland. He was educated at Trinity College in Dublin and at Magdalen College, Oxford, and settled in London, where he married Constance Lloyd in 1884. In the literary world of Victorian London, Wilde fell in with an artistic crowd that included W. B. Yeats, the great Irish poet, and Lillie Langtry, mistress to the Prince of Wales. A great conversationalist and a famous wit, Wilde began by publishing mediocre poetry but soon achieved widespread fame for his comic plays. The first, Vera; or, The Nihilists, was published in 1880. Wilde followed this work with Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Although these plays relied upon relatively simple and familiar plots, they rose well above convention with their brilliant dialogue and biting satire.

Wilde published his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, before he reached the height of his fame. The first edition appeared in the summer of 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. It was criticized as scandalous and immoral. Disappointed with its reception, Wilde revised the novel in 1891, adding a preface and six new chapters. The Preface (as Wilde calls it) anticipates some of the criticism that might be leveled at the novel and answers critics who charge The Picture of Dorian Gray with being an immoral tale. It also succinctly sets forth the tenets of Wilde’s philosophy of art. Devoted to a school of thought and a mode of sensibility known as aestheticism, Wilde believed that art possesses an intrinsic value—that it is beautiful and therefore has worth, and thus needs serve no other purpose, be it moral or political. This attitude was revolutionary in Victorian England, where popular belief held that art was not only a function of morality but also a means of enforcing it. In the Preface, Wilde also cautioned readers against finding meanings “beneath the surface” of art. Part gothic novel, part comedy of manners, part treatise on the relationship between art and morality, The Picture of Dorian Gray continues to present its readers with a puzzle to sort out. There is as likely to be as much disagreement over its meaning now as there was among its Victorian audience, but, as Wilde notes near the end of the Preface, “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.”

In 1891, the same year that the second edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray was published, Wilde began a homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, an aspiring but rather untalented poet. The affair caused a good deal of scandal, and Douglas’s father, the marquess of Queensberry, eventually criticized it publicly. When Wilde sued the marquess for libel, he himself was convicted under English sodomy laws for acts of “gross indecency.” In 1895, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor, during which time he wrote a long, heartbreaking letter to Lord Alfred titled De Profundis (Latin for “Out of the Depths”). After his release, Wilde left England and divided his time between France and Italy, living in poverty. He never published under his own name again, but, in 1898, he did publish under a pseudonym The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a lengthy poem about a prisoner’s feelings toward another prisoner about to be executed. Wilde died in Paris on November 30, 1900, having converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed.

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*Spoiler*

by Aecio, April 14, 2013

In the end of the book, when Dorian stabs his cursed picture: Does it mean his soul is pure again, for his dead body now endures his age and sins while the picture that represented his soul is young again, or it's just about his curse being broken?

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39 out of 43 people found this helpful

Sparknotes is pissing me off today

by GrammarJunkie18, April 20, 2014

First of all, there are only 3 important characters in this book. They probably either represent the id, the ego, and the superego (obviously Lord Henry being the id, Dorian Gray being the ego, and Basil being the superego) or represent Dorian as a normal person with Lord Henry as the devil and Basil the voice of reason. I can't believe you're not even going to discuss this possibility at all!

Second of all, one of the major themes of the novel is paradoxes. Obviously. I mean, that's what Lord Henry does, starting with his very first ... Read more

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38 out of 42 people found this helpful

Selling his soul

by estefy913, April 29, 2014

Would Lord Henry, or maybe the subject of "influence", play the part of the devil in a sense since he did sell his soul? I am having difficulty determining who or what he sold his soul to?

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1 out of 1 people found this helpful

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