Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The picture of Dorian Gray, “the most magical of mirrors,” shows Dorian the physical burdens of age and sin from which he has been spared. For a time, Dorian sets his conscience aside and lives his life according to a single goal: achieving pleasure. His painted image, however, asserts itself as his conscience and hounds him with the knowledge of his crimes: there he sees the cruelty he showed to Sibyl Vane and the blood he spilled killing Basil Hallward.

Homoerotic Male Relationships

The homoerotic bonds between men play a large role in structuring the novel. Basil’s painting depends upon his adoration of Dorian’s beauty; similarly, Lord Henry is overcome with the desire to seduce Dorian and mold him into the realization of a type. This camaraderie between men fits into Wilde’s larger aesthetic values, for it returns him to antiquity, where an appreciation of youth and beauty was not only fundamental to culture but was also expressed as a physical relationship between men. As a homosexual living in an intolerant society, Wilde asserted this philosophy partially in an attempt to justify his own lifestyle. For Wilde, homosexuality was not a sordid vice but rather a sign of refined culture. As he claimed rather romantically during his trial for “gross indecency” between men, the affection between an older and younger man places one in the tradition of Plato, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare.

Read a mini-essay about Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte, another homoerotic couple tied to art and beauty, in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

The Color White

Interestingly, Dorian’s trajectory from figure of innocence to figure of degradation can be charted by Wilde’s use of the color white. White usually connotes innocence and blankness, as it does when Dorian is first introduced. It is, in fact, “the white purity” of Dorian’s boyhood that Lord Henry finds so captivating. Basil invokes whiteness when he learns that Dorian has sacrificed his innocence, and, as the artist stares in horror at the ruined portrait, he quotes a biblical verse from the Book of Isaiah: “Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them as white as snow.” But the days of Dorian’s innocence are over. It is a quality he now eschews, and, tellingly, when he orders flowers, he demands “as few white ones as possible.” When the color appears again, in the form of James Vane’s face—“like a white handkerchief”—peering in through a window, it has been transformed from the color of innocence to the color of death. It is this threatening pall that makes Dorian long, at the novel’s end, for his “rose-white boyhood,” but the hope is in vain, and he proves unable to wash away the stains of his sins.

Read about a similar use of the color white as a motif in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark.”