Shortly after his first meeting with Dorian Gray, Lord Henry visits his uncle, Lord Fermor, a “genial if somewhat rough-mannered” old nobleman. When Lord Henry asks his uncle about Dorian Gray’s past, the old man tells him that Dorian comes from an unhappy family with a dark, tangled history. He relates that Dorian’s mother, a noblewoman, eloped with a poor soldier; the woman’s father, a villainous old lord, arranged to have his daughter’s husband killed just before Dorian was born. The grieving widow died soon thereafter, leaving Dorian to be raised by a loveless tyrant. With this information, Lord Henry becomes increasingly fascinated with Dorian; he finds the story romantic and delights in the thought that he might influence the young man, making “that wonderful spirit his own.”
Shortly thereafter, Lord Henry goes to dine at the home of his aunt, Lady Agatha, where several of London’s elite upper class—Dorian included—have gathered. Lord Henry scandalizes the group by going on at length about the virtues of hedonism and selfishness and mocking his aunt’s philanthropic efforts. “I can sympathize with everything,” he remarks at one point, “except suffering.” He insists that one’s life should be spent appreciating beauty and seeking out pleasure rather than searching for ways to alleviate pain and tragedy. Many of the guests are appalled by his selfishness, but he is so clever and witty that they are charmed in spite of themselves. Dorian Gray is particularly fascinated, so much so that he leaves with Lord Henry and abandons his earlier plans to visit Basil.
One month later, while waiting in Lord Henry’s home for his host to arrive, Dorian discusses music with Lord Henry’s wife, Victoria. When Lord Henry arrives, Dorian rushes to him, eager to share the news that he has fallen in love. The girl, he reports, is Sibyl Vane, an actress who plays Shakespeare’s heroines in repertoire in a cheap London theater. Dorian admits to discovering her while wandering through the slums: inspired by Lord Henry’s advice to “know everything about life,” he had entered a playhouse. Despite the tawdriness of the locale and his disdain for the theater owner, Dorian decided that the star, Sibyl Vane, was the finest actress he had ever seen. After several trips to the theater, the owner insisted that Dorian meet Ms. Vane, who, awed by the attentions of such a handsome gentleman, declared that she would refer to him as “Prince Charming.” Lord Henry, amused by this development, agrees to accompany Dorian to see Sibyl Vane play the lead in Romeo and Juliet the following night. Basil is to join them, and Dorian remarks that Basil sent him his portrait, framed, a few days earlier.
After Dorian leaves, Lord Henry muses on his influence over the young man, reflecting on how fascinating the psychology of another human being can be. He then dresses and goes out to dinner. He comes home late that night and finds a telegram from Dorian waiting for him. It states that he is engaged to be married to Sibyl Vane.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a curious mixture of different genres. It displays Wilde’s incomparable talent for social comedy and satire, even as it veers toward the formula for Gothic literature. Gothic fiction, which was tremendously popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, focused on tales of romance, cruelty, and horror. By the end of the nineteenth century, the formula had changed considerably, but these basic tenets remained intact. Dorian’s mysterious and melodramatic heritage alludes to conventions of the Gothic novel: his wicked grandfather, his parents’ cursed elopement, his father’s murder, and his mother’s early death represent a type of moody romance popular among Gothic authors. As the critic Donald Lawler points out, Dorian’s ancestry is identical to that of the main characters in three of Wilde’s short stories.
The first two chapters of the novel show Lord Henry’s powers of seduction, but in Chapters Three and Four Lord Henry himself is seduced. Strictly speaking, it is not a person who draws Lord Henry in, but the possibility of having a profound effect on a person, namely Dorian: “there was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence.” To project his soul onto Dorian and seize his spirit just as Dorian has seized Basil’s imagination becomes Lord Henry’s greatest desire. In Lord Henry’s mind, life and art are not only connected but interchangeable. By molding Dorian into “a marvellous type” of boy, Lord Henry believes that he is countering the effects of “an age so limited and vulgar” as his own. He imagines that he will take his place among such masters as the great Italian artist Michelangelo, with whom he shares the imperative to create something of beauty. The fact that Lord Henry considers the life of another human being a viable medium for artistic expression indicates “[t]he new manner in art” that Wilde so tirelessly advocated. Indeed, many readers might find Lord Henry heartless, given his willingness to watch Dorian’s development with practically no thought of consequence. After all, Dorian’s beauty is all that matters to him, and “[i]t was no matter [to Lord Henry] how it all ended, or was destined to end.” This behavior merely links Lord Henry to the tenets of aestheticism, whereby beauty is of primary importance, and vice and virtue—as Wilde states in the novel’s preface—are nothing more than “materials for an art.”
If the opening chapters position the three main characters in a triangular relationship, wherein Lord Henry and Basil vie for Dorian’s soul and affections, Lord Henry quickly wins at the end of Chapter Three. In Dorian’s declaration that he will miss his appointment with Basil in order to hear Lord Henry speak, we see that Lord Henry’s hopes to dominate and influence the young man have more or less been fulfilled. Dorian gives his affections over largely because of Lord Henry’s conversational skill; he asks Lord Henry to “promise to talk to me all the time.” Indeed, Lord Henry is a great talker, a wonderful philosopher of “the new Hedonism,” but, unlike Dorian, he acts on nothing that would damage his respectable reputation or life.