The Picture of Dorian Gray

Suggested Essay Questions

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  1. 1

    In the preface, Wilde claims that there is "no such thing as a moral or an immoral book," and that an "ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style." Yet Dorian's eventual ruin suggests a strong moral warning against the protagonist's vanity and selfishness. Is Wilde breaking his own rules and exhibiting "an unpardonable mannerism of style"? Or is the book meant to be read amorally?

  2. 2

    Lord Henry and Dorian claim to be artists in the way they live their lives. Is this true, based on Wilde's definition of the artist, as expressed in the preface? Is this true based on your own definition?

  3. 3

    Time moves linearly in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but not in even increments. Discuss the passage of time in the novel and how it influences our impression of characters and events. Be sure to touch on the glossing-over of 18 years in chapter 11.

  4. 4

    When Basil confronts Dorian about the fact that he has allegedly corrupted many people, Dorian defends himself by saying that "Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him." Is Dorian responsible for the ruined lives of his friends? Is Lord Henry responsible for the ruined life of Dorian?

  5. 5

    Dorian is outwardly young and charming, and inwardly old and corrupt. He is decidedly inconsistent in his social interactions and intellectal interests, while extremely consistent in appearance. Discuss the theme of duplicity throughout the novel.

  6. 6

    In chapter 11, we encounter a peculiar first-person interjection from the narrator: "Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not." Does this voice, or this argument, remind you of any of the characters in the novel? Discuss Wilde's narrative voice in three or four instances. How does it relate to the different characters, does it seem to espouse similar views, or to sympathize with certain people more than others? Are we expected to trust the narrator on every occasion? What does this tell us about how the story is told?

  7. 7

    At the time of its publication, The Picture of Dorian Gray sparked countless debates about the role of morality in art. What is your contribution to this debate? Do artists have the responsibility to convey good morals to their audience?

  8. 8

    In 1895, the critic Ernest Newman, in a discussion of Wilde's contribution to literary thought, celebrated the author's use of paradoxes, saying that "a paradox is a truth seen round a corner" (Drew xxv). Countless paradoxes appear in The Picture of Dorian Gray, most often in the words of Lord Henry Wotton. Identify and discuss several paradoxes in the novel.

  9. 9

    Traditionally, faustian tales contain explicit depictions of the protagonist's pact with the devil, giving a clearly defined source for his later woes. But the closest Wilde comes to identifying the reason for the portrait's metaphyisical powers is in chapter 8, when Dorian wonders if there is somehow "some subtle affinity between the chemical atoms, that shaped themselves into form and colour on the canvas, and the soul that was within." Wilde seems content to leave the actual mechanism by which the portrait ages and withers instead of Dorian completely unexplained. How does this affect our overall impression of the novel? How would the work be different if it included, for instance, a scene in which Mephistofoles appears and has Dorian sign a contract?