The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3


The next day, at "half-past twelve", Lord Henry visits his uncle, the grumpy Lord George Fermor, to learn what he can about Dorian Gray's past. Lord Fermor is old and idle, having spent most of his life moving apathetically through London's aristocratic social circles, devoting himself "to the serious study of the great aristocratic art of doing absolutely nothing." He is therefore an ideal resource for information concerning people's private lives. All Lord Henry has to do is mention that Dorian "is the last Lord Kelso's grandson."

Lord Fermor informs his nephew that Dorian's mother was Margaret Devereux, the beautiful daughter of Lord Kelso, who upset her father and caused a scandal by eloping with a poor man of a lower class. Lord Kelso, a bitter man, sought his revenge by paying a young Belgian to insult his unwanted son-in-law. Dorian's father was apparently killed in the resulting fight, and his mother died only several months later. The specific conditions of the deaths are never disclosed. Custody of Dorian fell to Lord Kelso, who was socially ostracized for causing the whole ordeal. Kelso was notoriously mean-spirited and quarrelsome, always making scenes by viciously haggling with cabmen and the like.

Henry leaves Lord Fermor's home to attend a luncheon at the house of his aunt, Lady Agatha. On the way, he reflects on how fascinating he finds the story of Dorian's origin, thinking that it makes his life "a strange, almost modern, romance." Henry is excited by the prospect of shaping the young man's personality by opening his eyes to the world of sensuality that Henry is so devoted to. He thinks that the boy "could be fashioned into a marvelous type," and that "He would dominate him...He would make that wonderful spirit his own." At this point, we learn just how manipulative Henry truly is.

Henry arrives at the lunch gathering rather late, as is his custom. Once at the table, he soon dominates the conversation, impressing the guests with the cleverness of his speech and playfully offending them with the beliefs that "To get back one's youth, one has merely to repeat one's follies," and that people "discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes." The man's charming tirade is described in terms of juggling and acrobatics. Dorian is among the guests, and Henry is performing primarily for his sake.

His efforts are not in vain: once the lunch is finished, Dorian approaches him with words of admiration, saying that "No one talks so wonderfully as you do." He accompanies Lord Henry to the park instead of calling on Basil as he had promised.


Instead of being driven by friendly affection, Henry is interested in Dorian as an artistic or scientific project. Dorian's purity and innocence are, to him, a blank canvas on which he can paint a personality so as to lead Dorian towards a lifestyle that Henry finds artistically pleasing. This is a prominent thread in the novel's thematic exploration of the relationship between life and art. That Henry refers to Dorian's early life as "a strange, almost modern, romance" is indicative of the man's need to view life in artistic, as opposed to ethical, terms. (The coldness of this need will be even more damning to Henry's character later, in his interpretation of Sibyl Vane's suicide.)

Henry fancies himself an artist, a sculptor or painter of personalities; he uses his charm, wit, and scandalous views as his paintbrush or chisel. Nevertheless, as curious as he is to see Dorian's character evolve into its own fascinating shape, Henry's deepest motivation is unabashedly selfish and vain. He wants to "be to Dorian Gray what, without knowing it, the lad was to the painter." He wants to be adored, and to turn Dorian into a more physically attractive version of himself. This echoes the belief expressed in the preface that "the only excuse for making a useless [i.e. "artistic"] thing is that one admires it intensely." However, although he certainly admires it, Henry's "art" is fundamentally flawed according to the first line of the preface: "To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim." Henry wants his "art" (Dorian) to reveal the "artist" (himself). This suggests another major theme that explores the value of superficiality and the discrepancy between one's interior self and how one is perceived by others.

As far plot development, this chapter offers very little. We learn crucial information about Dorian's past, facts that inform our assessment of his character, making him seem more tragic and romantic than he might otherwise. However, most of its pages are devoted to a colorful description of the people and the conversation at Lady Agatha's lunch table. Indeed, Henry's conversational acrobatics in this chapter are the closest example we have of Wilde's own conversational style.

However, this is not to suggest that the content of this chapter is extraneous. All of Henry's witticisms also reverberate strongly with the major themes of the novel. For instance, Henry remarks that he "can sympathise with everything, except suffering...One should sympathise with the colour, the beauty, the joy of life. The less said about life's sores the better." This sentiment, of course, exemplifies Dorian's later outlook on life, when his "sores" are concealed within the portrait.

Henry also states that "I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect." Witty word play aside, this is a pithy expression of a central tenet of the Victorian Age's "New Hedonism." Feelings, sensations, and emotions were considered important, not cold intellectualism. Once again, Henry voices a notion that will dominate Dorian's actions later in the novel.