The preface is a collection of free-standing statements that form a manifesto about the purpose of art, the role of the artist, and the value of beauty. Signed by Oscar Wilde, the preface serves as a primer for how Wilde intends the novel to be read. He defines the artist as "the creator of beautiful things," and the critic as "he who can translate into another manner or new material his impression of beautiful things." He condemns anyone who finds ugliness where there is beauty as "corrupt." He states that a book can be neither moral or immoral, and that morality itself serves only as "part of the subject matter" of art. Since art exists solely to communicate beauty, Wilde warns against reading too much into any work of art: "Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril." The preface ends with the whimsical statement that "All art is quite useless"; earlier, however, we are told that the "only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely."
Chapter 1 opens with a description of Basil Hallward, a respected but reclusive painter, who is entertaining his friend, Lord Henry Wotton. It is a beautiful spring day. Lord Henry admires Basil's latest work-in-progress, a full-length portrait of a beautiful young man, and urges him to show it at a gallery. Basil says that he never will because he has "put too much of myself into it." Lord Henry laughs at him, mistaking his meaning, and says that the painter is nothing like the boy in the picture. In the following discussion, it becomes clear that Lord Henry often speaks in elaborate, cynical, even paradoxical aphorisms, while Basil is a simpler man with more purely romantic values. Basil clarifies his earlier statement by saying that "every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter."
The discussion turns towards the sitter, whom Basil describes as a delightfully pure and naive young man named Dorian Gray. Lord Henry insists on meeting the man, but Basil refuses. He wants to protect the boy's innocent purity from Lord Henry's cynical, sensualist influence. It becomes clear that Basil has very strong feelings for Dorian, bordering on adulation. To Basil's chagrin, the butler announces Dorian's unexpected arrival, and the artist implores of Lord Henry: "He has a simple and a beautiful nature...Don't spoil him...Don't take away from me the one person who gives my art whatever charm it posseses."
Lord Henry and Dorian are introduced, and begin talking as Basil prepares his paints and brushes. Henry is immediately taken by the boy's charm and good looks, and Dorian is quickly impressed with Henry's conversational acumen and firmly unorthodox views of morality. Controlling his jealousy, Basil asks Henry to leave so that Dorian can pose for the picture in peace. Dorian insists that Henry stay, Basil relents, and Henry continues to dazzle the model with an impromtu lecture on how people ought to be less inhibited so that one might "realise one's nature perfectly." As he paints, Basil notes that "a look had come into the lad's face that he had never seen before." It is this look of revelation that the artist captures in his painting. Lord Henry's lecture makes Dorian feel that "entirly fresh influences were at work within him," and he marvels that "mere words" could have this effect. Lord Henry sees clearly the effect that he has on Dorian, and is proud of it. Dorian and his new friend adjourn to the garden as Basil puts the finishing touches on his work. In the garden, Henry tells the boy that "Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul," and that he has "the most marvellous youth, and youth is the one thing worth having." The conversation then turns towards beauty, and Henry asserts that it has "the divine right of soverignity," that beauty gives power to those who have it, and that nothing in the world is greater. He warns Dorian that his beauty will someday fade, a prospect that horrifies the impressionable young man.
Basil then informs the pair that the painting is complete. Upon seeing the painting, Dorian is overwhelmed with joy and wonder at its beauty. It is his first unabashed immersion into vanity. As soon as he thinks of how precious his beauty is, however, he remembers Lord Henry's statement about the fleetingness of youth and flies into a fit, becoming enraged at the portrait because it will always retain its beauty, while he is destined to grow old. In a fit of passion, he thinks, "If only it were the other way! If only it were I who was to be always young, and the picture was to grow old! For that...I would give my soul for that!" Seeing Dorian's distress, Basil grabs a knife and moves to destroy the painting. Dorian stops him, saying that it would be murder, and that he is in love with the work. Basil promises to give the picture to Dorian as a gift, and tells him that it will be delivered to him as soon as it is dried and lacquered.
Lord Henry is fascinated by Dorian's behavior, and the two make plans to go to the theater together that night. Basil objects, and asks Dorian to dine with him instead. Dorian declines and leaves with Lord Henry, saying that he will call on Basil tomorrow.
The preface was not included in the first printings of the novel, but was added later by Wilde as a direct response to accusations of immorality and indecency. Several of the statements made in the preface are thus purely defensive: for example, Wilde writes that "When critics disagree the artist is in accordance with himself." However, the preface also establishes many of the novel's major themes and provides the reader with a means of interpreting different aspects of the story.
The opening chapters introduce us to the novel's major players. We learn a great deal about Lord Henry, Basil, and Dorian, and are provided with information that will inform the development of the story. The ways that Wilde portrays each character's personality are particularly notable. For instance, the reader meets the incomplete portrait of Dorian before Dorian himself even makes his first appearance. Dorian exists as a beautiful but essentially superficial image first and foremost, even before he exists as a human being. After all, the title of the book is The Picture of Dorian Gray, suggesting that the novel is about the image of the man, rather than about the man himself. In this manner, Wilde begins to blur the distinction between man and image (a practice that begins in earnest when the picture comes to reflect the true nature of Dorian's soul), raising questions as to the true location of one's identity, and the value of superficiality. Lord Henry remarks that "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances" (21), and Wilde offers the reader no choice but to do so in this instance. Like Basil, who seems more smitten with Dorian as a model than as a person, like Lord Henry, who claims to value beauty above all else, and like Victorian society in general, the book itself seems more concerned with the image of the protagonist than with the man himself.
At times, both Basil and Lord Henry seem to ascribe to ideals consistent with those of the author. Basil asserts that "there is nothing that art cannot express"; is a dirct rephrasing of the line "the artist can express everything" from the preface. Lord Henry's habit of constantly spouting "profound" aphorisms and his languid, sensual personality recall Wilde's own social persona. However, to assume that either character is intended to be read as a representation of Wilde himself is a fallacy. Both characters also express opinions that directly contradict with the beliefs found in the preface; a fact that becomes clearer as the novel progresses.
Basil's reclusiveness is mentioned early on almost as an afterthought, but plays an important role later in the novel. Since he customarily withdraws from society on a regular basis, his absence is unremarkable when he eventually disappears for good. Another notable aspect of Basil's character is his personal devotion to Dorian. There are a number of indications that the painter is smitten with Dorian on more than a professional level. These feelings, based on Dorian's beauty and purity, eventually lead to rejection by the boy, and ultimately to Basil's alleged inability to create any more great art.
The second chapter, in which Dorian himself makes his first appearance, describes the beginning of Dorian's corruption at the hands of Lord Henry. It also introduces Dorian's inadvertantly faustian bargain, as the boy pleads for the picture to age in his place. Worth noting is the fact that Lord Henry invites Dorian into Basil's garden as he delivers his lecture on youth, beauty, and the value of immorality. This Eden-like setting emphasizes the fact that Dorian's response to Henry's words represents the boy's fall from grace; it is Dorian's original sin.
Dorian's initial response to the portrait recalls the statement made in the preface that "Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming." The painting is a masterpiece, certainly a "beautiful thing," but the image sparks jealousy and hatred in Dorian because it reminds him of the fleeting nature of his own youth. He is already "corrupt without being charming," but this marks the starting point of his steady fall from grace. Basil's attempt to destroy the painting with a knife, and Dorian's exclamation that "It would be murder" foreshadows the events that take place in chapters 13 and 20.