The Picture of Dorian Gray


The Republic

In Book 2 of Plato's The Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus present the myth of the Ring of Gyges, by means of which Gyges made himself invisible. They then ask Socrates, “If one came into possession of such a ring, why should he act justly?” Socrates replies that although no one can see one's body, the soul is disfigured by the evils one commits. The disfigured and corrupted soul (antithesis of the beautiful soul) is imbalanced and disordered, and, in itself, is undesirable, regardless of any advantage derived from acting unjustly. The picture of Dorian Gray is the means by which other people, such as his friend Basil Hallward, may see Dorian's distorted soul.


Dorian attends a performance of Tannhäuser, by Richard Wagner, and the narrative identifies him with the protagonist of the opera. Disruptive beauty is the thematic resemblance between the opera and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Based upon a mediaeval historical figure, Tannhäuser is a singer whose art is so beautiful that Venus becomes enamoured of him. The Roman goddess of love then offers him eternal life with her in the Venusberg, and he accepts; yet, Tannhäuser becomes dissatisfied with life in the Venusberg, and returns to the harsh reality of the mortal world. After participating in a singing contest, Tannhäuser is censured for the sensuality of his art; eventually, he dies searching for repentance and the love of a good woman.


About the literary hero, the author Oscar Wilde said, “in every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust.”[9] As in the legend of Faust, in The Picture of Dorian Gray a temptation (ageless beauty) is placed before the protagonist, which he indulges. In each story, the protagonist entices a beautiful woman to love him, and then destroys her life. In the preface to the novel (1891), Wilde said that the notion behind the tale is “old in the history of literature”, but was a thematic subject to which he had “given a new form”.[10]

Unlike the academic Faust, the gentleman Dorian makes no deal with the Devil, who is represented by the cynical hedonist Lord Henry, who presents the temptation that will corrupt the virtue and innocence that Dorian possesses at the start of the story. Throughout, Lord Henry appears unaware of the effect of his actions upon the young man; and so frivolously advises Dorian, that “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing.”[11] As such, the devilish Lord Henry is “leading Dorian into an unholy pact, by manipulating his innocence and insecurity.”[12]


In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Wilde speaks of the sub-human Caliban character from The Tempest. When Dorian tells Lord Henry about his new love Sibyl Vane, he mentions the Shakespeare plays in which she has acted, and refers to her by the name of the heroine of each play. Later, Dorian speaks of his life by quoting Hamlet, a privileged character who impels his girlfriend (Ophelia) to suicide, and prompts her brother (Laertes) to swear mortal revenge.

Joris-Karl Huysmans

The anonymous “poisonous French novel” that leads Dorian to his fall is a thematic variant of À rebours (1884), by Joris-Karl Huysmans. In the biography, Oscar Wilde (1989), the literary critic Richard Ellmann said that:

Wilde does not name the book, but at his trial he conceded that it was, or almost [was], Huysmans's À rebours . . . to a correspondent, he wrote that he had played a ‘fantastic variation’ upon À rebours, and [that] someday must write it down. The references in Dorian Gray to specific chapters are deliberately inaccurate.[13]

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