Story Skeleton—The Picture of Dorian Gray

Analysis and summary of plot points and narrative structure in Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.

 

By Michelle Barker

Introduction and thematic summary

Oscar Wilde was chiefly known as a playwright and wrote only one novel. While the witticisms in The Picture of Dorian Gray showcase his dramatic talents, readers who take his characters (and their clever remarks) at face value will likely become annoyed with the book and might miss the bigger picture. In fact, this novel is a masterful illustration of how to use both language and characterization to illustrate theme; in short, how to wield showing and telling as tools in the service of narrative structure. 

Published in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a beautiful young man who unknowingly makes a Faustian bargain to remain eternally youthful. Seems like a good idea. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. Like all deals with the devil, the cost is his soul and the price turns out to be too high. 

Few people agree on this novel’s genre: it has been categorized as a Gothic cautionary tale, horror, a psychological novel, a philosophical novel, and a moral fantasy. In truth, it’s all of these things, but what I would call it chiefly is an allegory of Good versus Evil in the battle for someone’s soul. 

The story centers on what happens to Dorian after his soul is essentially extracted from the rest of his life and laid out on canvas. But this is also a book about art and morality, the empty pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, the obsession with beauty, and the potential that exists in us all for both good and evil. The name Gray is surely no accident—Dorian becomes a battleground of black versus white.

Dorian Gray is the novel’s protagonist, though he shifts at midpoint to become an anti-hero. Good and evil are represented by the artist Basil Hallward (who sees the best in Dorian) and the dilettante Lord Henry Wotton (who encourages the worst in him) in what amounts to an old-fashioned morality play. At first, the choice seems simple. Basil is pompous and self-righteous and, well, annoying. Lord Henry is more entertaining (though I found his witticisms irksome after a while). Evil is seductive, after all. Goodness is a glass of warm milk, and few people are willing to upset the balance of their life in pursuit of that.

Narrative Goal

In a tragedy, the action is driven more by the protagonist’s fatal flaw than by a relatable goal. The reader can see that the protagonist’s goal is not worth achieving or cannot (or should not) be achieved. Instead, we root for the protagonist to overcome their fatal flaw and realize they must give up on the narrative goal. 

When we examine Dorian’s narrative goal, here’s what we find: 

When Dorian sees the portrait Basil has painted of him, he falls in love with it and wishes he could remain eternally youthful and let the portrait age instead. Not realizing he is the pawn in a moral tug-of-war, his wish instantly comes true. Dorian is now free to pursue pleasure without moral restraint; his portrait will suffer the consequences of vice while he remains both young and innocent looking. He believes it’s a foolproof plan, but as his hedonistic lifestyle spins out of control, the reader senses the impending disaster. Will he succeed in reimposing moral restraint on his life (getting what he needs), or will he finally reap what he has sown (getting what he deserves)? In other words, will Good or Evil triumph in this allegory?

PLOT POINTS

Stasis and Inciting Incident

The novel begins as a morality play with the face-off of Good versus Evil before the unsuspecting victim walks on stage. The setting is Edenic, and Good and Evil are clearly defined. Readers meet a bombastic artist spouting a lot of high-minded philosophy on the nature of both art and beauty to his rakish friend who makes one witty remark after the next and shreds a daisy to bits. 

The first time I read this, I thought, where was the editor? How could they have allowed this to be the beginning of the novel? It’s not an easy entry point. Other people I spoke to who have tried to read the novel put it down in the middle of this stasis scene because they Just. Couldn’t. Take it. But as soon as I realized this was an allegory and that these two men—angel and devil—were fighting over Dorian’s soul, I understood the novel couldn’t start anywhere but here. 

When the story opens, Basil has already painted Dorian’s portrait a number of times and is praising him to Lord Henry. Indeed, it seems Basil has fallen in love with Dorian. When Lord Henry sees the beauty and innocence in the picture, his spidey senses go wild. Here is the perfect man to corrupt. Basil realizes it would be a very bad thing for Lord Henry and Dorian to meet. Lord Henry would ruin him. He decides this must not happen… and then a servant announces Dorian Gray is at the door. 

But Basil hasn’t painted THE picture yet. That happens now, and it forms the inciting incident. Dorian enters the story as an innocent: “One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world.” He’s not interested in having a life-sized portrait done of him and pays little attention to his appearance… until he agrees to sit for Basil one more time and Lord Henry starts talking to him. Henry encourages a life of the senses as a path to self-realization: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” To indulge in pleasure without moral restraint. When he says this, there’s a change on Dorian’s face which Basil captures on the canvas. This is the moment when his narrative goal crystallizes. The devil has spoken, and his victim has listened—but he has not fallen. Yet.

The Doorway of No Return

While Basil paints, Dorian goes out into the garden where Henry talks about the importance of youth and the withering effects of time. Dorian realizes the painting will retain his youthful beauty but he will not. Henry spies his chance: “There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!” he says and warns Dorian of how the world judges by appearance. 

At last, the portrait is finished and it is Basil’s masterpiece. When Dorian sees it, he falls in love with his own image in a classic Narcissus moment and bemoans the passage of time: “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young…. If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! […] I would give my soul for that!” 

As soon as he says this, he has unwittingly crossed the doorway of no return. He gets what he wants, which is a significant step toward his narrative goal. He can indulge in pleasure without moral restraint (and, he believes, without consequence). The question then becomes whether he will indulge himself unrestrainedly, and if so, what will happen to him? Will he survive the fallout (if there is any) or is he doomed to self-destruction? Will Dorian actually conquer temptation, as Lord Henry has suggested? This fits the tragic structure because it will drive Dorian toward a goal the reader doesn’t actually want him to achieve (because we know it will end badly). 

Seeing the effect of his work, Basil immediately wants to destroy it, but Dorian won’t let him. Instead, Basil sends it home with Dorian, speaking of it as if it were a person. Henry, too, refers to two Dorians—the one standing before him and the one in the portrait. But neither Dorian nor the reader realizes yet the terrible bargain he has made. By the end of this scene, Dorian chooses to go to the theater with Henry rather than dining with Basil: and so, another choice has been made.

Rising Action

Lord Henry continues to influence Dorian with his clever speeches, extolling the virtues of selfishness and the pursuit of pleasure. Meanwhile, Dorian wanders into a theater in a poor neighborhood and falls in love with the actress Sibyl Vane. 

Sibyl knows him only as Prince Charming and adores him. Her brother James, however, is suspicious of Dorian’s intentions. James is about to leave for Australia but he warns both Sibyl and their mother that if “Prince Charming” does anything to harm Sibyl, he will track him down and kill him. 

When Dorian declares his intention to marry Sibyl, Henry ridicules him and Basil can’t control his feelings of jealousy. Love seems to be the one thing powerful enough to conquer Henry’s influence. Dorian drags Basil and Henry to one of Sibyl’s performances, having praised her marvelous acting talents, but Sibyl delivers a terrible performance and Dorian is mortified. She explains afterwards that meeting him made her realize everything she did onstage was fake—in essence, that love is more important than art. She intends to give up acting and devote herself to him instead. Dorian realizes he was only in love with her acting and breaks up with her. 

At home, he notices there’s a look of cruelty in the portrait that wasn’t there before. He has an epiphany about his character and realizes he treated Sibyl badly and that Lord Henry is not a good influence on him. He doesn’t want to become the man in the portrait. The allegorical battle of Good versus Evil is now playing out within him. There is still enough residual goodness inside him to form an obstacle to the other part of him that is committed to hedonism. He resolves to marry Sibyl and become a good human being. He will not see Lord Henry anymore. 

Here Wilde uses the reader’s vain hope that Dorian’s realization of his mistake will stick. Our emotional draw is fueled by our desire for Dorian to give up on his goal of unbridled hedonism rather than pressing on (as opposed to comic structures in which we root for the protagonist to achieve their goal). 

It almost happens. But by the time Dorian makes this decision, it’s too late: Sibyl has already committed suicide.

Midpoint

Sibyl’s death marks a shift in Dorian from the self-love of Narcissus to self-hatred, and from protagonist to anti-hero. The internal war of Good versus Evil shifts as well. Before the midpoint, the force of goodness had the upper hand. After the midpoint, Dorian fights against it. He fully embraces the hedonism Lord Henry has been advocating all along and makes a conscious decision to be a witness to his own moral demise. After all, the portrait will bear the brunt of it, not him. 

Basil comes to comfort Dorian after Sibyl’s death and is shocked to find that he went to the opera that night with Henry. Basil says he wants to exhibit the portrait but Dorian refuses to let him see it now that it has changed. There’s an important shift in their relationship. Basil notices that Dorian is different. Dorian, who had once been aligned with Basil, is now firmly in Henry’s camp. Henry gives him a mysterious yellow book that guides him into the world of decadence and immorality. Critics believe this was À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, a Parisian book that influenced British aesthetes and was wrapped in yellow paper as a warning for its X-rated content. 

Now that Dorian realizes all his secret vices are evident on the portrait’s face, he must keep it hidden or else people will find out the truth about him—that his outward appearance is a lie, and his soul is ugly. He locks the portrait in an unused room and embraces his dark side, believing that if no one can see the effects of his behavior, then it doesn’t matter. 

Rising Action

Eighteen years pass. As Dorian descends further into a life of debauchery, he becomes fascinated by the contrast between his façade of purity and the evil and cruelty of his soul as reflected in the portrait. For a time, the writing shifts from scene to summary as Dorian devotes himself to beauty for its own sake: jewels, perfumes, tapestries, embroidery. It is, in fact, art for art’s sake. There is no longer anything creative about it. The writing becomes informational, trivial, boring. It doesn’t reveal character. It’s all about stuff, and about people with titles whom we don’t know and don’t care about. It’s superficial and loses all meaning, just like Dorian’s soulless life. Wilde is showing us that a life without time or consequences is meaningless.

Basil comes to visit Dorian before a planned trip to Paris and tells him there are terrible rumors going around about his bad behavior, that sin is never secret—it “writes itself across a man’s face.” But for Dorian, this isn’t true. His sins are only evident in the portrait. While Basil might be a bit pompous, he is the book’s moral compass and he genuinely cares for Dorian. He appears here as a possible savior. 

When Basil voices a wish to see Dorian’s soul, Dorian shows him the painting. Basil is horrified. While he still believes it’s possible to redeem Dorian, Dorian says it’s too late. In a fit of rage, Dorian blames Basil for everything that has happened and kills him. He then calls on an old friend and chemist, Alan Campbell, to dispose of the body in a way that all Breaking Bad fans will recognize. Campbell at first refuses, but Dorian threatens to blackmail him by exposing some secret of his. We never find out what it is but the reader assumes it involves something sexual. 

Dorian has progressed from corruption to crime. The painting now shows blood dripping from one hand, a nice Gothic touch.

False Victory

After Basil’s murder, Dorian falls apart. Hanging out with Lord Henry doesn’t make him feel better, so he heads to the opium dens. While there, he runs into a man whose drug addiction Dorian is partly responsible for—and even though he makes excuses for his responsibility, his conscience is awakened (so he’s not irredeemable after all—another bit of false hope planted by Wilde). The consequences of his actions might not be evident on his own face, but he is surrounded by destruction that he has caused.

When a woman refers to him as Prince Charming, Sibyl’s brother James happens to be there and overhears. Yes, nice coincidence—but at least it gets Dorian into more trouble rather than less. James never knew Dorian’s real name but he’s been hunting him for years. He attacks him, but Dorian is saved by his youthful appearance. Sibyl’s death was eighteen years ago. Dorian couldn’t possibly have caused it—look how young he is. But after Dorian leaves, the woman who’d spoken earlier assures James that Dorian has been coming there for eighteen years and in all that time he has never aged a day. 

Dorian is pursued by his conscience in the form of James Vane, whom he imagines seeing everywhere. During a hunting trip, when one of his friends is about to shoot a hare, Dorian tries to stop him and is horrified when a man hiding in the brush is shot and killed by accident—and it just so happens to be James Vane. 

Dorian has literally dodged a bullet and believes he has been spared some terrible fate. This represents a false victory. Once again, he has not gotten what he deserves—a point that definitely plays into his downfall. He is repeatedly spared from both conscience and karma, and yet, is he? There’s only one thing worse than getting caught: not getting caught.

Tragic Climax

Determined to clean up his life, Dorian meets a village girl and resists the opportunity to defile her. Lord Henry ridicules him for this but now sounds pretty empty. When Dorian goes to check the painting, hoping that his one decent act of sparing the girl has had an effect on it, all he sees in the face is hypocrisy. The consequences of his actions are accruing. He hears that Alan Campbell, the man he’d blackmailed to dispose of Basil’s body, has committed suicide. 

Tragic climaxes typically end in catastrophe—the final consequence of the protagonist’s fatal flaw. Up to this point, Dorian has gotten what he wanted (to behave with impunity and allow the painting to age instead of him), but he realizes at the end that the cost is too high and he can no longer live with it. Sins that go unpunished are a terrible thing. Youth and beauty have ruined him. His conscience has risen up with full power and he can no longer resist it. He smashes the mirror Lord Henry gave him (a great symbolic gesture, given the earlier Narcissus vibes). 

When Dorian realizes the painting is evidence against him, he takes the knife he used to stab Basil and tries to destroy it. But because the painting contains his soul, this amounts to suicide. The novel resolves with the discovery of his dead body and a painting on the wall of the young Dorian as he looked when he’d first sat for Basil.

Everything is Purposeful

In the beginning of the novel, Basil’s high-minded bombast seems to grate on purpose while Lord Henry’s cleverness is more appealing. Evil is, after all, a temptation. Goodness requires effort. But as the novel proceeds, these two characters experience reversals. Basil starts to make more sense. His concern for Dorian’s well-being is sincere whereas Lord Henry soon seems merely manipulative. His superficiality is reflected in Dorian’s new lifestyle: those long paragraphs about jewels and embroidery and perfume are written in such a way as to make them feel superficial. In general, summary-mode narration breaks reader immersion, but Wilde intentionally uses summary to demonstrate theme. He drops meaningless names to show us the meaninglessness of name-dropping. He shows the emptiness of a life based only on the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. 

Lord Henry’s cleverness eventually rings false, especially as we start to see Dorian’s moral decay and the ruin of anyone who comes into contact with him.

Why is This Novel a Classic?

Any novel that forces the reader to think long after they’ve finished it is one that will stand up to several readings. As a bonus, a writer who wants to understand the principles of showing versus telling can’t do better than to dissect this novel. 

In terms of themes, the desire for eternal youth never seems to go out of style (hello Instagram, Vogue, and about ten thousand other things that make up our present-day society). Wilde would be pleased—and perhaps disappointed—to know how relevant his novel is to today’s readers. It has a surprising amount to say about our narcissistic selfie society and the social media personas we project to the world, when the truth is often so different.


Michelle Barker, senior editor and award-winning novelist

Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

About the Darling Axe

Our editors are industry professionals and award-winning writers. We offer narrative development, editing, and coaching for every stage of your manuscript's journey to publication.



Work with a professional fiction editor from the Darling Axe: manuscript development and book editing services


Book a sample edit with a professional fiction editor from the Darling Axe: manuscript development and book editing services



Darling Axe Academy – Query Quest: a self-paced querying course

Related Posts

Inside Job: Transforming Characters Through Internal Conflict
Inside Job: Transforming Characters Through Internal Conflict
If you give your protagonist an internal conflict, they will feel authentic to the reader, and you will create an essent
Read More
Story Skeleton—Wuthering Heights
Story Skeleton—Wuthering Heights
In the character of Heathcliff, Brontë proves that a protagonist doesn’t have to be likable for readers to follow them;
Read More
On the Beaten Path: How to Use Beats in Fiction
On the Beaten Path: How to Use Beats in Fiction
Honor the tiny beat and it will carry the weight of a whole character for you.
Read More

Leave a comment

Name .
.
Message .

Thanks! Your comment has been submitted for approval. Please be patient while we weed out the spam ♥