The Picture of Dorian Gray: Presentation

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  I.  Introduction to Text

Oscar Wilde Context

  • In the years leading up to the first publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890, Wilde was an editor and journalist for A Woman’s World, a Victorian magazine intended for the emerging class of educated women.  The development of Wilde as a writer through this magazine were critical, learning to write as a journalist under the supervision of his editors, while also learning to operate the literary marketplace.
  • It is important to understand that The Picture of Dorian Gray was published before the peak of Wilde’s fame.  Indeed, this story was the debut of his successful period as a writer.
  • At the time of publication, Wilde had been married to Constance Lloyd for six years, and was father to two young sons.  They lived in London.
  • In 1891, Wilde publishes a second version of Dorian Gray.  We can speculate that his revisions and alterations may have been for economic and reputational interests.
  • 1891, was also the year Wilde began a homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, an aspiring poet.
  • A possible source of influence: A foundational concept of the story, explained by his son, Vyvyan Holland, reveals that Wilde would drop by a studio of a painter named Basil Ward in 1884. After the completion of a portrait of a particularly beautiful young man, Wilde commented on the regrettable aging of the model.  Ward replied “ ‘How delightful it would be if he could remain exactly as he is, while the portrait aged and withered in his stead!’ ” (Complete Works, 9).  Years later, this wish is realized in Wilde’s novel, who even commemorated Basil Ward by naming the artist Basil Hallward.
  • A second possible source of influence: The last name of the protagonist/anti-hero may refer to John Gray (1866-1934), a handsome English poet involved in the French Symbolism and Aestheticism movements.   It is certain that Wilde and Gray new each other before the publication of Dorian Gray, and their relationship heightened in the next couple years (Bristow, 371).
  • Oscar Wilde c. 1890. (Deagon)
    Oscar Wilde c. 1890. (Deagon)

Publication History

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in the July issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, appearing as a lead story.  This magazine was a literary magazine of the 19th century, published in Philadelphia.  In 1889, an American editor for Lippincott, J.M. Stoddart, was sent to London to solicit fiction from rising British authors.  Stoddard dinned with Wilde in London and commissioned a short novel from the author.  Although impressed by the story of Dorian Gray, Stoddart and his colleagues made numerous alternations to the novel, including censoring passages alluding to homosexuality.  After the publication in the United States, many British critics condemned the story as immoral (there were also some favorable notices in the press).
  • Newspapers that from across the political spectrum like liberal Daily Chronicle, high Tory St James’s Gazette, and imperialist Scots Observer, antagonized the narrative.  Day after day, newspaper reviews attack Wilde, who Wilde defends his fiction in the letter columns of these newspapers.  Wilde responds “ ‘The sphere of art and the sphere of ethics are absolutely distinct and separate’ ” and that “ ‘an artist has no ethical sympathies at all’ ” (Beckson, 67, 74).
  • Disappointed in its reception, Wilde revised the book in 1891, deleting controversial passages, and adding a Preface and six new chapters.  The aphoristic Preface is crucial to the story’s new reception, anticipating the criticism and spelling out Wilde’s philosophy.  The didactic messages Wilde presents in the Preface mirror his responses to his critic of the first edition.   “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” and “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital” demonstrates his rebuttal to his critics (Wilde, 17)
  • Ward, Lock & Co. a British publishing firm published the lengthened edition of Dorian Gray in two limited print-runs.  They issued the novel in two different sizes, the first in 1,000 copies, and the second in 250 signed copies!  This exclusivity was aimed to add artistic prestige and economic value, called Edition de luxe, luxury editions (Bristow, xxii).

1890 v. 1891 Editions

  • First edition in Lippincott’s Magazine, American transatlantic periodical 1890
    • Approximately 50,000 words, thirteen chapters, on 98 typset pages
    • Lippincott’s Magazine editors censored words, phrase, and allusions loaded with possible sexual implications or religious offense.

      Front Cover of Lippincott's Magazine (July 1890)
      Front Cover of Lippincott’s Magazine, July 1890. (Niyazi)
  • Second edition published as a single volume in both Britain and America by Ward, Lock & Co., a British publishing company.
    • Approximately 78,000 words, Preface and twenty chapters, on 337 pages
    • Significant additions: Preface, the character of James Vane (creating a fuller character to Sibyl Vane and the working class).
    • Chapters 3, 5, 15 and 18 are completely new.  Chapter 13 is divided into two, becoming Chapter 19 and 20.  (Bristow).

      Crown Octavo edition, Ward, Lock & Co. (1891)
      Crown Octavo edition, Ward, Lock & Co. 1891. (Coulhart)


  • The Aestheticism movement is a 19th century art movement that supports art, beauty, and nature above social, political, and moral themes.  Associated with Symbolism and Decadence, Aestheticism featured prominently in Western Europe and the United States.  Art need not have any didactic principles or moral lessons.  It must only be beautiful.
  • This much resembles the Decadent slogan L’art pout l’art (Art for Art’s Sake) we have explored in our class discussions.  Art can only be of significance if it is “sensationalist, perverse, or artificial” (Keane, 139).
  • The movement challenges the Victorian belief that art is a tool for education.  Oscar Wilde, a main contributor in Britain and France, and his colleagues, sought to free Art from this duty.
  • A Portrait of Dorian Gray demonstrates the importance of art both in its story and as a piece of art itself.  First, the novel centers on a portrait, an art piece of the main character.  The story begins with Basil Hallward, the artist, explaining that he cannot exhibit this portrait, as he has “put too much of [himself] into it” (Wilde, 19).  The portrait is more than a depiction of the model, but an impression of the artist.
  • Second, the novel is a piece of art itself.  Throughout Dorian Gray, and amongst his other works, Wilde composes quotable one-liners and is “his own best plagiarist” (Cambridge Companion, 98).  The linguistic style is unconventional to the Victorian era.  The added aphoristic Preface prominently details the following story as art, and Wilde as the artist. 
  • Bristow, a Professor of English at UCLA, analyzes the covers of the Ward, Lock, and Co. editions.  The artistic covers designed by Charles Rickettes, who worked closely with Wilde himself, emphasize the novel as an art piece and a “commitment to aestheticism” (Bristow, xxv).  The physical book becomes not only a luxury product, but also an artwork of itself.

    Cover and Spine, designed by Ricketts. (Bauman Rare Books)
    Cover and Spine, designed by Ricketts. (Bauman Rare Books)

II. Discussion Questions

  • In The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, Jerusha McCormack quotes Wilde: “Dorian Gray is what I would like to be,” “Basil Hallward is what I think I am,” and “Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me”.  McCormack explains that Dorian Gray is the essence of an “eternal child,” precarious and invulnerable.  Basil symbolizes the artist, yearning for immortality and beauty.  Lord Henry represents a dandy and new aristocracy.  (Cambridge Companion, 112)  Do you think that Oscar Wilde accurately depicted himself in this trinity of characters?  What picture of Wilde does this novel shape?
  • Let us examine the character of Sibyl Vane, the only truly innocent character in the novel.  From Wilde’s description, she is beautiful, talented, and pure.  Yet, her ability to act, her ability to create art, is compromised by her love for Dorian.  She says that her love for Dorian is “something of which all art is but a reflection” (Wilde, 71).  What is Wilde implying when the reality of love uncovers the falsity of art?
  • Reading The Picture of Dorian Gray as a homosexual text, the seemingly obvious love triangle between Dorian, Basil, and Lord Henry, is not simple.  Although decadent writers often dealt with homoerotic references, Wilde never explicitly demonstrates homosexuality in Dorian Gray.  When crime after crime of Dorian Gray is described, is the unspoken crime is the true delinquent?
  • Examine the writing style.  At times, this novel may resembles a play.  The dialogue announced the arrival of another character.  For example, Lord Henry, speaking to Basil, introduces Dorian to the scene: “But here is Dorian himself” (Wilde, 64).  Wilde begins to write play in 1892, two year after the first publication of Dorian Gray.  What effect does this description of action and of positioning have on the novel?
  • Lord Henry gifts Dorian a “yellow book” on page 96.  The story is of a young Parisian who “renounces virtue” and sins in “natural rebellion” (Wilde, 96).  The “poisonous book” imprisons Dorian, who believes the book tells his story.  [Additional quotes about this yellow book may be found on page 96, 97, 108, abd 109.]  Many Wilde specialists, like Joseph Bristow, identity this mysterious yellow book as Huysmans’ Against Nature or Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus.  Having read Monsieur Venus, how do the ambiguity of gender and sexual insubordination play a role in the transformation of Dorian Gray?
    Ivan Albright's paining "A Picture of Dorian Gray," Arts Institute, Chicago, 1944. (Deviant Art)
    Ivan Albright’s paining “A Picture of Dorian Gray,” Arts Institute, Chicago, 1944. (Deviant Art)


Beckson, Karl. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. 1970. Print.

Bristow, Joseph. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 3: The Picture of Dorian Gray, The 1890 and 1891 Texts.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Clayworth, Anna (Summer 1997). “‘The Woman’s World’: Oscar Wilde as Editor: 1996 Vanarsdel Prize”. Victorian Periodicals Review (Baltimore, Maryland, USA: The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals).

Coulthart, John.  “Dorian Gray Revisited.” { feuilleton }. N.p., 29 Jan. 2008. Web. 28, 20014. <>.

Deagon, Andrea, Ph.D. “Oscar Wilde’s Salomé.” The Best of Habibi.  Habibi Publications, Publisher Shareen, El Safy. N.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2014. <>.


Deviant Art. “The Picture of Dorian Gray by Ivan Albright.” Chaos5five5 on deviantART. N.p. n.d. Web. 28 Jan 2014. <>.

Keane, Robert N.. Oscar Wilde: The Man, His Writing, and His World. New York: AMS Press, 2003. Print.

McCormack, Jerusha. “Wilde’s fiction(s).”  The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Editor Peter Raby. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.  Print.

Niyazi, Hasan.  “Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, annotated & uncensored.” Three Pipe Problem. N.p., 30 May 2011. Web. 28 Jan 2014. <>.

“Oscar Wilde-Picture of Dorian Gray.” Bauman Rare Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan 2014. <>.

Smith, Philip E.  Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde.  New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008. Print.

Wilde, Oscar, Vyvan, Beresford Holland, and Merin Holland. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. New York: HarperPerennial. 2003. Print.


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