Vanity, Evil, Immortality in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde | Free Essay Example (2023)

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

    (Video) Revenge is Sweet

  2. Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Society

  3. The Plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray

  4. Analysis of the Main Themes: Vanity, Evil, and Immortality

    (Video) Schopenhauer On the Vanity & Suffering of Life

  5. Conclusion

  6. Works Cited


The Picture of Dorian Gray is arguably Oscar Wilde’s most well-known and most debated work. Set in Victorian England, the story revolves around Dorian Gray and his slow descent into a life of hedonism, decadence, and immorality. However, unlike any other self-indulgent character, Gray is freed from the effects of his lifestyle on his face and body by his portrait. Throughout the novel, Wilde develops the theme of vanity, how it affects the human mind and behavior, and how the pursuit of one’s desires can lead to evil and hideous acts. Through his portrait, Dorian becomes virtually immortal, but this immortality only locks him in his empty and meaningless existence by freeing him from any consequences. Overall, in his book, Oscar Wilde masterfully examines the interconnectedness of vanity, evil, and the desire to become immortal.

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Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Society

Oscar Wilde is one of the most celebrated authors of the 19th century. Born in Dublin in 1854, Wilde spent most of his life in London and experienced all the benefits and pitfalls of Victorian high society (“Oscar Wilde Biography”). Introduced to it by his friend, painter Frank Miles, Wilde quickly became a part of it and further secured his position by marrying a wealthy English woman, Constance Lloyd (“Oscar Wilde Biography”). The promising author had a pristine reputation as he worked on his literary pieces and was devoted to his wife and children. This facade was shattered when it transpired that Wilde had an affair with a man (“Oscar Wilde Biography”). Thus, people learned that the writer led a double life, and if his public life was spotless, his personal life went against strict moral standards of the time. Although Wilde was not the only man in Victorian London with a secret life, his persecution for it shows how vital the perfect image was for the members of high society.

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The strict moral conduct rules of Victorian England had a significant impact on Wilde and his works. According to Kidd, in London, a man’s public image was of considerable importance as his reputation was based solely on how other members of society viewed him (83). Many prominent men in Victorian times had a pristine public image while indulging in activities that would be deemed immoral (Kidd 84). It can be argued that this desire to support a perfect reputation stems from vanity and egotism, as well as the necessity to fit in the society and benefit from it. It is well reflected in Wilde’s novel with the protagonist preserving his beauty and benefiting from his looks while leading a morally questionable lifestyle. The character of Dorian Gray is an accurate reflection of many affluent men in Victorian society with their reputations staying spotless when their personal life was full of self-indulgence and libertinism.

The Plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray

The plot of the story revolves around its titular character, Dorian Gray, who is led astray by Lord Henry’s belief in leading a hedonistic lifestyle. Throughout the novel, the protagonist transforms from a naive young man into an immoral and corrupt one who strives for nothing more than to enact his every desire and preserve his beauty. Gray experiences true love early in his life, as he falls for beautiful and talented actress Sibyl Vane, but their romance is short-lived after he cruelly rejects her after she performs poorly on stage (Wilde 86). After Sibyl kills herself, Dorian spends the next 18 years of his life catering to his every desire, no matter how depraved or immoral, and exploring the effects his lifestyle has on his portrait. When the hero shows the picture to his friend and author of the portrait, Basil, the latter finds it shocking and abhorrent, and Gray kills him in a sudden bout of anger (Wilde 151). In his last honorable act, Dorian Gray attempts to destroy the portrait and, ultimately, kills himself, freeing his soul from the cursed picture.

Analysis of the Main Themes: Vanity, Evil, and Immortality

Vanity is a recurring theme in Wilde’s novel, with Dorian Gray being a prime example of it. At the beginning of the story, Dorian is shown as a somewhat naive and good-hearted young man. However, he is depicted like that through the eyes of Basil Hallward, a painter enamored with him and the author of his fateful portrait. It can be argued that the protagonist is not as innocent and naive as he is described and that the smitten painter idealizes his muse. Even Basil notices that the object of his desires can be thoughtless and treats the artist’s feelings “as a bit of decoration to charm his vanity” (Wilde 14). Dorian is prone to being vain and self-centered due to his good looks and how people who admire his beauty treat him. Olsson disagrees stating that the fact that Basil loves Dorian must indicate the latter’s kindness and morality (11). Nevertheless, at the beginning of the story, Dorian Gray’s true character and morality, or lack of it cannot be extensively deduced from the narrative, as he is shown from others’ perspectives.

It can be argued that from the very beginning of the book, the protagonist leads a double life as his reputation is pristine, but the readers know nothing about his private life. Dorian Gray is a vain character, as he enjoys the effect his beauty has on others, including Basil and Lord Henry. However, this enjoyment is also a result of the way others treat him. Dorian is a handsome young man with impeccable manners, and other characters in the book often praise the way he looks, rarely addressing his personality. Basil believes that Dorian is kindhearted and moral, but the artist is infatuated with him. These characteristics are an idealistic view of Dorian rather than Gray’s true personality. Dorian’s vanity is fostered in him by others, as the hero allows himself to be influenced by their view of him and begins to believe in the image of himself created by others. In Victorian London, “image is everything,” and the perfect image of Dorian others see gradually takes over his personality (Kidd 83). Thus, Dorian Gray can be viewed as a victim of his beauty and charm.

Nevertheless, Dorian is not blameless in his transformation from a naive, if slightly vain young man, into a debauched and immoral one. He tries to please people whose opinions matter to him and those he wants to emulate and impress. Gray visibly hurts Basil’s feelings when the painter wants Lord Henry to leave (Wilde 19). The protagonist does not consider his friend’s feelings and prefers to spend time with his new acquaintance. It is also vanity that leads to the end of his relationship with Sibyl Vane. When Lord Henry learns of the relationship, he notes that women are “a decorative sex” and that Sibyl is just another exquisite thing (Wilde 47). Dorian comes to a similar conclusion when Sibyl is unable to perform well in front of his friends. The hero is embarrassed by her poor acting and claims she killed his love (Wilde 85). This act of cruelty and indifference towards the woman he claimed to love is the first step in his descent into an immoral, hedonistic lifestyle. This cruelty is also the first sign of depravity reflected in the portrait.

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It is also Dorian Gray’s vanity that sparks the desire for immortality in him. Although aging is a natural process, the notion of losing his good looks shocks Dorian. The young man is afraid of growing “old, and horrible, and dreadful” and is prepared to sell his soul to remain young while the portrait ages (Wilde 27). The character is not afraid of death as he does not plead to stay immortal but dreads losing his beauty. This desire of the protagonist to remain young to preserve his good looks is another indication of his vanity, and the fulfillment of that desire is what allows him to experience acts deemed immoral by Victorian society. Dorian’s vanity and lack of consequences for his action that would hurt the only thing he comes to care about, his beauty, is the combination that encourages his debauchery.

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Dorian’s vanity and pursuit of sensuality and immorality while preserving a pristine facade reflects Victorian society. Throughout the novel, the author employs mimesis, a literary device that can be defined as a “representation of reality” (Lawtoo 214). As a character, Dorian is the pinnacle of the concept of leading a double life. His beauty and charm represent Victorians’ public lives, whereas his deformed portrait and the acts the hero commits in private represent their private lives. Basil and Lord Henry are also a reflection of that society. The painter represses his love and desire for Dorian, whereas his friend chooses to experience every sensual desire he has while maintaining the public image of a respectable married man (Lawtoo 2017). Furthermore, the novel also reflects the author and his life, with Wilde himself noting that he thinks of himself as Basil, the world sees him as Lord Henry, and he would like to be Dorian (Lawtoo 218). Thus, Wilde mimetically speaks through his main characters reflecting himself and his position in society and the Victorian high society itself.


Oscar Wilde’s only novel discusses how vanity, if nurtured and catered to, and lack of consequences can lead to a descent into a sinful and decadent life and genuinely evil acts. Dorian Gray’s wish for immortality stems from his vanity and adoration of his beauty, and when it is granted, it only pushes him further into an exploration of his depravity. The novel’s main character reflects the standards of Victorian society and the necessity to hide one’s sinful personal life behind a pristine facade of public image. Wilde manages to represent himself mimetically in his characters and reflect upon his position in society and the necessity to hide certain aspects of himself from others. Overall, Wilde masterfully examines the connection between vanity and desire for immortality and how vanity can lead to evil deeds.

Works Cited

“Oscar Wilde Biography.Biography, 2019, web.

Kidd, Chelsea E. “The Uselessness of Art: Critique and Contradiction in the Picture of Dorian Gray.” Papers & Publications: Interdisciplinary Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 6, no. 16, 2018.

Lawtoo, Nidesh. “The Excess of Mimesis: Reframing the Picture of Dorian Gray.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, vol. 18, no. 2, 2020, pp. 213-238. EBSCOhost, Web.

Olsson, Linda. The Unacceptance of a Sinful Protagonist’s Moral Standards: The Cause and Effect of Censoring Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, 2015, pp. 1–17, Web.

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Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Penguin Books, 2010.


What is vanity in Dorian Gray? ›

Dorian's vanity is fostered in him by others, as the hero allows himself to be influenced by their view of him and begins to believe in the image of himself created by others. In Victorian London, “image is everything,” and the perfect image of Dorian others see gradually takes over his personality (Kidd 83).

How is morality presented in The Picture of Dorian Gray? ›

James's Gazette, that Dorian Gray “is a story with a moral. And the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment” (Wilde 248). Aestheticism does well to condemn the renunciation of desires, but it is an excessive obedience to these desires that is subversively dangerous.

Why was The Picture of Dorian Gray considered immoral? ›

The original uncensored version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, edited by Nicholas Frankel, was published by Belknap Press, in 2011, 121 years after the magazine publication. It was censored in 1890 because of what was seen as its immoral sexual content, both heterosexual and homosexual in nature.

Why does Dorian decide to destroy the painting at the end of the novel essay? ›

He decides it is better to destroy the last evidence of his sin—the painting of his soul—than face up to his own depravity. The depravity he seeks to destroy is, in essence, himself; therefore, by killing it, he kills himself.

What is vanity according to? ›

1:2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. In summary, the Preacher who is the author of Ecclesiastes tells us that everything we do is 'vanity': empty, futile, and short-lived. It doesn't matter if you're wise or a fool, ultimately, because everyone ends up dying.

What is vanity character? ›

Closely related to BEAUTY, vanity can be defined as an excessive pride in one's looks or achievements. It connotes an element of futility and superficiality because the things the character values are fleeting and won't bring true fulfillment.

What is the main theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray? ›

The Supremacy of Youth and Beauty.

What did Oscar Wilde say about morality? ›

Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.”

What is the main conflict in The Picture of Dorian Gray? ›

Major conflict Dorian Gray, having promised his soul in order to live a life of perpetual youth, must try to reconcile himself to the bodily decay and dissipation that are recorded in his portrait.

How did Dorian GREY become immortal? ›

Dorian Gray is a wealthy gentleman who has gained immortality by having his soul trapped within a painting. He is well known for his extravagance and debauchery.

Why is Dorian evil? ›

The charm of the youth is what made Dorian pure evil from the innocent man he was. Swayed by what Henry said, he wanted to grab on to his youth and that was where the tragedy happened. To want to become young again and to clutch on one's youth while one still has it is every person's desire.

What does The Picture of Dorian Gray say about society? ›

In its time, The Picture of Dorian Gray was a sharp critique of a society that was clinging to a lost grandeur and a mythic past by valorising a veneer of moral probity while its day-to-day grim reality was kept from sight.

What is the purpose of Dorian destroying the painting? ›

Deciding that only full confession will absolve him of wrongdoing, Dorian decides to destroy the last vestige of his conscience and the only piece of evidence remaining of his crimes: the picture. In a rage, he takes the knife with which he murdered Basil Hallward and stabs the picture.

What does the ending of The Picture of Dorian Gray mean? ›

The idea here is that nobody can get away with everything; even though Dorian thought that he could dodge earthly punishment and go about his evil business by destroying the portrait (the proof of how vile and corrupt he really was), his death actually comes as a kind of divine retribution for all of his crimes.

How does Dorian feel about killing Basil? ›

Glancing at his picture, Dorian feels hatred welling up within him. He seizes a knife and stabs Basil repeatedly. He then opens the door and listens for the sound of anyone stirring. When he is satisfied that no one has heard the murder, he locks the room and returns to the library.

What is an example sentence for vanity? ›

Noun The handsome actor's vanity was well-known. She described her accomplishments without exaggeration or vanity.

What are the two types of vanity? ›

There are two types of bathroom vanities: freestanding and built-in options. Freestanding vanities are good for small spaces and come in many styles. Built-in vanities are better for larger spaces and typically offer more countertop space and storage. You'll also need to consider sink type when selecting a vanity.

What does vanity do to a person? ›

Vanity is often considered a negative thing because someone who is vain does not often recognize their faults or focuses too much on things that aren't considered to have lasting or serious value, such as money and beauty. Most uses of vanity are related to this idea.

What are the different types of vanity? ›

Vanities come in six basic types: pedestal, free-standing, floating, vessel, under-mounted sink and cabinet.

Why is it called a vanity? ›

Vanities were originally called toilet tables. They were used in the bathroom for general hygiene and included a wash basin beneath a fold down top. Over time, these tables became smaller and more delicate with elaborate drawers to keep beauty products tucked away when not in use.

What is the flaw of vanity? ›

Vanity is another character flaw we encounter often in fiction and film. Characters who are obsessive about their looks or boastful about their achievements abound.

What is The Picture of Dorian Gray about simple summary? ›

Lord Henry Wotton makes Dorian Gray believe that the only thing important in life is beauty. However, Dorian realizes that he will become less beautiful as he grows older. He wishes the portrait Basil painted would become old in his place. Dorian then sells his soul so he can be beautiful forever, but not on purpose.

What is the message of the moral? ›

moral noun (MESSAGE)

The moral of a story, event, or experience is the message that you understand from it about how you should or should not behave: And the moral of the story is that honesty is always the best policy.

What is the main idea of morality? ›

Morality is a set of values, beliefs, and principles that guide an individual's behavior and decisions. It is a code of conduct that is commonly accepted in a particular society or culture. It refers to the distinction between right and wrong, and is usually based on an individual's personal beliefs and values.

What is the morality of this story? ›

The moral of a story is the lesson that story teaches about how to behave in the world. Moral comes from the Latin word mores, for habits. The moral of a story is supposed to teach you how to be a better person. If moral is used as an adjective, it means good, or ethical.

What does Dorian blame for his situation? ›

First Dorian blames his own pride and passion for his situation, then he blames the fact that he has received no punishment to purify him. Then he blames his youth and beauty (Lines 31-36).

Who does Dorian blame? ›

Note that Dorian defends Lord Henry but is quite willing to blame Basil for the loss of his soul.

Who is the villain in The Picture of Dorian Gray? ›

Lord Henry "Harry" Wotton is the main antagonist of the 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray as well as its various adaptations.

Who kills Dorian? ›

As he takes a short cut through a den archway, someone suddenly grabs him from behind and shoves him against a wall, his hand choking Dorian, who hears the click of a revolver. The man who chokes Dorian is James Vane, brother of Sibyl Vane, the actress who killed herself eighteen years before.

What did Dorian become obsessed with? ›

Dorian is characterized by his evasiveness and his obsession with objets d'art. For example, when Basil comes to console him about Sibyl's death, he is unwilling to discuss the matter.

Does Dorian become evil? ›

Although Dorian Gray does not change into two distinct characters who share the same bodily vessel, he does visibly display his evil nature in a portrait of himself — like Jekyll, he alone realizes the truth of the hideous transformation.

What evil things did Dorian do? ›

Once Dorian discovers his godlike powers, he carries out various heinous acts, including murder; but to the Victorian sensibility his most unspeakable deed would have been his corruption of a series of young men. (Basil tells Dorian, “There was that wretched boy in the Guards who committed suicide.

Did Dorian make a deal with the devil? ›

Although Dorian Gray never contracts with the devil, his sacrifice is similar: he trades his soul for the luxury of eternal youth. For its overtones of supernaturalism, its refusal to satisfy popular morality, and its portrayal of homoerotic culture, The Picture of Dorian Gray was met with harsh criticism.

How does Dorian become corrupt? ›

In Dorian Gray, Dorian's corruption by human influence manifests itself in a desire to collect material objects and in the harm that he does to others, and he is undone by his own desire to destroy his soul.

What happens to Dorian Gray at the end of the novel? ›

In the novel's powerful final paragraphs, Dorian, in effect, commits suicide. He despises the figure in the portrait, but that is who he has become. When he slashes at the painting with the knife, appropriately the same knife that killed Basil, Dorian kills himself.

How is Dorian responsible for his own downfall? ›

Dorian's inner secrets and weakness of mind becomes his downfall. In this novel Dorian Gray's apparent perfection is destroyed by his weakness of mind and naiiveness, which becomes the downfall of his soul as his mind is opened to sin and Hedonism by Lord Henry Wotton.

For what would Dorian give his soul? ›

If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!

Does Dorian love Emily? ›

Meanwhile, Emily pleads with Dorian for the key to the attic gate, but Dorian realizes he genuinely loves her and turns his back, instead choosing to stab the portrait with a poker to destroy it as his body begins to rapidly age, matching the picture. Lord Henry drags Emily out of the attic, which is soon incinerated.

Do Dorian and Basil kiss? ›

Instead of subtly leading Basil to his confession, Dorian steers the conversation away by kissing Basil, who eventually gives in to his passion and succumbs to a sexual encounter.

Does Basil have a crush on Dorian? ›

The main focus of the book is on its male characters: Dorian, Basil and Lord Henry. Basil has quite a detectable crush on Dorian, and while Dorian and Henry do have relationships with women, they treat these women rather poorly in favor of their own friendship.

Why did Dorian stab Basil? ›

Dorian seems to receive some sort of message from the image on the canvas and is driven to murder his old friend. Basil's death conveniently removes the most immediate and serious threat to Dorian's way of life and his pact with the forces of evil.

What is vanity in Joseph Andrews? ›

Joseph Andrew

His vanity was his innocence and ignorance; This was a satire that Fielding played on the Victorian concept of innocence and ignorance.

How is Dorian Gray vain? ›

Dorian is exceptionally vain and becomes convinced, in the course of a brief conversation with Lord Henry, that his most salient characteristics—his youth and physical attractiveness—are ever waning.

Why is Basil obsessed with Dorian? ›

He is captivated by Dorian, because Dorian lives the life he would like to live. Instead of seeing Dorian as symbolizing his need to involve himself in life, he contents himself with "philosophic contemplation" (40). He too represses his Dionysian side. He feels it sufficient to experience this through Dorian.

What is the main idea of Vanity Fair? ›

At the heart of Vanity Fair is the ambition to acquire social standing, money, love, economic success, sex, and more, even though the actions the characters take in pursuit of their ambitions rarely lead to happiness.

What is the theme of vanity? ›

The theme of wisdom of the ancestors is invaluable in the Poem Vanity by Birago Diop. The peom presents ancestors as a weservoir of sound teaching and wisdom which are sufficient to guide their offspring through the challenges of life these teaching and wisdom are describe as “cries” and “wild appeals”.

What is vanity and why is it a sin? ›

In many religions, vanity, in its modern sense, is considered a form of self-idolatry in which one likens oneself to the greatness of God for the sake of one's own image, and thereby becomes separated and perhaps in time divorced from the Divine grace of God.

What is the conclusion of Dorian Gray? ›

At the end of the novel, Dorian stabs his portrait and in doing so kills himself. The portrait returns to its original state and Dorian's dead body takes on the true appearance of the old, cruel man he has become.

Who does Dorian blame for this change? ›

In a moment of heightened irony, Dorian accuses Basil of being "too much afraid of life." In fact, Dorian is afraid that Basil will see the portrait and thus learn of his secret pact. As for Dorian, he shows himself to be fully immersed in his new life of selfishness and manipulation.

How did Dorian become immortal? ›

Immortality: After having his soul trapped within a painting, Dorian gained immortality. He does not age and seems to be immune to all conventional illnesses, diseases, viruses and infections.

Why does Dorian sell his soul? ›

Newly understanding that his beauty will fade, Dorian expresses the desire to sell his soul, to ensure that the picture, rather than he, will age and fade.

What does Basil's death represent? ›

In fact, when Basil is killed, it is a sign of the death of real beauty, ironically at the hands of Dorian, a supposed lover of beauty and a sign of ultimate corruption, callousness and ugliness.

What was Basil's secret? ›

Basil's true problem is that art is more real to him than life. In an artwork, beauty is always a good thing, but in the real world, it's just not. He doesn't just want life to be like art—he wants life to be art, and vice versa.

What happens after Dorian kills Basil? ›

In the coolness of Dorian's actions after he kills Basil, the reader sees that Dorian has spoken at least a few truthful words during his corrupt life — his admission that it is too late to save his soul. Dorian kills the only real friend he has, and with that, he kills the only chance he has to redeem his soul.


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