The book opens with the Basil Basil raving to his friend Lord Henry about a beautiful and pure young man who had been modeling for him, and whose Lord Henryness of character had been a recent inspiration of his art. Lord Henry considers that Dorian could not really be as perfect as Basil made him out to be. Upon meeting Dorian during a session with Basil and discovering that Dorian was a blank slate, he decided to perform an experiment and attempt to corrupt Dorian. At the same time, Basil had finished what turned out to be his masterpiece, a picture of Dorian Gray in his uncorrupted youthly beauty and character. Already Lord Henry was corrupting Dorian, and Dorian wished with all his heart to remain forever like his portrait, which Basil had given him.
Lord Henry persuaded Dorian that hedonism, the living of life solely for the satisfaction of oneself, seeking every new pleasure as the only way one retain the vivacity of life that one has as a youth. In his desire to keep his youth unspoiled, Dorian was Lord Henry’s willing pupil. Ironically, though, we discover that while Lord Henry preaches hedonism, he does not really live it. Dorian soon discovers that the painting has some connection to him: as he begins to live his life at the expense of others, the painting begins to change. He takes on a sneer, a learing look. Dorian quickly grows to hate the painting, and hides it in his now unused school-room where he was taught. He begins to grow suspicious of his servants, lest they discover the painting and uncover his secret.
Dorian is accosted into attending a Shakespeare play at a very unpromising theatre. As expected the acting is lousy, except for one girl, who Dorian proclaims is a superb actress. He falls in love with her, meets up with her several times, and goes to see all her performances. She, too, is madly in love with him, and they talk of marriage. Her mother and brother are dubious of this unknown rich suitor of hers, and her brother swears that he will take revenge on him if he hurts her. He then leaves to serve on a ship. Dorian brings the skeptical Lord Henry and Basil to a performance by his lover, in which she is performs just as wretchedly as the others. Dorian promptly dumps her. She commits suicide. Too late, Dorian realizes that he was being a bit unfair, but when he attempts to contact her, he learns that she is dead. Lord Henry uses the opportunity to suggest that Dorian experience all the facets of love, seeking many lovers and committing to none, to fully experience life.
Much of what we learn about the characters happens at dinner parties. We find that Dorian is highly sought after in high society, both for his charm and his good looks. As time passes, people comment how Dorian appears unchanged through the years. Black rumors begin to be spread, that Dorian corrupts young people, and some of his former friends now avoid his company. Yet, these remain unsubstantiated rumors. Lord Henry remains unchanged in his character: preaching witty hedonism yet never really living it out. Of Basil we hear little, save that he begins to have concerns about Dorian.
Just before Basil leaves for France to exhibit his paintings, he stops to see Dorian and to clear up the black rumors about him, or if the rumors are true, to dissuade Dorian from pursuing that path. Dorian refuses to be persuaded, and takes Basil to see his painting. Dorian is now a tyrannical-looking man in the painting, with his body bearing the effect that his hedonism would have had on his real body. Basil is naturally shocked. Then Dorian suddenly becomes ashamed that Basil knows his secret and murders him to prevent the secret from getting out.
Dorian has now accumulated a number of worries. He has a death to cover up, and the brother of his first lover returns and hunts him down. He finds Dorian in the opium part of town, but Dorian persuades him that he could not possibly be the man he is looking for, pointing to his unspoiled physical youthful perfection as proof that he is too young to be the man. The brother believes him, but quickly finds out from one of the opium parlour operators that, while his perfect youth belies an evil character, whereupon he attempts to find Dorian again and revenge himself. He is accidentally shot during a hunting party and dies.
Dorian eventually cannot take the hiding, and during one of his periodic viewings of the changing painting of his real self, he attempts to destroy the painting. Instead of destroying the painting, he breaks the connection that binds him to the painting, and the knife ends up in his heart instead. The painting reverts to its original form, and the body of Dorian Gray is changed into what it really was all along.
After experience the fast wit and intricate plot of “An Ideal Husband,” I was rather surprised by the pace of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Most of the book is conversations between the three main characters, with very little happening in the way of plot for about two-thirds of the book. What plot there is is largely introspective and uncompelling. With the novel being rather slow, abstract, and moralizing, I found The Picture of Dorian Gray disappointing. The bright point is the interaction between Dorian and the painting, but that is not enough to save the book. Fortunately, Oscar Wilde took the good parts of the book (namely the character Lord Henry and the interaction between him and Basil) and improved them in “An Ideal Husband.”
There is largely no plot, so the book feels like it is going nowhere for a large portion. Dorian changes as a character, but in a prescribed a predictable fashion. Lord Henry receives some of the fruits of his ideology, but neither he nor Basil change as characters.