Symbolism in The Picture of Dorian Gray Essay

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  7
Wordcount:  1921 Words
Date:  2022-03-09


In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde uses various literary elements to advance the plot as well as themes in the novel. Some of them include symbolism and imagery. This thesis focuses on the use of symbolism in the novel and how it has enabled Oscar Wilde to bring out his arguments in the novel about art, love, morality, and beauty.

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Plot Summary

In the novel Basil Hallward, an artist meets Dorian Gray, a handsome young man who captures his artistic imagination and decides to make several paintings of him. In the painting, Basil depicts Dorian as a mythical figure. Lord Henry, Basil's friend, finds pleasure in celebrating beauty and youth and claims the portrait is Basil's stunning success. Lord Henry makes a discourse about the passing nature of youth and beauty when Dorian visits Basil's studio. This sentiment worries Dorian, making to him curse his portrait as it would act as a reminder of his beauty when he grows old. Lord Henry shows a desire for owning Dorian's portrait, but Basil maintains it belongs to Dorian.

In the following weeks, Dorian develops an interest in Lord Henry's lifestyle dedicating his youth in pursuit of pleasure. He meets Sibyl Vane, an actress performing in London slums theatre and falls in love with her. Sibyl refuses to heed to the advice from her brother, James Vane, regarding Dorian behaviors. Sibyl quits acting after finding real love; however, Dorian loved Sibyl for her acting, and as such, he breaks up with her.

After the breakup, Dorian realizes his face on the portrait now sneers, and he fears that his ill behavior might have been reflected in the painting. As a result, he decides to make amends with Sibyl the following day, only to hear that she had committed suicide. Dorian considers her death as an artistic triumph after Lord Henry urging him. Dorian also decides to hide his portrait so that no one would watch its transformation.

Dorian sinks deeper in sinful and corruptible life after Lord Henry gives him a book of a nineteenth-century Frenchman, full of wicked exploits. Dorian devotes his life to finding new experiences without considering the consequences of his actions nor conventional moral standards.

Although Dorian's reputation suffered among the polite London society after eighteen years, his peers continue to tolerate his behaviors as he is still young and handsome. When Basil confronts Dorian on his ruined reputation, the two argue and Dorian kills Basil. Dorian blackmails Abel Campbell to help him in disposing of the body.

Dorian goes to an opium den the night after the murder. There he meets James Vane who tried to avenge his sister's death, but Dorian escapes and seeks refuge in his country state. Dorian notices James Vane peeping through a window while entertaining guests, and he is overwhelmed with guilt and fear. However, he feels safe again when a hunting party kills James. Although Dorian resorts to amend his life, he does not dare to confess his crimes. Confused and in a fury, he attempts to destroy the painting using the knife he used to stab Basil but instead kills himself.


There are very many literal elements that can be extracted from the novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray." From the overview above, some evident symbols include the portrait of Dorian Gray, the opium dens, the yellow book, James Vane, among others. The following paragraphs give some analysis on some of the symbols in the novel.

The Portrait of Dorian Gray

"The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my soul" (Wilde, 1891, p.2). This is the central symbol throughout the novel, suitable for closer analysis. The portrait is a reflection of Dorian Gray or put, Dorian Gray is the reflection of the portrait.

Before knowing Lord Henry, Dorian was an innocent, beautiful, young man "rich in the odor of roses." However, as Lord Henry's influence grew, he changed. Just after a single encounter with Lord Henry, Dorian begins to worry about the demise of his beauty and youth. Imaginations about the onset of his old age concern him too much to beg for his beauty to remain eternally while subjecting his portrait to the burden of age. The picture becomes a reflection of Dorian's soul while outward looks remain unaltered after being granted his wish.

The first reflection of Dorian's soul on the painting is seen after he callously rejected Sibyl Vane. Second, instead of being concerned by the worsening of his likeness on the portrait, Dorian finds delight in seeing the portrait deteriorate every time he commits a crime. The assurance of maintaining outward appearance encourages him to pursue every crime that crosses his mind. Dorian hides the "most magical of mirrors" (Wilde, 1891, p.78) in a remote corner in his house where he cannot be reminded of his wicked nature, and as such, his life is consumed with sin and corruption.

The Opium Dens

The opium dens represent the wretched state of Dorian's mind. Dorian flees after killing Basil to escape the guilt and awfulness of the act. There he loses the consciousness in a stupor induced by a drug. Dorian decides to travel to the dark, filthy dens although he has opium at home (a neat place). This is a representation of how his soul had darkened and degraded. Besides, the use of opium signifies Dorian's desperate attempts to hide the reality from himself.

The Yellow Book

Wilde introduces the yellow book in chapter 10, a gift sent to Dorian from Lord Henry. The book is believed to be Joris-Karl Huysmans' A Rebours (which can be interpreted as "Against Nature"). Wilde uses this novel to give Dorian the transformation influenced by Lord Henry. Dorian buys nine copies of the book, reads and rereads in becoming his life philosophy. The book, which becomes his bible, is used to represent closely related meanings.

Wilde uses the book to reveal the source of Lord Henry's perception of young and beautiful. It describes his influence over Dorian. The book gives a reflection of French culture, with yellow bound books being considered immoral and decadent at worst and sensational at best. The book promoted philosophical and sexual deviance.

It is from the yellow book Dorian carries on Henry's beliefs of pleasure-seeking: curing "the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul" following Parisian who sought "all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own" (Wilde, 1891, p.91) in the nineteenth century. Although Dorian considered the book "poisonous" (Wilde, 1891, p.92) the book became a reflection of his own like "written before he had lived it" (Wilde, 1891, p.93), modeling his life around that of the protagonist in the novel. Wilde uses the book as a chilling warning on the damaging consequences of following whatever other people do or say, without questioning.


Although the portrait carries much significance in the novel, Wilde uses flowers throughout the book. In the starting lines, "the rich odor of roses" is mentioned. As it turns out, Dorian is the rich odor of flowers in the second chapter, which is awakened by Lord Henry. Lord Henry arouses the power and brevity of beauty in Dorian, which blossoms before withering at the end of the story. Another instance where flowers are used is when Dorian purchased orchids when he blackmailed Alan Campbell into disposing of the corpse of Basil for him. Here the orchids are used as the sign of loss of life, not like roses.


Much like other novels, films and plays, theatre in this novel is used to represent escapism. Lord Henry is the chief advocate for people to engage in indulgence. Dorian heeds to his call and uses theatre as a type of art to escape from reality or any ethical concerns of his actions. Besides, it is from the theatre that Dorian meets Sibyl Vane.

Art plays a part in Dorian falling in love with Sibyl, and when she quits acting for Dorian, they break up. While Dorian uses the art for indulgence, Sibyl excels in performances. Therefore, theatre is portrayed as a piece of clay in the hands of the molder, who mold it into whatever he or she wants. Also, Wilde uses theatre to symbolize the personal dramas of all the main characters in the novel.

James Vane

Although he is one of the minor characters from the novel, Wilde uses James Vane to portray a thoughtful, innocent soul yet a vengeful relative. Besides, he is portrayed as an embodiment of Dorian's tortured conscience. James is observant and notices the pleasure-seeking lifestyle of Dorian and warns his sister against getting into an intimate relationship with him. When Sibyl ignores his advice and ends up in a relationship with Dorian, they break up after a few weeks due to conflicting interests, an ordeal which resulted in her suicide.

When James appears at the dock and later at the country state of Dorian, Wilde brings out his ghostly quality. He seeks vengeance for his sister's death. Wilde uses James Vane to represent how people are left with bitterness once they lose their loved ones. Also, through James, Dorian realizes the magnitude of the crimes he has committed and wishes to confess and repent. James is used to bringing closure to the story.

Lord Henry

In Chapter 2, Lord Henry Wotton says, "There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral-immoral from the scientific point of view" (Wilde, 1891, p.19). Lord Henry is used as a tool of enticement right from the time he met Dorian. He transferred his Parisian pleasure-seeking lifestyle to Dorian even before he sent him the yellow book. The yellow book only confirmed the source of such a lifestyle, acting as an orbit upon which Dorian revolved. Wilde uses Lord Henry to represent those people in the society who are a bad influence on others and introduce damaging effects to the lives they interact with. Although Wilde does not provide the end of Lord Henry, his influences lead to the destruction of Dorian's life, who followed him and his philosophies blindly.


Wilde, O. (1993). The picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Dover Publications. DOI: 10.7771/1481-4374.1469

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