The lasting appeal of "The Picture of Dorian Gray". Character design, main themes and film adaptations

Pre-University Paper, 2014

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0




The three main characters

Main themes

The relation between film and literature

Film adaptations




Oscar Wilde’s only published novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ has become a classic of English literature. The novel depicts the life of a young man named Dorian Gray who lives in Victorian London at the end of the 19th century and who is torn between cynical Lord Henry Wotton and moralist painter Basil Hallward. Basil paints a picture of the beautiful Dorian which ages - in accordance to the young man’s wish. Dorian - who pursues the hedonism promoted by Lord Henry - lives a life full of sins, thereby remaining young.

Wilde received a lot of criticism after the novel’s first publication in the Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890 because of its immoral and in part openly homosexual contents which is why he amended it before it was published again in 1891.1

In spite of these controversies - or maybe because of them - in the last 100 years this compelling story has undergone a number of adaptations and modifications.2 Based on this 19th century novel, theatrical productions, operas, ballet performances, books and most of all movies were produced. But what is it that makes this tale so fascinating that continuously attempts are made to adapt it, even in our times?

One reason is the depth of Wilde’s novel: it cannot be reduced to just one theme or one main aspect, but it consists of a variety of them instead. The story allows every director, photographer, choreographer or author to take it into a different direction and to accentuate a different aspect. Nevertheless, this creates not only an opportunity but also a risk. To leave out themes which appear in the book, to add new storylines, or to look at the plot from a different angle contains the danger of losing track of the literary source and of creating a play that does not have much in common with the original novel it is based upon.

It is the purpose of this paper sum up the elements which contribute to the novel’s lasting appeal which also reflects itself in a variety of adaptations. This is intended to be done through an examination of the relations among the novel’s main characters and its main themes.

The results thereof will be briefly compared to three film adaptations which are based on the novel: First Albert Lewin’s Academy-Award winning movie The Picture of Dorian Gray, released in 1945, starring Hurt Hatfield as Dorian Gray, second the film simply titled Dorian Gray from 1970 starring the Austrian actor Helmut Berger, and third the most recent adaptation with the same title which had been published in 2009. Each one of these three movies focuses on different aspects of the novel and adjusts it to the prevailing taste at the time of production, sometimes making just slight alterations and sometimes more significant ones.

The three main characters

Oscar Wilde claims himself that each one of the main male characters Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton, and Dorian Gray represents certain aspects of his own individual identity. Wilde says that "Dorian Gray contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am, Lord Henry, what the world thinks me, Dorian what I would like to be - in other ages perhaps."3 The conflict that emerges from the incompatible moral values which each one of these characters believes in "constitutes the central structure of meaning in the story",4 and is a major reason for the lasting appeal of the novel.

Basil and Henry are contrasting characters, but both exert a strong influence on the course of Dorian Gray's life. While many critics reduce the debate among them and Dorian's choice as one between conscience and temptation, or between good and evil, one can also sum this up as a struggle between ethics, represented by Basil, and aesthetics, represented by Henry. In his essay Character Design in 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' Liebman tries to get deeper into the characters' psyche. The author states herein that - in general - "Basil believes that the universe is a moral order in which God (or at least Fate) punishes evil and rewards good" whereas "Henry's beliefs are based upon the assumption that there is no moral order. [...] This moral position leads to [...] the pursuit of pleasure."5

Henry's favorite subjects are nature as well as human nature. In his statements regarding these topics he conceals that he is in fact a pessimist himself. Nature's "sheer brute force", as it is revealed (at least for him) in events such as in Sybil Vane's suicide, appalls him which is the reason why he compares it - in an aesthetic manner - to a "lack of style".6 Henry "can't stand brute force",7 so he denies suffering.8 Furthermore, Henry is deeply interested in human psyche, because "human life - that appeared to him the one thing worth investigating".9 Dorian's personality "gives him an opportunity to examine the human species in its natural habitat".10 Henry is willing to manipulate Dorian for the sake of his own pleasure which he finds in the analysis of human psyche. Liebman assesses that Henry "would sacrifice anybody for an experiment that might yield an aesthetic thrill or an iota of knowledge".11 This seeking for pleasure is part of his new hedonism which "is based on the assumption that the quest for pleasure is natural because it is an expression of the quest for life".12 What differentiates him from his protégé Dorian is that Henry does not contemplate measures to regain his youth, which becomes obvious in his statement "to get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable".13 Henry does not actively seek after Dorian's kind of physical pleasure either; Henry's aim is rather to vicariously and therefore safely"14 experience Dorian's hedonistic lifestyle. Henry remains unaware of the dreadful ramification his influence exerts on Dorian: After Dorian has been responsible for Sybil Vanes suicide, has killed Basil and has indulged in all kinds of immoral pleasure, Henry tells him that he is "a perfect type" and "quite flawless".15

Dorian describes Henry and Basil as a "delightful contrast",16 and indeed Basil represents "a moral position that is fundamentally different from Henry's".17 As mentioned above, Basil believes that human beings are rewarded for their good deeds and punished for their bad ones, which makes him, according to Liebman, a less complex character than the one of Henry. For Basil, "Dorian represents the ideal of the body, perfect beauty, as well as the idea of the soul, selflessness".18 Basil wants to protect his idolized version of Dorian from Henry's influence which is why he does not even want Henry to know Dorian's name after having him seen the portrait. Basil tries to give Dorian good advice and to convince him to lead a respectable life. Liebman claims that Basil manages to resist any emotional involvement with Dorian. This statement is doubtful, since Basil's emotional involvement already becomes obvious at the very beginning: When asked by Henry why he does not want to exhibit Dorian's portrait he replies, "I have put too much of himself into it".19 After having been shown the aged portrait, Basil also feels responsible for Dorian's sins; Basil himself stipulates that he "worshipped [Dorian] too much. [He is] punished for it".20 It is this emotional involvement with Dorian that gets him killed in the end.

Henry and Basil are both in fact flat characters, because they do not experience any changes in character in the course of the novel: They are neither confronted with the challenge of moral choice nor do they get the opportunity of moral growth. Their function in the novel is merely to "articulate mutually exclusive moral positions and, in doing so, to define the moral options available to Dorian".21

This is why Dorian Gray is not just another main character in the novel but the central protagonist of it. He is torn between Henry and Basil. So after getting to know Henry's view of life, Dorian lives his life more according to Henry's principles than to the ones of Basil.22 Dorian feels that Henry "disclosed to him life's mystery",23 which is the reason why he regards him as his mentor. Dorian shines in imitating Henry's views on several subjects. Liebman also states that Dorian has taken over Henry's opinion that life is best experienced from the point of view of a spectator.24 I do not agree with this statement, because in contrast to Henry, Dorian actually indulges in all kinds of (immoral) pleasures, which is made visible in the changes his portrait undergoes. Dorian only takes on the role of a spectator when he has no other solution in dealing with a situation, such as with Sybil Vane's suicide: After Henry has told Dorian about that, he first feels responsible for her death - "So I have murdered Sybil Vane".25 This attitude changes during his conversation with Henry, resulting in Dorian saying

"I don't like that explanation, Harry, [...] but I am glad you don't think I am heartless. I am nothing of the kind. I know I am not. And yet I must admit that this thing that has happened does not affect me as it should. It seems to me to be simply like a wonderful ending to a wonderful play. It has all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I have not been wounded."26

Now Dorian regards his relationship with Sybil as a theatrical spectacle in which he admittedly participated in, but he refuses to admit that he had been emotionally involved. So Dorian does take the point of view of a spectator at times, but not as consistently as Henry. It is also Henry who has given him a distinctive curiosity.27 Dorian tells him, "You filled me with a wild desire to know everything about life",28 which leads him to the theatre that Sybil Vane plays in. However, Dorian is not able to handle this newly acquired curiosity which is why it "becomes obsessive and even insatiable".29 Out of this curiosity Dorian develops a "passion for sensations" 30 which he pursues, just as the new hedonism demands it to which Henry introduced him to. In his essay Sexual Politics and the Aesthetics of Crime Simon Joyce calls Dorian "the poster boy for a ‘New Hedonism’. Dorian ranges freely between aesthetic pursuits [...] and criminal ones, [...] climaxing in murder".31 Even though Dorian has taken over several conducts proposed by Henry, he is not able to suppress his other - and possibly good - side of his character.32 Dorian is aware of Basil's positive influence on him, which could keep him from the hedonistic lifestyle he has adapted, and Dorian therefore is sure that "Basil could have saved him".33 Actually, towards the end of the novel, Dorian hopes for forgiveness for his sins since his soul is "sick do death",34 as he knows himself. This feeling of guilt increases; after his encounter with James Vane he comes to the conclusion that "life had suddenly become too hideous a burden for him to bear".35 By destroying his portrait which "embodies his moral sense", Dorian "decides to kill his conscience".36 For Liebman, the portrait represents Dorian's status as a child of both, of Henry and of Basil, and he is, "unlike either of his mentors, both, a hearty sinner and a reluctant penitent".37

Because Henry as well as Basil have their own view of Dorian which is very idealistic, it is easy for readers to adapt their perspective and to limit themselves, not considering other "equally valid interpretations ranging from very sympathetic to extremely harsh".38

Main themes

Besides the interesting combination of extraordinary characters, there are also other aspects which contribute to the fact that The Picture of Dorian Gray both provoked and attracted throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

A main theme of the novel is morality, or rather immorality. This is made obvious in the character's conversations, especially the ones involving Henry, which are also written in a more sophisticated language than the parts of the story which merely describe the course of action.39 For Wilde it is these conversations which are the core of the novel: even though the story contains five deaths, as the author himself is supposed to have said "I can't describe action: my people sit in chairs and chatter".40 This 'chattering' mostly deals with morality, or better Basil's and Henry's views regarding morality. Liebman goes as far as describing the book as "a running debate between [...] Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward".41 As I already mentioned when having characterized the protagonists, the first represents immorality whereas the latter stands for morality. These two moral options are offered to Dorian who falls for Henry's immoral ideas. But to interpret Dorian's death as the failure of the New Hedonism in the meaning of Simon Joyce would be too flat, because at the end of the novel not only Dorian is dead, but "[...] the stage is strewn with the bodies of the innocent - Sybil, Basil, Alan Campbell and James Vane - and populated by the degraded victims of Dorian's influence [...]".42 All in all, the narrative of the story does not take a particular point of view,43 and the novel "remains nonetheless dependent for its contemplation upon the imagination of the individual reader"44 who has the freedom to decide himself whether to take over the options offered in the novel nor not.

Although "Dorian Gray seems to have an overt heterosexual plot, and there is no explicit homosexuality in the story, [...] the atmosphere of the story is saturated with homoerotic feeling and style",45 despite of Wilde already having made significant changes in the 1891 edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray, since the original edition contained more explicit remarks of homoerotic relations among the male characters.46 The elements which contribute to this still homoerotic atmosphere are summarized by Joseph Caroll: First he mentions "images of luxuriant sensuality", which are not necessarily homosexual but are turned into that direction by a "fixation on male beauty".47 This leads to the next element contributing to homoerotism which is the "preoccupation with male beauty".48 Dorian's "extraordinary personal beauty"49 is described from the very beginning of the book. Henry expresses the opinion that Dorian "looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves" and therefore desires that he "should always be here in winter when we have no flowers to look at".50 Further, effeminate mannerism is present throughout the novel- mostly related to Henry. The original version from 1890 contains even more such descriptions than the de facto censored, amended one from 1891.51 These elements are accompanied with "remarks that are hostile to women, to marriage, and to marital fidelity"52 since as highly as male beauty is discussed, nothing positive is mentioned regarding women and female beauty.53 Henry's marriage resembles a business agreement and he does not believe in an everlasting bond between man and woman and concludes that women "spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever".54 One of these four elements alone does not evoke a homosexual atmosphere, but "in the combination Wilde produces, the effect is unmistakable [...]".55 The homoerotic tone in the story, which is, as Caroll states, crucial for Wilde's artistic intention,56 is strengthened by homosexually loaded actions among the characters, such as when Dorian is putting his hand on Henry's arm.57

The Picture of Dorian Gray is, on a lower level, also a story of ‘Gothic Horror’.58 Wilde combines the gothic horror with aesthetic elements, which gives this factor more depth.59 Riquelme defines this combination, which he labels 'Aesthetic Gothic', by saying that "Wilde simultaneously aestheticizes the Gothic and gothicizes the aesthetic".60 The Gothic writing tends to address fantastic themes combined with indulgence, whereas the aesthetic movement tries "to press beyond conventional boundaries and to recognize terror with beauty".61 In the course of the novel Dorian's sins "show the terror what lies beyond the boundaries of the aesthetic: decadence".62 So Dorian's sins do not take place in the area of aesthetics but are an obvious sign of sheer decadence instead. For Wilde as the author, the gothic provides a useful frame in which he develops the plot in, and several gothic elements put emphasis on Wilde's intention. The portrait which looks worse with every sin Dorian commits visualizes the double-effect sins may have on one's psyche as well as on one's physical appearance.

In contrast to this horror-element stands the wit in the dialogues, expressed mainly by Henry. This wit contributes significantly to the lasting appeal of the story. It does not only make the novel "a more pleasant reading experience"63 for some readers, who find enjoyment in the paradoxes and in the verbal battles. But Wilde also uses his witty expressions to verbalize some general ideas on life at large and on several other issues. "Henry sounds like a spokesman for Wilde"64 analyzes Liebman - something Wilde obviously intended to, since in his own essays Wilde often utters the same views as Henry does in the novel.65 Henry's (being Wilde's) wit is in parts very quotable: Several of Henry's epigrams have become well-known sayings.


1 Gillespie, Michael P.: "Preface"; in: Michael Patrick Gillespie (Ed.): Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray, New York 2007, W. W. Norton, pp. ix-xiii, p. xii.; hereafter cited as Preface.

2 Boogaerdt, Bob: The Many Lives of Dorian Gray: An Analysis of the Lasting Appeal of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ Through its Adaptations (= Bachelor Thesis English Language and Culture), Utrecht 2012, Faculty of Humanities of Utrecht University; retrieved on March 31st, 2014 from:, p. 3; hereafter cited as Boogaerdt.

3 Hart-Davis, Rupert (Ed.): Oscar Wilde: The Letters of Oscar Wilde, New York 1962, Harcourt - Brace and World, p. 352; hereafter cited as Hart-Davis.

4 Carroll, Joseph: "Aestheticism, Homoeroticism, and Christian Guilt in The Picture of Dorian Gray"; in: Philosophy and Literature 29 (2) 2005, pp. 286-304, p. 291; hereafter cited as Carroll.

5 Liebman, Sheldon W.: "Character Design in The Picture of Dorian Gray"; in:Michael Patrick Gillespie (Ed.): Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray, New York 2007, W. W. Norton, pp. 439-460, p.442; hereafter cited as Liebman.

6 Gillespie, Michael P. (Ed.): Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray, New York 2007, W. W. Norton, p.85; hereafter cited as The Picture of Dorian Gray.

7 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 57.

8 Ellmann, Richard: Oscar Wilde, London 1987, Hamish Hamilton., p. 289.

9 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 51.

10 Liebman, p. 444.

11 Ibid., p. 445.

12 Ibid., p. 445.

13 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 178.

14 Liebman, p. 447.

15 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 178.

16 Ibid., p. 18.

17 Liebman, p. 449.

18 Ibid., p. 449.

19 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 7.

20 Ibid., p. 91.

21 Liebman, p. 458.

22 Ibid., p. 452.

23 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 22.

24 Liebman, p. 453.

25 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 83.

26 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 84.

27 Liebman, p. 454.

28 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 44.

29 Liebman, p. 454.

30 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 44.

31 Joyce, Simon: "Sexual Politics and the Aesthetics of Crime”; in: Michael Patrick Gillespie (Ed.): Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray, New York 2007, W. W. Norton, pp. 409-429, p. 413; hereafter cited as Joyce.

32 Liebman, p. 455.

33 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 99.

34 Ibid., p. 154.

35 Ibid., p. 170.

36 Liebman, p. 456.

37 Ibid., p. 456.

38 Gillespie, Michael P.: "Picturing Dorian Gray: Resistant Readings in Wilde's Novel"; in: Michael Patrick Gillespie (Ed.): Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray, New York 2007, W. W. Norton, pp. 393-409, p. 403; hereafter cited as Gillespie.

39 Phlix, Barbara: Oscar Wildes ‘Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray’: Ein Vergleich des Buches mit der Literaturverfilmung von Albert Lewin, München 2012, Grin Verlag, p. 7; hereafter cited as Phlix.

40 Boogaerdt, p. 6.

41 Liebman, p. 440.

42 Ibid., p. 450.

43 Boogaerdt, p. 9.

44 Gillespie, p. 409.

45 Carroll, p. 295.

46 Preface, p. xii.

47 Carroll, p. 295.

48 Ibid., p. 295.

49 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 6.

50 Ibid., p. 7.

51 Carroll, p. 296.

52 Ibid., p. 295.

53 Boogaerdt, p. 10.

54 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 24.

55 Carroll, p. 295.

56 Ibid., p. 296.

57 The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 24.

58 Gothic horror is a genre of literature which combines elements of both horror and romance. These elements are disguised in romantic. Therefore the genre can be understood as an extension of Romantic literature; compare: Hogle, Jerold E. (Ed): The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, Cambridge 2002, Cambridge University Press.

59 Boogaerdt, p. 14.

60 Riquelme, John P.: "Oscar Wilde's Aesthetic Gothic: Walter Pater, Dark Enlightenment, and The Picture of Dorian Gray"; in: Michael Patrick Gillespie (Ed.): Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray, New York 2007, W. W. Norton, pp. 496-515, p. 497; hereafter cited as Riquelme.

61 Riquelme, p. 497.

62 Boogaerdt, p. 14.

63 Ibid., p. 16.

64 Liebman, p. 448.

65 Carroll, p. 298.

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The lasting appeal of "The Picture of Dorian Gray". Character design, main themes and film adaptations
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