Themes of The Picture of Dorian Gray


a tale of tragedy, greed, evil, and man's never-ending quest for immortality-

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is a dark and sadistic novel with several like themes running through the whole.  Though there are several themes, the main ones concern the evils of human nature.  Evil, the quest for immortality, and guilt are exemplified in Wilde’s classic, yet morbid tale

            The first, and most prevalent theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray is evil.  Dorian, though at first a kind and virtuous soul evolves into a vile and cruel man who shows no remorse for any of his sins.  And he has many.  After selling his soul, he commits several crimes and other acts of villainy.  He jilts his lover, Sybil Vane, because she loses her luster as an actress.  He steals jewelry and associates with both the crème de la crème of high society and the sleazy thieves and thugs of the streets.  The most evil of his sins is the murder of Basil Hallward, the artist who painted Dorian’s portrait and his greatest friend.

            Another ongoing theme and perhaps the most obvious is the constant quest for immortality.  Dorian Gray, upon seeing his portrait for the first time expressed a wish for his portrait to age instead of him. 

            “How sad it is!  I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful.  But this picture will always remain young.  If it were only the other way!  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!  Youth is the only thing worth having.  When I find that I am growing old, I shall kill myself.”

            This statement clearly portrays the greed of human nature.  Dorian would give his own soul to retain his youth and dashing appearance.  He makes that very clear.  His portrait, he felt, would mock him as he grew older.  He would reap all of the troubles of age while this beautiful representation of how he once was would hang on his wall and remind him of his lost youth.  The entire tale revolves around this lust, the search for the Juan Ponce de Leon’s proverbial Fountain of Youth.

            The third theme is a theme that grows throughout the novel: guilt.  After Dorian Gray sells his soul, or rather transfers his soul to the picture, he lives a life without remorse.  He cheats, steals, and even kills and feels no form of regret or guilt.  In fact, the case is quite the opposite.  He feels indifferent and even takes some delight in his crimes.  He reaps no consequences for his actions, either socially or morally.  However, after he discovers the dead sailor he recognizes as Sybil Vane’s brother, James, he blames himself for his death.  Dorian finally feels guilt for his actions.  He runs home and straight to his portrait.  Dorian then saw the portrait with new eyes.  He was horrified at what his soul had become.  Dorian grabbed the knife he had used to kill Basil and plunged it into the heart of the unrecognizable man in the portrait.  The guilt had overcome him so that he tried to destroy his conscience and in doing so, he killed himself.  Try as he might to suppress his feelings of remorse and deny his goodness, he failed and the result was death.

            Oscar Wilde was a brilliant author who recognized the darkness and selfishness of human nature.  He only wrote one novel but he wrote several essays and the good majority of these documents followed the same basic ideals.  There is an evil inside of everyone.  And the only thing that keeps humans in check, is the consequences humans expect to face.  If those consequences were removed, as they were for Dorian Gray, who knows what mankind could be capable of.  A fair query and one that Oscar Wilde attempted to explore through his only classic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.