The picture of Dorian Gray

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“The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a novel written by Oscar Wilde, first published in 1890. It is set in Victorian era London, England, and the story follows the life of Dorian Gray, a young man blessed with extraordinary beauty.

When his friend, Basil Hallward, paints a portrait of him, Dorian becomes obsessed with Lord Henry’s new hedonistic and amoral beliefs. Dorian wishes that the portrait would age instead of him, while he remains young and beautiful forever, not knowing that his wish would come true and unleash a series of tragic events that would spiral him into guilt, paranoia, suffering and despair.

The author

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900), born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, was an Irish dramatist, poet, and novelist. Although he became widely known for his plays that usually displayed a mix of clever dialogue, witty banter, social satire, subversive social commentary and a unique combination of comedy and drama, he is now remembered for his only novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”.

While in London, he became a part of Aestheticism, an artistic movement that believed that art exists and should exist for the sake of its own beauty, not to serve a social, political or didactic purpose; “art of art’s sake” was the movement’s slogan.

Wilde’s beliefs and belonging to this movement were reflected in his writing, showing realistic and flawed characters, while also offering a criticism to society and the social norms of the time.

Background information

The novel is set in London, England, during the Victorian era, a time characterised by tight class structures, strong moral demands, and societal norms; good behaviour and a spotless public image were extremely important, as well as moral rectitude, the pursuit of virtue and a sense of decorum.

During this time, London was a city full of social contrasts. Whereas the upper classes, the wealthy aristocrats, were representatives of purity and the moral values of society, living in their affluent areas, the lower classes resided in overcrowded and underdeveloped areas, where poverty, crime and immorality were common.

The value that beauty and appearances had in Victorian society was one of the main focuses of Wilde, showing the idealisation of Dorian’s flawless and pure beauty while, at the same time, he was spiralling into a life of pleasure, indulgence and sin. Despite his lifestyle, Dorian was never rejected by his peers, just because of the “innocence and purity of his face” and, although his beauty remained untouched, the painting slowly started to reflect the consequences of his actions.

Genre of the book

“The picture of Dorian Gray” is mostly classified as Gothic fiction, despite the fact that it has characteristics of other genres, such as social satire and psychological fiction. Gothic literature tends to use terror (that comes from suspense) and horror (evoking disgust) to its service. In the novel, the terror comes from witnessing Dorian’s downfall and corruption, whereas horror comes from the action that he performs and the progressive deterioration of the painting.

In Gothic literature, justice and injustice play a key role. The atonement for sins and guilt tend to be major themes. Justice, though frequently harsh, predominates, and individuals are aware that they will eventually pay for their transgressions. In Dorian’s case, he is constantly stricken with guilt over his actions and desperately tries to find ways to escape that guilt, such as with opium, or his untimely demise when he attempts to destroy the painting to end his suffering once and for all.

The characters

Dorian Gray, the story’s main character, is a young, charming and incredibly gorgeous man who appears innocent. Dorian’s life gets progressively darker the more he lets himself be guided by his unending pursue of pleasure.

Lord Henry Wotton, often referred to as Harry, is a smart and powerful nobleman and Dorian’s close friend. His magnetic personality influenced Dorian to pursue a hedonistic lifestyle without worrying about the morality of his actions.

The artist, Basil Halward, a close friend of Dorian, is enthralled by his young beauty and falls in love with him, which motivates him to paint the image that perfectly encapsulates Dorian.

Dorian falls in love with Sibyl Vane, a young, beautiful, and talented actress. She is cruelly rejected when her acting performance deteriorates.

Linguistic information

Level 1

This adapted version of the book mainly uses present simple tense and some instances of present continuous to narrate the storyline, while using easy to understand vocabulary and making it appropriate for A1-level students.

Level 2

This Level is adapted for A2 learners. Similar to Level 1, most of the story is told in present simple. However, vocabulary is more complex as well as some sentences.

Level 3

This level is adapted for B1/B2 learners. The vocabulary is more specific and complex than previous adapted versions and includes the use of passive voice, as well as being longer and including further plot details.


Level 1

  • Guilt: A feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have because you have done something wrong.
  • Hallucinations: An experience in which you see, hear, feel, or smell something that does not exist.
  • Paranoid: Feeling extremely nervous and worried because you believe that other people do not like you or are trying to harm you.
  • Portrait: A painting, photograph, drawing, etc. of a person or a group of people.
  • To be haunted: Showing signs of suffering or severe anxiety.
  • To torture: Causing physical or mental pain to persuade someone to do something. To be cruel to a person or animal.
  • Vice: A moral fault or weakness in someone’s character.

Level 2

  • Den: A place where people secretly plan or take part in dishonest or illegal activities.
  • Embittered: Very angry about unfair things that have happened to you.
  • Macabre: Used to describe something that is very strange and unpleasant because it is connected with death or violence.
  • To blackmail: The act of getting money from people or forcing them to do something by threatening to tell a secret of theirs or to harm them.
  • To indulge: To allow yourself or another person to have something enjoyable, especially more than is good for you.
  • To intervene: To intentionally become involved in a difficult situation in order to improve it or to prevent it from getting worse.
  • To mock: To laugh at someone, often by copying them in a funny but unkind way.

Level 3

  • Damnation: The act of sending someone to hell or the state of being in hell.
  • Hedonistic: Living and behaving in ways that mean you have as much pleasure as possible, according to the belief that the most important thing in life is to enjoy yourself.
  • Reckless: Doing something dangerous and not worrying about the risks and possible results.
  • Redemption: An occasion when someone is saved from evil, suffering, etc.
  • Repentance: The fact of showing that you are very sorry for something bad you have done in the past and wish that you had not done it.
  • Scheme: An organised plan for doing something, especially something dishonest or illegal that will bring a good result for you.
  • To despair: The feeling that there is no hope and that you can do nothing to improve a difficult or worrying situation.
  • Twisted: Strange and slightly unpleasant or cruel.
  • Wit: The ability to use words in a clever and humorous way.