The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: The Picture of Dorian Gray tells the story of a young, beautiful man who trades his soul for eternal youth, then descends further and further into a moral abyss — until he discovers there is, after all, a price to pay for his actions.

Read in: 4 minutes

Favorite quote from the author:

The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary

When the time came to prepare for my German A-Levels, I was so glad I chose English as my third major next to biology and chemistry. Unlike for the other two, where, indeed, major studying was required, my preparation for the English exam consisted of just three things: reviewing my notes, brushing up on my vocabulary, and watching the 2009 movie adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Published by Irish writer, playwright, and poet Oscar Wilde in 1891, this classic of English literature was initially denounced and criticized. The novel follows young Dorian Gray, a beautiful man who wishes to remain forever young. When his wish is granted, he finds himself torn between virtue and vice, at first not realizing that his choice will come at a price. The book deals with morals, sex, addiction, and other heavy topics — and that’s why it didn’t sit well with the literary society at the time.

Here are 3 lessons from the 3 acts of the novel to help you understand its core message and learn something new along the way:

  1. Pushing back repercussions works for a time, but never forever.
  2. It’s common to blame someone else for our worst failures. It’s also wrong.
  3. Acceptance helps even when a situation seems beyond helping.

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most beautiful of them all? Dorian Gray, apparently — let’s see what that’s all about!

If you want to save this summary for later, download the free PDF and read it whenever you want.

Download PDF

Lesson 1: You can run from the consequences of your actions, but you can’t hide from them forever.

The book opens with artist Basil Hallward finishing a portrait of a young and beautiful Dorian Gray. Also-present Lord Henry Wotton talks about hedonism, a worldview that suggests only beauty is worth pursuing — because it never lasts. In response, Gray says he’d “give his soul” if only his portrait would age instead of him. Surprisingly, his wish comes true.

As Wotton keeps whispering unethical ideas into Dorian’s ear, he continues to absolve himself every time his moral compass fails. Gray wants to marry actress Sibyl, but when she performs poorly in a play, he claims without her art, she is uninteresting to him. Sybil commits suicide, but with Lord Henry’s guidance, Dorian brushes it off as “an artistic act of love.” And when Gray notices his painting is slowly developing an ugly sneer, he simply hides it in his attic.

The John Wick franchise is about the idea that “consequences rule everything.” Every action former serial killer John commits is followed by a reaction, which forces him to kill even more people in his fight for his freedom.

Similarly, Dorian can run from the consequences of his actions, but he can’t hide from them forever — and neither can we. Sooner or later, the repercussions of our choices will catch up to us. Always think about the long-term effects of your decisions.

Lesson 2: Our initial response to failure is often to blame someone else — usually, we are wrong.

For the next 18 years, Dorian abandons all virtue and goes all in on beauty and vice, as Lord Henry suggested. He seduces countless women, attends lavish parties, and tries every drug under the sun, not aging a day through all of it. 

One night, Basil visits Dorian, asking if all the nasty rumors about his immoral behavior are true. In response, Dorian shows Basil the painting, which has become twisted beyond recognition. Instead of owning up to his mistakes, however, Dorian doubles down on absolving himself — first by blaming Basil, claiming it is all his fault, and then by stabbing him to death.

When we are confronted with our worst failures, our first reaction is often denial. We don’t want to believe we have become corrupt, lost sight of what truly matters, or let down someone we love. To protect itself, our psyche points at everyone and everything but us, even when, deep down, we now it’s our fault.

We’re all human. It’s normal to not take it well when you hit rock bottom. It is, however, important to eventually realize when responsibility ultimately falls on us — and then to dust ourselves off, take that responsibility, and move on.

Lesson 3: Acceptance can resolve everything, even when it comes too late to change anything.

After murdering Basil, fate lets Dorian off the hook two more times. First, he bumps into Sibyl’s brother James, who wants vengeance for his sister’s death. But the young-looking Dorian convinces him he can’t possibly be Sibyl’s ex-fiancé, for that must be an older man. Second, when James remains suspicious and stalks Dorian, he is accidentally shot while Dorian is out hunting with a group of others.

Still, having ruined so many lives, Dorian has finally had enough. He vows to change his life and be virtuous again. Lord Henry, for what it’s worth, does not believe him — and neither does the painting, which turns even uglier. In a fit of rage, Dorian stabs the painting like he stabbed Basil. The next morning, his servants find an old, horrific-looking man dead on the floor, which they can identify as Dorian Gray by his rings. The painting, meanwhile, is as young and beautiful as it was when Basil first painted it.

In essence, Dorian is a character that refuses to change all throughout the book. Only in the very end does he finally, fully accept his past. Unfortunately, his first step on his new path — destroying the painting — ends up being his last.

Of course, acceptance is most fruitful when there’s still time to change things. But even after you’ve lost your company or broken up with someone, it can still bring peace to you and those you might have hurt. Plus, most of the time, for us, there is a next chapter to be written, and only once we’ve fully closed the last one can we start writing a new story.

The Picture of Dorian Gray Review

Like Dorian’s picture, great stories never get old. The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of them. Update the language, change a few details, and you could have a modern bestseller or Hollywood blockbuster. The context around the book and Wilde’s life (it’s a rather autobiographical novel) is also worth exploring. Definitely a classic worth picking up!

Who would I recommend our The Picture of Dorian Gray summary summary to?

The 19-year-old English major who wants to expand her subject knowledge in a fun way, the 58-year-old CEO who knows he’s keeping his staff on too short of a leash, and anyone who enjoys books in the Gothic genre.

Rate this book!
This book has an average rating of 4 based on 10 votes.

Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!