The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Art and the Imitation of Life Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Mortality of Beauty and Youth Theme Icon
Surfaces, Objects and Appearances Theme Icon
Art and the Imitation of Life Theme Icon
Influence Theme Icon
Women and Men Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Art and the Imitation of Life Theme Icon

The novel opens with a theory of the purpose of art, which Wilde reasons out until he reaches that “all art is quite useless”. Whether or not this is some kind of warning from the narrator, we as readers don’t know, but what follows certainly seems to illustrate his point. It presents art in many forms and the danger of it when it is taken too literally or believed too deeply. It starts with a painting, which alters the perspectives that look on it and seems to alter itself. Once Basil has attributed to the painting the power of capturing the spirit of Dorian Gray, and once Dorian has attributed to it the power to host and represent his own soul, the painting has a dangerous life of its own. Dorian’s romance with the actress Sybil Vane is composed of the romantic characters she played and the drama of each nightly performance. To see the girl die on stage and then find her backstage alive and beautiful is a supernatural kind of existence that cannot last. The danger of seeing life only through the lens of art is that one must stay at a distance or risk ruining the illusion, just like a mirage. This is Dorian’s trouble, and Basil’s trouble, and through these examples we learn that the closer one comes to art, the closer one comes to some kind of death or destruction.

The set up of Dorian’s world in society and in his own home is full of pictures, stills and images through which we see life frozen or removed. Whether portraits, tapestries, or scenes, these images build up and up in the novel until Dorian’s climactic act of stabbing his own painting. It is the ever-present pressure of art—of being a piece of living art himself, and of seeing real life mirrored in the portrait—that destroys Dorian. In addition, as we read the novel, we are aware of the power of the narrator to embody the characters omnisciently, and to implant repetitions of their particular vocabulary, imitating the influence that Lord Henry’s memorable phrases have on Dorian’s mind. As a piece of art itself, the novel invites us to question its form and purpose, as the argument of the preface suggests.

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Art and the Imitation of Life Quotes in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Below you will find the important quotes in The Picture of Dorian Gray related to the theme of Art and the Imitation of Life.
The Preface Quotes

To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.

Related Symbols: The Picture
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

The preface takes the form of a short introduction in which the omniscient narrator reveals the main themes of the novel. The nature and purpose of art is one of the novel's main themes, and here the narrator argues that art should "conceal the artist." This is a key principle of the Aesthetic movement, and suggests that the role of art is not to play a social role in a historical moment, but to simply be appreciated for its own sake. Such a view leads to the glorification of art as something beyond and superior to human society. It also suggests that it is wrong for people themselves become too deeply implicated in their artistic creations, as Basil does when he creates the perfect portrait of Dorian because of his own emotions and attachments. 

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All art is quite useless

Related Symbols: The Picture
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

The notion that art is "useless" is another major proposition of the Aesthetic movement. Uselessness does not mean that art shouldn't exist or have a role in society, but rather that it should not have a function beyond being seen and enjoyed. Its value is merely aesthetic. Of course, the painting of Dorian in the novel does come to have a use––Dorian uses it to avoid his own mortality. Therefore, when read in the broader context of the novel, this quote can be seen as a warning about what happens when we demand that art take on a function beyond its aesthetic role. 

Chapter 1 Quotes

“He is all my art to me now.”

Related Characters: Basil Hallward (speaker), Dorian Gray
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Basil has been telling Lord Henry about Dorian, describing Dorian's extraordinary beauty and explaining the transformative impact of his presence on Basil's work. He likens Dorian's arrival to the dawn of a new artistic movement or era, and says that Dorian is all Basil's art now. This highly dramatic, romantic language is typical of the novel, and it helps create the impression of Dorian as a larger-than-life figure, building suspense in the lead up to his entrance in the next chapter. Basil's exaggerated reverence for his muse also hints at Dorian's sexual power, and is an example of the many homoerotic dynamics within the narrative.

“An artist should create beautiful things but should put nothing of his own life into them”

Related Characters: Basil Hallward (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Picture
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Basil has explained to Lord Henry that he does not want to exhibit his painting of Dorian because there is too much of himself in it. Lord Henry responds that poets often put themselves into their work, for example when they suffer heartbreak and use the experience as inspiration for their poetry. Basil rejects this, adamantly maintaining the view that an artist should not put "his own life" into his work. This directly echoes the statement in the preface that "to reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim." Again, this principle is a central tenet of Aestheticism, a movement to which both Basil and Oscar Wilde himself subscribed. 

Chapter 2 Quotes

“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul”

Related Characters: Lord Henry Wotton (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Basil has now introduced Lord Henry to Dorian, who finds him extraordinary. They converse for a while, and later Lord Henry catches Dorian in the garden with his head buried in lilac blossoms, drinking in the scent as if it were wine. Lord Henry murmurs approvingly that sensual experience is the only cure for the soul. This moment can be seen as an example of Dorian's innocence before he becomes fixated with his own beauty and mortality; his soul is vibrant and healthy and he is sensually connected with the natural world around him. It is also a clear example of Lord Henry's almost teacherly relationship to Dorian, a relationship infused with flirtation. 

At the same time, Lord Henry's statement ominously prefigures the coming events in the novel. In contrast to Dorian's present innocent delight in the flowers, he will soon become insatiably hungry for carnal, sinful pleasures. In connecting the "cure" of the soul with the senses, Lord Henry foreshadows the fact that Dorian's soul will eventually be destroyed by submergence in vice. 

“If it were only the other way! If it were I who was always young, and the picture that was to grow old!”

Related Characters: Dorian Gray (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Picture
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Having been warned by Lord Henry that his youthful looks will fade, and having seen the supernaturally beautiful portrait that Basil has now finished, Dorian becomes overwhelmed by the wish to stay young forever. This is a climactic moment in the narrative in which Dorian drastically alters his own fate. His sudden desperation and subsequent harsh words to Basil do not fit the innocent, charming image of Dorian we have seen so far; Wilde uses this dramatic transformation to show that the threat of mortality can have an extreme effect on people. 

This passage also highlights the exaggerated role of art in the world of the novel. Dorian is so astonished by the portrait of himself that he becomes jealous of it and the fact that it will remain the same while he himself ages and grows less attractive. While this might seem like a strange reaction, it demonstrates the importance of art, surfaces, and appearance to Dorian and the other characters. As the novel will show, this is a dangerous view, as investing too much in appearances leads to the corruption of one's personality. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

“I have seen her in every age and every costume. Ordinary women never appeal to one’s imagination. They are limited to their century.”

Related Characters: Dorian Gray (speaker), Sybil Vane
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Dorian describes seeing Sybil Vane play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet to Lord Henry, confessing that he has fallen in love with her. Dorian uses the dramatically romantic rhetoric typical of the novel, explaining that in contrast to "ordinary" women, Sybil is appealing because her profession as an actress makes her transcend time and reality. This emphasizes Dorian's obsession with escaping time, and reinforces the sexist dismissal of women in the novel. Leading up to this passage, Lord Henry has claimed that there is no such thing as a female genius, and that there are only five women in London worth talking to; Dorian's words here confirm the impression that the world of the novel is homoerotic male one, and that––even in light of Dorian's newfound love for Sybil––the (male) characters see relationships between men as superior to relationships with women. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

Mrs. Vane fixed her eyes on him, and intensified the smile. She mentally elevated her son to the dignity of an audience. She felt sure that the tableau was interesting.

Related Characters: Mrs. Vane (speaker), James ‘Jim’ Vane
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:
Sybil Vane has been excitedly telling her mother about Dorian, emphasizing his extraordinary beauty and wealth, when her brother arrives. Jim Vane is the opposite of Dorian, and a huge contrast to his talented, ethereal sister. When he enters the room, Mrs. Vane envisions the moment as a "tableau" and positions Jim as the audience. This passage once again highlights the centrality of art in the play, showing that artistic performance is so important to the Vane family that Mrs. Vane imagines real life as a piece of theatre. Of course, this also lends a sense of inauthenticity to the behavior of Mrs. Vane and the other characters; by seeing all her actions as a performance, Mrs. Vane reveals her preoccupation with being watched by others, adding to the theme of obsession with appearance. 
Chapter 7 Quotes

“The painted scenes were my world. I knew nothing but shadows and thought them real.”

Related Characters: Sybil Vane (speaker)
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

The play has finished and Dorian has gone to see Sybil backstage, bewildered and disappointed by her terrible performance. Although Sybil is also aware that she performed badly, she is not upset by this fact but is actually overjoyed, as she sees it as a sign that she no longer needs to escape her sad reality through acting. She explains to Dorian that prior to meeting him, the theatre was her "world." This statement once again collapses the distinction between art and reality, confirming the impression that the best artists locate their life's meaning in their work. Dorian idealizes this, but Sybil's words suggest that creating great art requires the artist to suffer, a bargain that emphasizes the thematic connection between beauty and torment.

Sybil's statement "I knew nothing but shadows and thought them real" is directly reminiscent of the philosopher Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave. In the allegory, a group of people spend their entire lives chained inside a cave, watching shadows projected on the cave wall and believing that these shadows are "real." When one prisoner escapes into the wider world, he is suspicious of what he sees, though eventually comes to understand that this is true reality. 

Plato was distrustful of appearances, arguing that reason was the only way to gain true knowledge. He believed that music and painting could have a corrupting effect on people. Sybil's mention of shadows here thus refers to the idea that, although it is tempting to be seduced by the world of appearances and representation, this can have dangerous consequences.

“So I have murdered Sybil Vane,” said Dorian Gray, half to himself, “murdered her as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife. Yet the roses are not less lovely for that.”

Related Characters: Dorian Gray (speaker), Sybil Vane
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Dorian has written a long letter to Sybil in an attempt to atone for his cruelty; however, Lord Henry then arrives and tells him that Sybil has committed suicide. Dorian is shocked and feels responsible, yet at the same time notices that the roses looks just as lovely as they always do. This passage shows Dorian's growing corruption, especially in contrast to the portrayal of Sybil's childlike innocence ("cut her little throat"). Although Dorian is highly disturbed by what has happened, he can't hep but observe that on the surface, things still seem as "lovely" as if nothing has happened. This directly corresponds to the fact that Dorian himself looks as pure and charming as ever; it is only the painting that is beginning to show his increasing moral corruption.

“The girl never really lived and so she never really died.”

Related Characters: Lord Henry Wotton (speaker), Sybil Vane
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:
Dorian is horrified by Sybil's death, and Lord Henry attempts to soothe him by arguing that––because Sybil lived through her acting––she did not live as normal people do and thus hasn't "really" died. On one level, this reveals Lord Henry's reverence for art and artists, confirming his belief that art transcends life. However, it could also be interpreted as rather callous. Lord Henry does not seem particularly moved by Sybil's death, thereby increasing the impression that he is careless and immoral. Furthermore, his disdain for the theatre and for women in general means that the statement "she never really lived" could also be interpreted as an elitist, sexist judgment that Sybil's life was unimportant and meaningless. 
Chapter 9 Quotes

“One day, a fatal day I sometimes think, I determined to paint a wonderful portrait of you as you actually are, not in the costume of dead ages, but in your own dress and in your on time.”

Related Characters: Basil Hallward (speaker), Dorian Gray
Related Symbols: The Picture
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:
Dorian has confused Basil by vehemently refusing to let him see the portrait; to distract Basil from this suspicious behavior, Dorian has asked why he plans to show the painting now after always refusing to do so before, offering that they "share" their secrets. Basil admits that at first he tried painting Dorian in various historical settings (for example, as a character from Greek mythology), but that on a "fatal" day he decided to simply paint Dorian as he was in his present-day context. This dramatic language is typical of the novel, especially when the characters discuss art––yet in this instance Basil is right to use the word "fatal," as the portrait has indirectly already caused one death (Sybil's) and will come to cause others. 
Chapter 10 Quotes

It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and trouble the brain.

Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

Dorian, increasingly disturbed by the painting and suspicious that his valet, Victor, is plotting against him, has tried to distract himself by looking at some reading materials Lord Henry sent him. After growing angry that Lord Henry included newspaper articles about Sybil's death, he turns his attention to a novel Lord Henry also sent about a young Parisian man who indulges in both virtue and sin (the novel is perhaps a references to Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans). This is one of the clearest examples of Lord Henry's deliberate corrupting influence over Dorian. The word "poisonous" appears frequently in the novel, signifying the themes of corruption and vice. This passage also emphasizes the supernatural power of art in the narrative, conveyed by the way in which the book's smell mystically "trouble(s) the brain." 

Chapter 11 Quotes

And, certainly, to him Life itself was the first, the greatest, of the arts, and for it all the other arts seemed to be but a preparation.

Related Characters: Dorian Gray
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrative has jumped forward in time, describing years of Dorian Gray's life spent imitating the adventures of the Parisian man depicted in the novel Lord Henry gave him. Although he hosts concerts and indulges his "exquisite" taste in decorative arts, Dorian considers life itself the principal form of art. This is another reference to the novel's preface, in which it's basically argued that art should be separate from and beyond life itself. It is when Dorian starts to view life as something purely aesthetic, a surface to be entertained or stimulated by, that things become truly dangerous for both himself and those around him.

Chapter 14 Quotes

What was that loathsome red dew that gleamed, wet and glistening, on one of the hands, as though the canvas had sweated blood?

Related Characters: Dorian Gray
Related Symbols: White and Red, The Picture
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

Having stabbed Basil to death in the room where the portrait sits, Dorian begs his former friend Alan Campbell to assist him with disposing of Basil's body. As Dorian opens the door, he is less horrified by the sight of Basil's corpse than by the change the portrait has undergone as a result of the murder: the image of Dorian now has lifelike blood on its hands. Once again, blood is closely linked to the symbol of redness, a visual manifestation of Dorian's sins. The description of the blood in this passage is significant for its grotesque vividness. The narrator's statement that the canvas "sweated blood" implies that the painting has literally become alive; if this is true, it suggests that Dorian might not be fully alive himself. 

Chapter 15 Quotes

“She is very clever, too clever for a woman. She lacks the indefinable charm of weakness. It is the feet of clay that make the gold of the image precious.”

Related Characters: Lord Henry Wotton (speaker), The Duchess of Monmouth
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Dorian and Lord Henry have spent an evening with the Duchess of Monmouth, a smart, beautiful woman who adores Dorian. The next day, Lord Henry tells Dorian that her husband is incredibly boring, and remarks that the Duchess herself is "too clever for a woman." This passage highlights the disdainful view Lord Henry has of women (even the few women he likes). None of the various female characters play a significant role in the novel, and the narrative itself thus reflects Lord Henry's view that most women are unappealing and uninteresting. Furthermore, Lord Henry's comment that the Duchess is "too clever" and that she does not have the "charm of weakness" shows that he believes it is desirable for women to seem vulnerable and inferior. 

At the same time, it is possible to interpret his comment as applying not just to women but to people in general; if so, this has negative implications for Dorian. After all, Henry argues that it is charming for women to have "feet of clay," before saying that the Duchess's feet are more like porcelain, hardened by her experiences. Clay is often symbolically connected to human flesh, a solid foundation even for an attractive surface like gold, whereas the image of hardened, white porcelain brings to mind Dorian's pure exterior, beneath which lies the sinful experiences that have hardened his soul. 

Chapter 16 Quotes

The coarse brawl, the loathsome den, the crude violence of disordered life, the very vileness of thief and outcast, were more vivid, in their intense actuality of impression, than all the gracious shapes of Art, the dreamy shadows of Song.

Related Characters: Dorian Gray
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

Overwhelmed by an intense craving for opium, Dorian has taken a cab to a seedy, violent part of London to visit an opium den. On the journey over he reflects on his desire for this rough and vulgar underside of the city, musing that this yearning has replaced his interest in beauty and art. Indeed, he considers the "disordered life" found in this part of London to be more "vivid" and intense" than any art form. Dorian's loss of interest in art shows how different he is from the character introduced at the beginning of the novel; at the same time, his current state seems to be the logical conclusion of following Lord Henry's advice to indulge in aesthetic and sensual experiences, paying no mind to morality. 

Chapter 18 Quotes

If the tapestry did but tremble in the wind, he shook. The dead leaves that were blown against the leaded panes seemed to him like his own wasted resolutions and wild regrets.

Related Characters: Dorian Gray
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Dorian managed to escape being killed by James Vane, it's clear that he is becoming increasingly paranoid and tormented, to the point that he can no longer enjoy life or his lingering youth and beauty. He interprets everything around him as conspiring against him, imagining that the dead leaves blowing against the wind are like his "wasted resolutions and wild regrets." In a reversal of the thematic obsession with surfaces and appearances, the entire world now seems to reflect the tortured landscape of Dorian's soul. Significantly, two spheres that Dorian used to treasure––art, symbolized by the tapestry, and nature, symbolized by the leaves––seem to have turned against him, taunting him for the corrupt choices he has made. 

“You would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram.”

Related Characters: Dorian Gray (speaker), Lord Henry Wotton
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

Dorian is growing more panic-stricken by the minute, and has been especially shaken by Sir Geoffrey's accidentally killing of a man while shooting hares. Lord Henry has tried to reassure Dorian, advising him that they should avoid a scandal, but for the first time Dorian seems resistant to and critical of Lord Henry, saying Henry would "sacrifice anybody" for an epigram (a witty saying). Throughout this part of the novel, Dorian seems to be developing a moral conscience, acting less and less like a careless hedonist with no regard for other people. Here for the first time he seems to become aware of Lord Henry's corrupting influence, and the fact that––given that Lord Henry prefers wit and art to ethics––he might not actually be a particularly good man or friend. 

Chapter 19 Quotes

“It is not in you Dorian to commit a murder. I am sorry if I hurt your vanity by saying so, but I assure you it is true. Crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders. I don’t blame them in the smallest degree. I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations.”

Related Characters: Lord Henry Wotton (speaker), Dorian Gray
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

Dorian and Lord Henry have been discussing Basil's disappearance, which is now being investigated by the police, as well as other matters such as Alan Campbell's suicide and the fact that Lord Henry's wife left him for a pianist. Dorian, increasingly frantic, asks Lord Henry if it's occurred to him that Basil was murdered, and then he even asks what Henry would say if Dorian confessed to having murdered Basil. Lord Henry's response is typically blasé––he accuses Dorian of playing a part that doesn't suit him, adding that Dorian is not capable of murdering anyone, and that crime is something only the lower classes do.

This moment provides one of the most extreme examples of Lord Henry's arrogance. He does not seem remotely upset about Basil's death, and similarly is not able to pick up on Dorian's desperate state, despite the fact that Dorian seems to be unraveling right in front of him. Indeed, this passage shows that Lord Henry's careless elitism actually makes him rather foolish. He makes a series of completely false claims, including that Dorian is not capable of murdering anyone and that crime "belongs exclusively to the lower orders," when in fact the narrative has revealed a string of crimes that have taken place among the upper class, including Dorian himself. 

Lord Henry's words also highlight the fact that he treats life as a performance or game, and is unable to take anything seriously. He assumes it would "hurt Dorian's vanity" to be told he was not capable of murder, and believes that crime is merely a "method of procuring extraordinary sensations." Clearly, Henry's luxurious, shallow lifestyle has so cut him off from reality that he completely misunderstands the way the world really works.

Chapter 20 Quotes

His beauty had been to him but a mask, his youth but a mockery. What was youth at best? A green, unripe time, a time of shallow moods and sickly thoughts.

Related Characters: Dorian Gray
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

Dorian has returned home, thinking morosely about his lost innocence and wishing that he had received punishment for his sins. For the first time, he begins to resent his youthful beauty itself, associating youth with "shallow moods and sickly thoughts." It is clear that Dorian now understands the danger that comes with an unchecked desire for immortality, beauty, and pleasure. He characterizes youth as a repulsive state, indicating through the mention of "green" and "sickly thoughts" that it is even a kind of illness. Indeed, the passage suggests that the problem lies in the obsession with appearances, which are inherently hollow and misleading. Dorian's beauty was a "mask," revealing nothing about his true self, and only terrible consequences have come from living according to "shallow moods." 

This passage confirms that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a didactic (teaching) novel with a clear moral message for its readers. Of course, this message stands in contrast to the views of the main didactic character in the novel, Lord Henry. In the final scene, Dorian is able to see through Lord Henry's corrupting influence and understand the mistakes he has made, but he cannot survive this realization; the novel ends with the final ironic flourish that Dorian's desire for immortality results in his death.