The novel opens in the gorgeous flower-filled rooms of Basil Hallward’s house. Lord Henry Wotton and Basil are together in the studio, considering the portrait that Basil has been working on, of a slim, handsome youth. Henry praises it very highly, but Basil says he will not send it anywhere. Lord Henry is shocked, and scolds that artists always wish for reputation and then never want it when it arrives.
Amid a magnificent display of spring’s natural beauty, the focus of the room is Basil’s portrait., bringing the eye of the story immediately to art as the central subject.
Basil says he has put too much of himself into the painting to exhibit it. Lord Henry, not understanding, thinks that Basil is ridiculous for being vain, he is the plain artist, and it is the boy’s figure that provides the beauty, all vanity should be placed in him. Basil knows all this. They all have different gifts, his artistry, Henry’s wealth, Dorian Gray’s beauty, and all are curses in their own way.
The characters are separated and categorized by appearance and talent, each representing only his own category and unable to move between them. This creates a kind of inhuman tone to these descriptions. As if trying to simplify and beautify the messiness of people’s personalities and inner contradictions, Basil turns his friends into two-dimensional portraits.
Realizing he has given away Dorian’s name, Basil confesses that he hadn’t wanted to reveal him to Henry, but had wanted to keep him a secret. He thinks secrecy provides a kind of romance in his life. Henry comically likens it to marriage. Deception is necessary, he says. Basil tells him off. He doesn’t believe that Henry really means the cynical things he says. The pair walks out into the garden, and Henry brings up the sensitive subject of Basil’s reluctance to exhibit. He demands a proper answer. But Basil defends that his reason was true. The painting is one of the artist, not of the sitter. He is afraid that Henry will not understand his meaning. But he begins the story.
Basil and Henry’s discussion of secrecy should be a chance for confession and depth, but the opportunity is missed. Lord Henry’s view of secrecy is shallow and comical, while Basil too concentrates on Dorian’s name, which doesn’t seem to be much of a confession at all. We start to suspect that Dorian is at the moment just a collection of exterior qualities and already we are getting to know Basil and Henry’s qualities through Dorian. He has the reflective properties that Basil attributes to art.
Basil met Dorian Gray at a party. He says that an artist must go into society occasionally to show he is not a savage. It is here that he meets the eye of Dorian Gray. The moment their eyes meet, Basil is filled with a strange sensation. He is immediately fascinated by the boy. He inexplicably felt that he was heading for some terrible fate and tried to escape the scene, but is called back by the host Lady Brandon. Basil suggests that it was cowardice rather than conscience that made him want to escape, but Henry quips that the two are one and the same.
Show and appearance and façade are the defining features of the circle that Basil inhabits. It is important for Basil to make an appearance in society, as if he would not exist without others seeing him. His vision of Dorian Gray is at once superficial, based on one glance but also deep beyond reason. Fate and supernatural sensations elevate this meeting to something of existential importance.
Lady Brandon, a shrill, social butterfly, brings Basil around to meet some of the guests. Spotting Dorian again, Basil asks to be introduced, though seems to think that he and Dorian were always fated to know each other. They admitted this together later. Henry, knowing that it is a habit of Lady Brandon’s to give a colorful preface to each introduction, wants to know how she described Dorian Gray. The introduction is a mess. Lady Brandon mentions Dorian’s “poor dear mother” and then realizes she knows almost nothing about the boy. Basil and Dorian share a laugh.
The speed of Basil’s attachment to Dorian show how much it is based on appearance. No sooner has Basil laid eyes on Dorian than he is filled with an almost divine sense that the boy will be very important to him. The importance and precedence of appearance is a trait of the entire privileged society to which Basil and Henry belong, comprising gentlemen, ladies and artists, all of whom seem to base their judgments almost entirely on appearances and reputations.
Henry mentions that laughter is a good basis for friendship, but Basil teases that Henry knows nothing about friendship. Henry disagrees, he chooses his friends carefully for their good looks. He insists though that Basil is like a brother to him, although he seems to hate his relatives. He mocks his relatives for having all the typical vices of the upper class. Basil accuses him of always saying things he doesn’t even believe himself.
Things like relatives and love and friendship are dumbed down by Henry and mocked. Though he is the chosen conspirator for Basil’s confession, he himself portrays people without sympathy as if they were merely types and characters. There is something paradoxical about him that is ominously exposed by his fancy speeches.
The subject turns back to Dorian Gray. Basil confesses that he has been spending more and more time with the boy and that Dorian has become “absolutely necessary” to him. He compares the arrival of Dorian in his life to the important era in the world of art, the appearance of a new muse or a new medium. Dorian seems to have taken Basil’s artistry to a new level. He tries to explain to Henry what the visual presence of the boy does to him but finds no expression superlative enough. Dorian has simply become the reason for Basil’s work.
Dorian Gray is enlarged and elevated to the status of a historical figure, even an era, a measure of time itself. The boy’s influence cannot even be described – it all lies in his appearance, he appears as a vision before Basil. The raising of Dorian over and above human status to myth, to art itself, sounds like a warning—such great heights usually lead to a fall.
Henry desperately wants to meet Dorian now. Basil explains that Dorian will probably not have the same effect for Henry, that it is a curiously personal thing. This is the reason why Basil won’t exhibit. He cannot bear the audience to know his secret passions. He believes that art should be beautiful and autobiography should be left out.
Dorian’s charisma and attractiveness have been removed now from Basil’s protective clutches, and in the hands of Henry become a kind of myth, making the boy seem less real. The strangeness of Basil’s confession about the painting’s exposure of his secret passion creates a sense of danger around the painting and, to an extent, around Dorian.
When asked if Dorian Gray has any fondness for him in return, Basil says he sees a certain affection in Dorian, but he may just be enjoying the flattery. Lord Henry comforts that it might be surprising how Dorian’s affection outlasts Basil’s. Dorian’s beauty is likely to change, and with those altered tones and shapes, Basil’s feelings might in turn alter. Basil denies that this is possible. Henry is too changeable to understand. But Henry thinks that it is this changeability that has made him susceptible to love.
The picture we have of Dorian Gray is blown up out of all proportion by these two characters. To Henry, Dorian is a symbol of beauty, a collection of colors and lines, just like Basil’s painting. To Basil, Dorian represents something bigger than art, something inexplicable. The collision of these two exaggerations puts Dorian into a difficult position, having to live up to an impossible ideal.
Henry muses with great pleasure on the debate of the human heart. Life’s romances and tragedies are to him the greatest amusement, and he is very glad to have passed up a tedious lunch for an afternoon at Basil’s instead. He remembers then that he has heard about Dorian’s charms from his Aunt. Basil is glad he had not known at the time of Dorian’s importance; he does not want Henry to meet him. But just at that second, Basil’s butler announces the arrival of Mr. Dorian Gray. Henry is gleeful at the turn of events, but Basil becomes very grave. He wants Henry to swear not to take Dorian away or expose him to bad influences.
Henry’s friendship, though exciting, starts to take on a changeable, insensitive tone. To him, it is not loyalty that draws him to spend time with someone, or love, but a sense of seeking the most interesting experience. It is a little like he is shopping for a book to read. Lord Henry gives the impression that he would have left a while ago without the excitement of Dorian Gray’s story and the promise of a new object of curiosity to contemplate.