The Picture of Dorian Gray is set in the last few decades of nineteenth-century England, seemingly in a moment contemporaneous to the novel’s composition—Wilde himself references the tastes of the era in his preface to the story, while Lord Henry frequently refers to the woeful tastes and proclivities of the nineteenth century during his many speeches on his personal hedonistic philosophies.
The majority of the plot unfolds in London, but the city is explicitly divided in two: Wilde juxtaposes the rarified spaces of the aristocracy from which Dorian Gray emerges—represented by the West End—with the increasingly seedy underbelly of the East End that he begins to explore as he delves deeper into his hedonism. A particularly important setting is Dorian’s own home, a grand house gradually decorated more lavishly according to Dorian’s “new-born feeling for luxury,” and the place in which Dorian hides his painting as it begins to deteriorate from his crimes.
The West End, meanwhile, is depicted as a littering of cheap theaters and opium dens that fascinate Dorian and become the object of his erratic and hedonistic obsessions. One chapter also takes place on Dorian’s country estate, Selby Royal. Dorian’s ability to navigate through these various spaces becomes a central theme of the novel: at first, he is able to move about on a whim and indulge in activities below his social class for the novelty of it all, but gradually—as his actions corrupt his character and his painting becomes more and more hideous—he is no longer able to keep his actions in one place separate from the other. Rumors circulate about his participation in all manner of illicit activity, and the more he indulges, the less he is able to access the physical and social spaces that are supposedly his birthright. As Basil finally observes,
I see you very seldom, and you never come down to the studio now, and when I am away from you, and I hear all these hideous things that people are whispering about you, I don’t know what to say. Why is it, Dorian, that a man like the Duke of Berwick leaves the room of a club when you enter it? Why is it that so many gentlemen in London will neither go to your house or invite you to theirs?
Dorian's increasing inability to associate with the high-class settings of London in which he has grown up is one way that Wilde emphasizes his mental and spiritual corruption.