Wilde makes frequent use of similes in The Portrait of Dorian Gray to create evocative descriptions of his characters. Through simile, Wilde constructs a vivid array of personalities by drawing unusual and imagery-laden comparisons to contextualize key character traits. A prime example occurs within the opening pages of the book as Lord Henry and Basil discuss the beauty of Dorian Gray:
Upon my word, Basil, I didn’t know you were so vain; and I really can’t see any resemblance between you, with your rugged strong face and your coal-black hair, and this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves.
By comparing Dorian to ivory and rose-leaves, Henry emphasizes the duality of his extreme beauty—the pale, durable, but lifeless quality of ivory combined with the altogether more delicate and fleeting elegance of rose leaves. As is typical of many similes constructed by Wilde for this novel, there is no way to take such a comparison literally. No combination of ivory and rose-leaf will resemble a man, however talented a sculptor may be, and yet the sense of this characterization, lying in the juxtaposition of the two materials, is nonetheless apt. The whiteness of the ivory conveys the purity of Dorian’s character at this point of the story just as well it may convey the fairness of his skin, while the redness of a rose conveys a blush of life and, perhaps, the fleeting nature of youth.
In another example, Wilde uses simile to better portray the brutal superficiality of high society gatherings:
I remember her bringing me up to a truculent and red-faced old gentleman covered all over with orders and ribbons, and hissing into my ear, in a tragic whisper which must have been perfectly audible to everybody in the room, the most astounding details. I simply fled. I like to find out people for myself. But Lady Brandon treats her guests exactly as an auctioneer treats his goods.
Rather than presenting a simple admonishment of Lady Brandon’s rudeness or vulgarity as a host, Wilde compares her to an auctioneer who moves through their wares quickly and without compassion in order to extract the most value out of an evening. It is an extremely clever comparison that effectively conjures a sense of Lady Brandon’s character while also offering a bit of Wildean snark. Similes often enable Wilde to offer a bit of his trademark wit without distracting from the story at hand.
Throughout The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Wilde employs metaphors or similes featuring flowers. Often, these comparisons have to do with bodily appearance or beauty. Dorian’s youth is described as a “red rose,” while Sybil Vane’s skin is described as a “white lilly” and her lips as a “rose petal.” In some instances, however, flowers are used in less obvious constructions, as with the “metaphors as monstrous as orchids” that await Dorian in the yellow book given to him by Lord Henry that poisons his mind and hastens his downfall.
Even where metaphor or simile are not present, flowers appear almost constantly throughout the novel. The very first line, in fact, involves not one but two different flowers:
The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.
As metaphor, flowers are particularly apt because of their ability to conjure clear imagery that is both visual and olfactory. This much is clear from that opening line, which emphasizes the perfume-like qualities of flowers’ scents. Visually, flowers are universally identifiable signs of natural beauty. They are, in some ways, the ultimate object of aestheticism—rich sensory experiences that last only fleetingly, leaving the beholder wanting more. It would make sense, then, why Wilde fixates on their form and function throughout Dorian Gray. The temporary joy brought by a flower underscores the central theme of the story: that beauty is temporary and defies attempts to circumvent its fading. In the "monstrous orchid" metaphor above, Wilde takes things one step further: as a virtue, beauty may only be superficial; even as the metaphors of the yellow book draw Dorian in, they corrupt his mind.