The story begins in the studio of painter Basil Hallward, who is entertaining his old friend, the relentlessly philosophical Lord Henry Wotton. Basil confides to Henry that he is working on a portrait, the finest he has ever done, depicting a beautiful youth, Dorian Gray, who has had an extraordinary influence on him. The influence is so great, in fact, that he refuses to exhibit the picture, for fear of the secret passion it reveals.
Surprised by this passion in Basil, Henry wants to meet this Dorian Gray, and as luck would have it, Dorian arrives at the studio before Basil can remove Lord Henry. Basil warns Henry that he is not to damage Dorian. He is very serious and protective over the young man. As it turns out, he has a right to worry. Lord Henry brings out his finest display of philosophical chatter for Dorian and the boy is in awe of the new ideas he’s introduced to, of hedonism and aesthetics.
Basil excitedly finishes his portrait, and it is agreed that it is the best thing he’s ever done. After hearing Lord Henry’s warning that his beauty and youth will fade, Dorian has an extreme response to the portrait. The passing of time and the certainty of his own aging terrify him and he wishes that he could trade places with the portrait, maintaining his youth while the paint alters with time. Basil offers to destroy the portrait, and Henry offers to keep it for himself, but Dorian has a fascination for it and decides he must have it.
Inspired by Lord Henry, Dorian begins to seek every experience of life. He goes to parts of London that some people of his social stature never see, and finds a shabby theater, performing Shakespeare. Here, he falls in love with Sybil Vane, a beautiful young actress who embodies Shakespeare’s heroines. Her brother, Jim Vane, does not approve of the match, and tells their mother to do a better job of protecting Sybil while he is away at sea, but Sybil is in love with her ‘Prince Charming’ and is determined to marry him.
Tragedy strikes when Sybil’s new love for Dorian causes her acting to become completely lifeless. Now that she has found real love, she explains, the idea of Romeo is nothing to her. Dorian is heartbroken. He finds he cannot love Sybil without her art, and calls off the engagement. When he returns home, Dorian notices that his portrait has changed somehow. It has grown a cruel expression. Could it be that his wish has come true? Dorian is terrified and pledges to make it up to Sybil, but before he can, he receives word that she has killed herself.
Dorian becomes haunted by the portrait and hides it, locked in the top room of his house. But he continues to be affected by Lord Henry’s theories, living for the art of experience and pleasure. He loses his remorse. Influenced especially by a particular book about a beautiful boy just like him, he fills his life with decadence and dangerous explorations. His reputation sours, but he is so charming and wealthy that he is still welcome in the highest circles. However, when confronted by Basil about the rumors surrounding him, Dorian reveals the portrait to him and is so filled with rage by Basil’s horrified reaction that he stabs and kills him.
Dorian blackmails a man called Alan Campbell to cleanly dispose of Basil’s body. Dorian then escapes to opium dens, seeking to forget what he has done and the portrait, but while there, he is attacked Jim Vane, who is looking to avenge his sister’s death. Dorian’s impossible youthfulness saves him, but the image of Jim haunts him even when he goes to stay in the country with his friends. On a hunting trip, a man is killed accidentally and it turns out to be Jim Vane, ensuring that Dorian's crimes will never be discovered.
Dorian vows that he will become good but he will not turn himself in. When the portrait reveals this hypocrisy, Dorian’s hope is lost. In a fit of rage, he grabs a knife and goes to destroy the painting. A terrible cry is heard and when found by the servants, Dorian is lying dead on the floor, old and hideous, while the painting hangs in its original, beautiful state.