The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only published novel by Oscar Wilde, appearing as the lead story in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine on 20 June 1890, printed as the July 1890 issue of this magazine. The magazine's editors feared the story was indecent as submitted, so they censored roughly 500 words, without Wilde's knowledge, before publication. Even still, the story was greeted with outrage by British reviewers, some of whom suggested that Wilde should be prosecuted on moral grounds, leading Wilde to defend the novel aggressively in letters to the British press. Wilde later revised the story for book publication, making substantial alterations, deleting controversial passages, adding new chapters and including an aphoristic Preface which has since become famous in its own right. The amended version was published by Ward, Lock and Company in April 1891. Some scholars believe that Wilde would today have wanted us to read the version he originally submitted to Lippincott's.
The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian's beauty and becomes infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art. Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil's, and becomes enthralled by Lord Henry's world view. Espousing a new hedonism, Lord Henry suggests the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfilment of the senses. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian (whimsically) expresses a desire to sell his soul to ensure the portrait Basil has painted would age rather than he. Dorian's wish is fulfilled, and when he subsequently pursues a life of debauchery, the portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of aging.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered a work of classic gothic fiction with a strong Faustian theme.
The novel begins on a beautiful summer day with Lord Henry Wotton, a strongly-opinionated man, observing the sensitive artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of a handsome young man named Dorian Gray, who is Basil's ultimate muse. After hearing Lord Henry's world view, Dorian begins to think beauty is the only worthwhile aspect of life. He wishes that the portrait Basil painted would grow old in his place. Under the influence of Lord Henry (who relishes the hedonic lifestyle and is a major exponent thereof), Dorian begins to explore his senses. He discovers amazing actress Sibyl Vane, who performs Shakespeare plays in a dingy theatre. Dorian approaches her and soon proposes marriage. Sibyl, who refers to him as "Prince Charming", swoons with happiness, but her protective brother James tells her that if "Prince Charming" harms her, he will certainly kill him.
Dorian invites Basil and Lord Henry to see Sibyl perform in Romeo and Juliet. Sibyl, whose only knowledge of love was love of theatre, casts aside her acting abilities through the experience of true love with Dorian. Disheartened, Dorian rejects her, saying her beauty was in her acting, and he is no longer interested in her. When he returns home, he notices that his portrait has changed. Dorian realizes his wish has come true – the portrait now bears a subtle sneer and will age with each sin he commits, while his own appearance remains unchanged.
He decides to reconcile with Sibyl, but Lord Henry later informs him that she has killed herself by swallowing prussic acid. Dorian realizes that lust and looks are where his life is headed and he needs nothing else. Over the next 18 years, he experiments with every vice, mostly under the influence of a "poisonous" French decadence novel, a present from Lord Henry. The title is never revealed in the novel, but at Oscar Wilde's trial he admitted that he had 'had in mind' Joris-Karl Huysmans's À Rebours ('Against Nature').
One night, before he leaves for Paris, Basil arrives to question Dorian about rumours of his indulgences. Dorian does not deny his debauchery. He takes Basil to the portrait, which is as hideous as Dorian's sins. In anger, Dorian blames Basil for his fate and stabs Basil to death. He then blackmails an old friend named Alan Campbell, a chemist, into destroying Basil's body. Wishing to escape the guilt of his crime, Dorian travels to an opium den. James Vane is present there and attempts to shoot Dorian after he hears someone refer to Dorian as "Prince Charming". However, he is deceived when Dorian fools James into thinking he is too young to have been involved with Sibyl 18 years earlier. James releases Dorian but is approached by a woman from the opium den who chastises him for not killing Dorian, revealing Dorian has not aged for 18 years. James attempts to run after him, only to find Dorian long gone.
While at dinner, Dorian sees James stalking the grounds and fears for his life. However, during a game-shooting party a few days later, a lurking James is accidentally shot and killed by one of the hunters during this game-shooting party Dorian develops feelings for Lord Henry. After returning to London, Dorian tells Lord Henry that he will be good from now on, and has started by not breaking the heart of his latest innocent conquest named Hetty Merton. Dorian wonders if the portrait has begun to change back, now that he has given up his immoral ways. He unveils the portrait to find it has become worse. Seeing this, he realizes that the motives behind his "self-sacrifice" were merely vanity, curiosity, and the quest for new emotional experiences.
Deciding that only full confession will absolve him, he decides to destroy the last vestige of his conscience. In a rage, he picks up the knife that killed Basil Hallward and plunges it into the painting. His servants wake hearing a cry from inside the locked room, and passers by on the street fetch the police. The servants find Dorian's body, stabbed in the heart and suddenly aged, withered and horrible. It is only through the rings on his hand that the corpse can be identified. Beside him, however, the portrait has reverted to its original form.