How to Teach The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde's beautifully written novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a great way to introduce students to Aestheticism and the Gothic horror novel. An overview on the Aesthetic Movement and Gothic fiction will allow students to better identify elements from the philosophy and genre. As in many of his works, Wilde satirizes Victorian society. Before beginning the novel, students should learn about Victorian morality and social classes. While reading, the class can discuss how Wilde critiques the aristocratic lifestyle and emphasis on appearance over substance.

Wilde also includes a number of allusions, most notably references to Shakespeare's plays and the Greek myth of Narcissus. Students may be somewhat familiar with these references, but further explanation will help them understand the significance of the allusions and how they relate to the novel. Although the Faust legend is not directly referenced, Wilde's novel clearly shares the theme of sacrificing one's soul in an unholy pact. Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus would pair well with this novel and could prompt discussion on how Wilde adapts the legend.

Summary

Dorian Gray is the subject of a portrait by Basil Hallward, a painter who is enthralled by Dorian's youthful beauty. Through Basil, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, who introduces him to hedonism and aestheticism. When Lord Henry warns Dorian that his beauty will fade, Dorian wishes to trade places with the picture, so that the painting ages while he maintains his youth. The wish is granted, and, as Dorian engages in a decadent, amoral lifestyle, the portrait reveals the corruption of his soul.

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Literary Touchstone Classic

The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Wilde’s exploration of life without limits or consequences shocked its late-Victorian audience and still remains highly unsettling to modern readers. Your students will be forced to reconsider whether total freedom and absolute knowledge are really worth the cost as they witness the effects of decadence and wickedness that are portrayed in Dorian’s gruesome portrait.

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Content Warning

The Picture of Dorian Gray contains suggestions of sin and some negative references to Jews.

Objectives for Teaching The Picture of Dorian Gray

  • Recognize how the mores of Victorian society are reflected in this novel.
  • Evaluate Dorian Gray's values of youth and beauty.
  • Understand the dark and light sides of human nature and relate these to the characters of Basil and Lord Henry.
  • Trace the use of mirrors as images.
  • Understand the structure of English society as it is reflected in the novel.
  • Relate Wilde's theory of art to the artistic elements in the novel.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allusion
  • Doppelganger
  • Foreshadowing
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Personification
  • Simile

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Complete Teacher's Kit

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Themes and Motifs

  • The Purpose of Art — Wilde emphasizes his aesthetic beliefs that art has no greater purpose and illustrates the dangers of insisting that art reveals the artist or a moral lesson.
  • Beauty and Youth — In the novel, beauty and youth are highly valued, and Dorian goes through great lengths to ensure that his attributes will never fade.
  • Influence and Corruption —  Wilde illustrates how both people and supernatural objects have powers of influence, which allow them to transform people and lead them astray. Lord Henry introduces Dorian Gray to amoral pleasures, and Dorian, in order to preserve his youthful appearance, trades places with his portrait and corrupts his soul.

Key Facts

  • Length: 208 pages
  • Publication Date: 1891
  • Lexile Measure: 920
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Teaching Unit

Downloadable PDF File / Reproducible

The Teaching Unit for The Picture of Dorian Gray gives you a comprehensive academic framework that saves you hours of prep work. You can rely on this well-researched unit as a strong base for your lesson plan — it was written by one of our seasoned educators with your needs in mind.

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Movies

There are many film adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The best-known adaptation is the 1945 movie of the same title that is filmed primarily in black and white with the portrait in color. It has won an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Hugo Award.

Your students will love:

  • The psychological horror story
  • Wilde's witty dialogue

Students may have problems with:

  • The flowery language
  • The slow pacing

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Multiple Critical Perspectives
Response Journal

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