An artist, Basil Hallward, meets an exquisitely handsome man named Dorian Gray, and becomes infatuated with his beauty. After painting his portrait, Basil reluctantly shows it to his friend Lord Henry “Harry” Wooton. Harry insists on meeting the esteemed Dorian and Basil arranges it, despite his concerns that Harry will be a bad influence on the young man. His reservations prove justified, as Dorian becomes enraptured with Harry’s cynical world view, adapting his lifestyle to follow hedonistic values: the pursuit of beauty and fulfilment of the senses. To this end, Dorian exclaims that he wishes his portrait to fade with age instead of himself. His wish is granted, and as he indulges in increasingly debasing acts, the portrait becomes more and more disfigured, symbolising Dorian’s sins and the degradation of his soul.
Dorian meets Sybil Vane, a young actress working in a shabby theatre. Charmed by her passion and innocence, Dorian courts her and proposes marriage. He then invites Basil and Harry to see his fiancée perform in Romeo and Juliet. The experience of true love, however, has affected her acting abilities, and Harry derides her lack of talents. Dorian therefore rejects her. Upon seeing his transformed portrait, he changes his mind. But it is too late – Sybil has committed suicide. This marks the death of any remnant of conscience in Dorian, as he continues to try every vice possible – all with Harry’s encouragement.
Many years later, Basil challenges Dorian about the rumours regarding his behaviour. Dorian shows Basil the hideous state the portrait is now in. Dorian then stabs Basil to death, blaming him for his fate. After disposing of Basil’s body, Dorian takes refuge in an opium den. There, Sybil Vane’s brother James, hearing of Dorian’s presence, confronts him in order to kill him. Dorian’s youthful face, however, fools James: this cannot be the same man from all those years ago. But once Dorian has escaped, a woman tells James that Dorian has not aged in 18 years. James never gets the change to exact his revenge, as he is accidentally shot and killed.
This close-call shocks Dorian into turning over a new leaf. He decides that he will start by not breaking the heart of his current conquest. He hopes that his portrait has begun to revert to beauty, reflecting his good behaviour, but he discovers that it is in fact worse. Furiously attacking the portrait with the knife that killed Basil, Dorian actually harms himself. Responding to his cry, Dorian’s servants find him dead: his body is aged and grotesque; his portrait has reverted to its original magnificent form.