Dorian Gray, a man who is jolted out of oblivion at the beginning of the novel and made aware of the idea that his youth and beauty are his greatest gifts and that they will soon vanish with age.
Lord Henry Wotton, the bored aristocrat who tells Dorian Gray that he is extraordinarily beautiful. He decides to dominate Dorian and proceeds to strip him of all his conventional illusions. He succeeds in making Dorian live his life for art and forget moral responsibility.
A secondary antagonist is age. Dorian Gray runs from the ugliness of age throughout his life. He runs from it, but he is also fascinated with it, obsessively coming back again and again to look at the signs of age in the portrait.
The climax follows Sibyl Vane's horrible performance on stage when Dorian Gray tells her he has fallen out of love with her because she has made something ugly. Here, Dorian rejects love for the ideal of beauty. The next morning, he changes his mind and writes an impassioned letter of apology, but too late; Sibyl has committed suicide.
Dorian Gray becomes mired in the immorality of his existence. He places no limit on his search for pleasure. He ruins people's lives without qualm. His portrait shows the ugliness of his sins, but his own body doesn't. His attempts at reform fail. He even kills a messenger of reform--Basil Hallward. Finally, he kills himself as he attempts to "kill" the portrait. He dies the ugly, old man and the portrait returns to the vision of his beautiful youth.
The novel opens in Basil Hallward's studio. He is discussing his recent portrait of Dorian Gray with his patron Lord Henry Wotton. He tells Lord Henry that he has begun a new mode of painting after his contact with Dorian Gray, a young man of extraordinary beauty. He doesn't want to introduce Lord Henry to Dorian because he doesn't want Lord Henry to corrupt the young man. He says he is so taken with Dorian Gray that he feels the young man dominates all his thoughts. When Lord Henry meets Dorian Gray, he finds him to be totally un-self-conscious about his beauty. Lord Henry talks to Dorian Gray of his philosophy of life. Lord Henry finds all of society's conventions from fidelity in marriage to charity toward the poor to be hypocritical covers for people's selfish motives. Dorian Gray feels the weight of Lord Henry's influence on his character. When they see the finished portrait of Dorian that Basil has painted, they are enthralled by the beauty that Basil has captured. Dorian bemoans the inevitable loss of his youth. He wishes that he could change places with the painting, that it could grow old and he could stay the same.
Lord Henry decides to dominate Dorian Gray just has Basil has told him Dorian Gray dominates him. They have dinner at Lord Gray's Aunt Agatha's house. She is a philanthropist and Dorian has been working with her. Lord Gray wittily ridicules the goals of philanthropy and Dorian is swept away by his logic.
Weeks later, Dorian tells Basil Hallward and Lord Henry that he has fallen in love with a young actress named Sibyl Vane, who acts in a run-down theater. He tells them he is engaged to Sibyl Vane. At the Vanes' house, Sibyl tells her mother of how much she is in love with her young admirer, whose name she doesn't know, but whom she calls Prince Charming. Mrs. Vane thinks her daughter might be able to get money out of the aristocratic young man. Sibyl's brother James, on the other hand, hates the idea of a rich man using and then leaving his sister. It is James's last night on shore before he ships off as a sailor. Before he goes, he vows to kill the man if he ever hurts Sibyl. He learns from his mother that his and Sibyl's father was an aristocrat who vowed to take care of the family financially, but died before he could.
Dorian arranges a dinner with Basil and Lord Henry, after which they will go to the theater to see Sibyl Vane act. He tells the other men how amazed he has been by Sibyl's acting talent. When they arrive at the theater and the play begins, they are all appalled at Sibyl's horrible acting. The two other men try to console Dorian Gray, telling him it doesn't matter if a wife is a good actor or not. He tells them to leave and he stays on in torment through the rest of the play. When the play is over, he goes back stage to talk to Sibyl. She tells him she doesn't care that her acting was so bad. She says she realizes that she can no longer act because she is in love with him. Before, she could act because she had no other world besides the created world of the stage. Dorian tells her he is ashamed of her and disappointed in her. He tells her he only fell in love with her because of her artful acting. Now he feels nothing for her. Sibyl begs him not to leave her, but he refuses to listen and walks out.
When he gets home, he looks at the portrait that Basil had painted of him. He notices to his horror that the look of the figure in it has changed. It looks cruel and scornful. He feels horrible remorse for what he has done to Sibyl and writes a long impassioned letter begging her forgiveness. The writing acts as a purgative for his emotions. When he's finished, he is no longer eager to go see Sibyl. He lays the letter aside and lounges about. Lord Henry comes to visit him and tells him Sibyl Vane committed suicide the previous evening. Dorian is horrified at first and then decides that her suicide is a perfectly artful response to what happened. He loves the art of it and promptly gets over his heart ache. That night, he goes out to the theater with Lord Henry and impresses Lord Henry's sister greatly.
The next night, Basil Hallward visits Dorian and is shocked to find out that Dorian is not upset over Sibyl's death. He can't judge Dorian, though, because Dorian looks so innocent in his youth. He tells Dorian that he has idolized him from the moment he first met him. He wants to show the portrait he painted of Dorian in an art show in Paris. Dorian refuses to let him see the portrait. When he leaves, Dorian decides to put the portrait away so no one can see it. He manages to get the portrait upstairs and place it in a room he lived in as a child. He becomes paranoid that his servant, Victor, is interested in the portrait.
Years pass. Dorian is twenty-five years old. He has become a complete aesthete, living his life in search of beauty and pleasure to the exclusion of all moral responsibility. He places no limits on the kinds of pleasures he allows himself. Basil Hallward visits Dorian, whom he hasn't seen in a long time. He has heard horrible rumors of Dorian and urges Dorian to reform. He is planning to leave London for Paris that night, but he came to see Dorian first because he has been hearing so many disturbing rumors about his young friend. Dorian decides to show Basil the portrait. When Basil sees the portrait, he is horrified. Dorian reminds him of his prayer on the day the portrait was painted, the prayer that he should change place with the portrait and never lose his youthful beauty. Basil begs Dorian to pray with him, urging Dorian to reform immediately. Dorian can't stand seeing Basil like this. He stabs him several times and then leaves him in the room.
The next morning, Dorian calls an ex-lover, Alan Campbell, who is a scientist, to come and help him. Alan hates Dorian, but Dorian urges him to help anyway. When Alan refuses, Dorian threatens to expose their affair and ruin Alan's reputation. Alan sends for chemicals and equipment, goes upstairs, and disposes of the body. That evening, Dorian goes to a dinner party, but has to leave early because he is extremely nervous. When he gets home, he looks in a cabinet and finds some opium. He leaves the house and goes to an opium den. He sees a young man, an aristocrat, whom he corrupted months ago. The young man is addicted to opium and has no connections among his friends any longer. Dorian leaves because he can't stand to be around this young man. When he's leaving, he scorns a prostitute, another person whom he has presumably ruined, and she calls out to him the name Prince Charming. A sailor, James Vane, who has half-asleep, jumps up at the sound of the name and runs out after Dorian. He catches Dorian outside and threatens to kill him. Dorian tells James to look at his face under a light and he will see that he couldn't possibly be the young man who betrayed James' sister. James does so and sees that Dorian is too young to have been his sister's lover. He releases Dorian. The prostitute comes out and tells James he should have killed Dorian because Dorian is in fact old enough to have been the Prince Charming of James's sister's memory. She says Prince Charming made a pact with the devil years ago to retain his youth.
The next weekend, Dorian has a party at his country house. The men are outside hunting and Dorian is cowering inside afraid because he thinks he saw James Vane's face peeking through the window. Finally, he decides his fears are unfounded and goes out to join the hunting party. He is speaking to a young man when the young man shoots at a rabbit. Instead, it is a man in the bushes who is shot. The men think the man is a peasant who got in the way and find it nothing more than an inconvenience. That evening, Dorian's groundskeeper tells him the man was a stranger, not one of the tenants on Dorian's land. Dorian rushes out to see the body and is relieved to find that it is James Vane who was killed.
Back in London, Lord Henry comes to visit Dorian Gray. Dorian tells him he has decided to reform. He no longer wants to hear Lord Henry's corrupt sayings. He has fallen in love with a country girl and, instead of ruining her life, he left her alone. Lord Henry tells Dorian he did this only for a new sensation of pleasure, the unaccustomed pleasure of doing good. Dorian is shaken in his resolve. When Lord Henry leaves, Dorian becomes upset over the idea that he will never be able to reform. Then he gets the idea that he should destroy the painting, which has by now become horribly ugly. When he stabs the painting, his servants hear his cry out in pain. They break into the locked room and find an old, ugly man in Dorian Gray's clothes lying on the floor dead of a stab wound and a portrait of a beautiful young Dorian Gray hanging intact on the wall.