The preface is a collection of epigrams in praise of art and beauty, and against the notion that art should be the expression of moral ideas. The epigrams have no direct relationship to the story that follows.
In Chapter 1, the aristocrat Lord Henry Wotton lounges on the divan as he talks with his friend, the artist Basil Hallward, in Hallwards studio. In the center of the room is Hallwards portrait of a young man of great beauty. Lord Henry tells him it is his finest work and encourages him to exhibit it. But Basil says he cannot exhibit it because he put too much of himself into it. He does not explain what he means by that remark. The two men go outside to the garden and continue their discussion. When Lord Henry presses him to explain, Basil replies that he is afraid that in the portrait, which is of a man named Dorian Gray, he may have shown the secret of his own soul. He tells Henry the story of how he met Dorian, at a party given by Lady Brandon. When he first saw the young man, he was fascinated but also terrified. He had some premonition that Dorians personality was such that it might exert an undue influence on him, and that he was on the verge of a crisis that might lead to “exquisite joys and exquisite sorrows.” As Henry talks about life with an amiable cynicism, Basil disagrees with him and also suspects that Henry does not really mean a word he is saying.
The subject then comes back to Dorian Gray, who now sits as a model for Basil every day. Basil thinks that because of Dorian, he is now creating the best art of his life. Dorians personality has suggested to him a new mode of style in artistic expression that would attain a perfect harmony of body and soul. Henry tells Basil that at some point he will tire of Dorian and not find him so inspiring. The butler then announces that Dorian Gray is in the studio. Henry wants to meet him but Basil worries that Henry will be a bad influence on him. He fears that he may lose the person on whom his art depends.
In chapter 2, Henry and Dorian meet. Henry thinks there is something in Dorians face that makes him appear trustworthy. He then excuses himself, inviting Dorian to visit him at his home. But Dorian tells Basil that if Henry-to whom he has taken a liking-goes, he will too. This prompts Basil to persuade Henry to stay.
Dorian steps up on the dais so as to allow Basil to finish the portrait. While Basil paints, oblivious to the conversation, Henry explains to Dorian his philosophy of life. He advocates a life in which people are not afraid to live completely, giving expression to all their desires and their dreams. He sees no point in self-denial of any kind. His words have a strong effect on Dorian, who is aware that fresh, exciting influences are at work on him. Henry is aware of the effect of his words on the young man, and he is amazed by it.
Dorian needs a break from posing, so he and Henry go out to the garden. Henry continues to expound his philosophy, and Dorian is fascinated, even frightened, by what he hears. Henry talks to him about beauty as the most wonderful thing in the world, and that Dorian has only a few years in which to enjoy it, since it fades with age. He should take the opportunity to “live really, perfectly, and fully.” He urges Dorian always to seek new sensations, and he calls this philosophy of life the new Hedonism. Dorian listens intently.
They return to the studio and Basil resumes painting, and finishes the picture. Dorian looks at it, as if he has recognized himself for the first time. He sees his own beauty, which he had never felt before. The thought that he will age, and lose his beauty, disturbs him intensely. He is saddened by the fact that although he will age, the picture will remain always young. He wishes it could be the other way round. He would give up his whole soul if that could be the case. He tells Basil that when he finds that he is growing old, he will kill himself. Upset that his painting has had this effect, Basil goes to rip up the canvas with a knife, but Dorian restrains him. Basil then says he will give the picture to Dorian. Dorian and Henry then leave; they have arranged to go together to the theatre that evening, although Basil does not seem to be happy with that arrangement.
The next day Lord Henry visits his uncle Lord Fermor and asks him for information about Dorian Gray. Lord Fermor apparently knows or has known almost everyone in London society. It transpires that Dorians father died before Dorian was born, and his mother died before Dorian was one year old. Dorian stands to inherit a lot of money when he comes of age. Henry then goes to lunch at his Aunt Agathas. He is still thinking of Dorian, and wants to influence him with his ideas, to dominate him in the same way that Dorian was dominating Basils ideas about art. At the lunch are various members of the aristocracy and the upper classes, where there is a discussion of the merits or otherwise of America and Americans, and of the social problems of London, all of which Lord Henry uses as an opportunity to discharge more of his epigrams (clever sayings). Dorian, who is also at the lunch, is fascinated by Henrys dazzling talk. As Henry leaves, Dorian asks to come with him.
The artist Basil Hallward expresses one of the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement that flourished in the late nineteenth century in France and England. According to Aestheticism, the purpose of art is simply to embody beauty. As Wilde, a leading exponent of the ideas of Aestheticism, puts it in his preface, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” This is why Basil is so ecstatic about Dorian Gray. Dorian embodies in himself such physical beauty that he has enabled Basil to take his art to a completely new level. Dorian has transformed his artistic vision. For Basil, Dorians beauty is an entryway into a superior kind of art, one that has not been seen before. This applies to landscapes as well as portrait painting. Dorians presence has conveyed to the artist the spirit of beauty in all things, and this is why Basil worships the young man and is so emotionally attached to him. (Later in the novel it becomes clear that Basil parts company from the Aesthetic Movement because he does not believe that the artist has no moral responsibilities.)
Lord Henry embodies another aspect of the Aesthetic Movement, which in contrast to the Victorian emphasis on hard work and social responsibility advocated the enjoyment of sensual experience. The idea was to seize on each fleeting moment and experience it to the full. This aspect of the movement is associated with Walter Pater (1839-1894), a professor of classics at Oxford University. Pater was a great influence on Wilde. At one point in his life, Wilde would not go anywhere without a copy of Paters work in his pocket. In the “Conclusion” to his work, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (revised edition, 1888), Pater wrote, “Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us,-for that moment only.” Paters ideal was to maintain that moment of maximum beauty or passion in every passing moment: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
This is what Lord Henry means by the new Hedonism. No experience or desire should be rejected or repressed, because it is in each desire as it arises that the flame of life exists. Lord Henry opposes conventional morality, which preaches restraints on desire and action, because he thinks such restraints are opposed to the essence of life. Moral restraints kill desire and divide life into separate categories of good and evil, which for Lord Henry have no meaning.
Lord Henry sets out to influence Dorian and persuade him to live according to his principles. It should be noted, however, that Henry does not appear to live up to his own ideals. He talks a lot but acts little. Basil seems to understand his friend well. After Henry has claimed to have a marriage in which both parties are deceitful, Basil chides him, “I believe you are really a very good husband, but that you are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. . . . You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose.” (ch. 1).
Henry regards Dorian as the subject of an experiment. He wants to see how far he can influence him and what happens when he does. These early chapters are like temptation scenes. Dorian is the young innocent, his ideas about life yet unformed. Henry is the more experienced man of the world who will try to dominate him, just as Dorian himself is effectively dominating Basil. But whereas Dorians influence on Basil has an uplifting effect, at least as far as Basils art is concerned, Henrys influence on Dorian will turn out to be destructive. (It might also be argued that Basils virtual idolatry of Dorian is also a negative influence on him because it feeds Dorians vanity. Dorian himself says this to Basil in chapter 13.)