On a sunny summer day the talented artist Basil Hallward invites his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, to his workshop to see his new portrait and meet his new model - a young man named Dorian Gray. Hallward met Dorian accidentally, seeing him as another guest in a luxurious mansion of his aunt, but he was immediately fascinated by his beauty and manners to the point he was almost in love with him (though it is only implied in the story. What we know for sure is artist’s sheer admiration of Dorian’s beauty and personality).
Basil now finishes Dorian’s first portrait and wants to hear Wotton’s opinion about it. Lord Wotton has a reputation of one of the most aesthetically refined people, has a sharp mind and a keen eye to any imperfections. He is also a master of mind plays and is even nicknamed “The Prince of Paradox” for that. Basil’s painting is a perfectly accurate depiction of the model’s beauty but the artist feels that there is too much his own passion and lust in the portrait. So, hesitant, he decides to show Lord Wotton both Dorian and the portrait and let him compare.
But Lord Henry is not only an art critic. He is a hedonist who indulges in all the joys that wealth, beauty and his dubious morals can allow him to have. Of course he claims that the portrait is perfect. Soon, the model appears and Lord Henry is also fascinated with the beauty of twenty-year-old man, golden-haired and handsome as a Greek god. Wotton doesn’t restrain himself as Basil does, so he silently claims the young man for himself, deciding to make him an apprentice of his hedonism philosophy.
Dorian listens to the Wotton’s paradoxical statements with great interest. Basil, seeing what is really going on, tries to warn his model, but Dorian is too naive to understand that he is now being seduced. When the portrait is finished, Lord Henry praises the beauty of the model and the mastery of the artist, but then continues to a sad speech about beauty of the world that will be inevitably tarnished with time. Upset with this speech, Dorian thinks about himself - his beauty is the most important trait for him and he can’t stand even the thought of losing it. In despair he curses the portrait, wishing with all his heart that the portrait would change, so he could remain beautiful forever, as perfect as he is painted. Basil, flattered by such words, presents the portrait to Dorian despite Wotton wants the portrait to himself.
But Lord Henry isn’t going to stop after the first meeting. Soon he invites Dorian to his mansion. Despite Basil’s warnings and even mild resistance, Dorian accepts an invitation. He is enchanted by Wotton’s eloquent speeches and wants to talk more to the man he wants to be his teacher. But the things Lord Henry teaches the young man are not connected with philosophical conversation. Gradually, Dorian finds himself immersed in the life of pure pleasure, where good or evil don’t matter anymore. The pleasure becomes his deity and idol: he throws away his morals after just a few weeks of such a life.
While Dorian attends dinner parties and opera plays, Lord Henry digs deeper into his past. He visits Dorian’s relatives to search for some more pressure points. After visiting his uncle, Wotton learns that Dorian lost his parents after the dramatic story and was raised by the rich guardian. His mother fell in love with an unknown infantry officer and married him, going against all the family tradition. But her father, feeling offended, arranged a duel for his son-in-love, where Dorian’s father was brutally killed. Dorian’s mother couldn’t survive that also, and soon after giving birth to her firstborn son, she died of broken heart.
Meanwhile, Dorian falls in love with the beautiful and young actress Sybil Vane he sees in the theatre. He starts attending every play she acts in and sees that every time she is completely immersed in her character. Barely knowing the real Sybil, Dorian falls in love with her acting, proclaiming she is a genius. Moreover, the girl is as beautiful as he is and Dorian feels that it’s enough for them to be the perfect match.
But the real Sybil is very different from the dramatic roles she plays. She is a reserved and wholesome young woman who loves life even though she is just slightly wealthier than a street beggar. She shares that miserable life with her mother and younger brother James, who prepares to become a sailor. Nevertheless, Sybil also falls for the image she sees. Dorian appears to be her Prince Charming, kind, wealthy, beautiful and refined. But James and her mother are much more sceptical about him. They understand that the young, poor and naive actress is a perfect target for high-class seducers seeking for someone to toy with. Moreover that was the cause Sybil and James were born - so Sybil’s mother has a reason not to believe in fairy tales with princes anymore.
But, surprisingly to everyone, from Sybil’s mother to Lord Henry himself, Dorian and Sybil are engaged. James, who has to depart and sail with the ship he’s working on, promises to find and kill Dorian if he ever hurts his sister. To celebrate the engagement and to boast with the talent of his bride-to-be, Dorian invites Lord Henry and Basil to see her as Juliet in a Shakespeare tragedy. But Sybil’s acting is a failure that day. She can’t pretend she is in love with the actor on the stage because she is in love for real with another man, Dorian. Sybil is too excited and just can’t fake her feelings for other people to look.
Lord Henry mocks him for such a poor choice and Dorian, furious to hear that, immediately breaks the engagement, cruelly saying Sybil that she has just killed his love. Sybil tries to explain that she can’t act anymore because she has experienced real feelings and wants to live her own life for some time, not the life of her characters, but Dorian is adamant. Sybil runs away. Dorian, heartbroken, spends a sleepless night, wandering around London. In the morning he finally understands that she had a point and her real feelings can really matter more for him. He returns home to write a letter to Sybil in which he asks her to reconcile, but just before he sends it, Dorian is struck with the terrible news: ashamed in public and rejected by the man she loved, Sybil couldn’t endure such a humiliation. She committed suicide that very night.
Dorian is devastated by her death. He returns to his friends asking for advice. Basil comes to him and tries to comfort him, also telling Dorian that he must be much more careful with other’s feelings next time, but Lord Henry has something much more interesting to distract the young man from his grief. Saying him that Sybil Vane doesn’t deserve his tears he arranges Dorian’s meeting with his own charming, young and beautiful sister Lady Gwendolen. Basil is shocked to see how easily Dorian accepts this invitation and courts another woman. But Dorian didn’t forget Sybil, he did something much worse, he accepted her death as her final and triumphal performance made just for him. In Dorian’s eyes, Sybil impersonated the tragedy, taking her Juliet role to the logical extreme. So he can still remember her as a genius actress, delighted with the uppermost pleasure she gave him. Real dead and heartbroken girl doesn’t bother him anymore.
What does bother Dorian is his portrait. He hanged it in his house and liked to occasionally watch it - but now he notices that the painted Dorian has a faint cruel smirk that wasn’t there before. Terrified with this change, Dorian takes the portrait to the attic, so no one will be able to notice the same smirk.
And again his friend Lord Henry knows how to entertain the worried young man. He presents Dorian a book of a French author - the psychological etude about a man who decided to experience the most extreme pleasures and pains of living. Dorian is enchanted by the book, beautiful, attracting and disgusting at the same time. From now on the events of the next twenty years are described very briefly. This book becomes a practical guide for Dorian. He enjoys every sinful pleasure he can taste, disregarding morals, broken hearts, destroyed lives and his own reputation. He is immune to any consequences of promiscuous life, he stays as beautiful and young as he was in his twenty. Dorian collects the most exotic drugs, participates in lavish orgies and rituals of any religion he is interested in, collects antiquities and precious stones. Attracted by hedonistic temptation to feel everything, he repeatedly tries to fall in love, but the real people appear to imperfect for him to actually love them. Dorian isn’t able to love anymore, so what he calls “love” is passion, lust and illusions. All his attempts lead to him having a reputation of a soulless seducer of young hearts and minds.
Basil remained distant from him for all that years, horrified with degradation of a young man he once knew. But before moving to Paris the old painter decides to make the last attempt to talk to Dorian and persuade him to change his mind. He asks Dorian for a meeting and the still young man invites Basil to his house. But he doesn’t want to listen, saying that it is too late already to repent. Dorian laughingly offers the painter to see his true self and escorts Basil to the attic - to show him his own portrait. Now it has nothing in common with an angelic handsome man Basil painted. There is an old and hideous man depicted there, with all the signs of diseases and degradation Dorian’s life has lead him to. The old man looks at Basil with indifference, vanity and disgust. Terrified out of his mind, Basil start to argue with Dorian, shouting at him and demanding him to change until it’s too late. But Dorian is no less shocked with what he sees. He accuses Basil of creating such a portrait and stabs him in anger, killing the painter. And even after that he feels nothing except a slight disturbance - he shall dispose of the body now, what an inconvenience. He calls one of his friends and the most trusted companion in all his atrocities, the chemist named Alan Campbell. But knowing that there is no such thing as friendship, Dorian not just asks him to help, he blackmails him with Alan’s own secrets, threatening the young man into helping him. Together they dissolve Basil’s body in nitric acid provided by Campbell thus destroying any evidences of the murder.
It appears that Dorian’s conscience is not entirely dead. Torn apart by belated remorse, he seeks oblivion in drugs again. That decision does Dorian no good: he almost gets killed by a sailor who tracked him down in one of the brothels. This sailor is James Vane who learned about the fate of his sister and sworn to take revenge on Dorian whatever it costs him.
After fleeing to safety of his house Dorian tries to forget about his personal nemesis. But after another lavish party he throws, he sees James looking through the window and waiting for him to come out. Dorian is eaten alive by his guilt and terror. He feels a brief relief when the hunters accidentally shoot James mistaking him for a prey in the bush - but not for long.
The portrait now tortures Dorian with its mere existence. It represents his own conscience that, as Dorian thinks, was long dead. He tries to repent his sins but the only change he manages to achieve is hypocrisy in the eyes of the portrait. The picture is right: Dorian doesn’t feel any real remorse, he just wants to appear better in his own eyes. Dorian envies everyone: Lord Henry, who is completely free of morals and won’t even bother, Alan Campbell, who found courage to commit suicide, the innocence of the young girls he seduced.
Feeling that the portrait mocks him, showing him how fruitless are his efforts to become a good man again, Dorian, in anger, grabs the same dagger he used to kill Basil and starts stabbing the canvas. The servants hear a horrifying scream from the attic and rush there, just to see a shredded portrait of their master, young and beautiful, on the wall and a dead body of an ugly old man in luxurious clothes.