Definitions for tragedy:

·        The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition: form of drama that depicts the suffering of a heroic individual who is often overcome by the very obstacles he is struggling to remove. The protagonist may be brought low by a character flaw or, as Hegel stated, caught in a “collision of equally justified ethical aims.”

·        The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition: A serious drama in which a central character, the protagonist—usually an important, heroic person—meets with disaster either through some personal fault or through unavoidable circumstances. In most cases, the protagonist’s downfall conveys a sense of human dignity in the face of great conflict.

·        The philosopher Aristotle theorized in his work The Poetics that tragedy results in a catharsis (emotional cleansing) of healing for the audience through their experience of these emotions in response to the suffering of the characters in the drama.

Quotation from The Poetics:

“A perfect tragedy should . . . imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense, nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful or terrible. There remains, then, the character between these extremes,--that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous,--a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.”

To what extent do all these ideas fit The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Related notions that you may look for in the novel:

·        The hubris and nemesis cycle: “In English, the word hubris denotes excessive or foolish pride, but to the Greeks it meant something more, an attitude of disrespect stemming from exaggerated self-importance and utter disregard for others. The Greeks believed, generally, in a cycle in which hubris would lead a person to commit atê, the Greek word for “mistake,” which would bring about some sort of dire consequence: nemesis. For Agamemnon, his initial atê was the disrespect of Chryses, which led to the nemesis of the plague inflicted upon the Greeks by Apollo.” (From the Mizzou –  University of Missouri-Columbia website)

In classical tragedy, this cycle generally ends with one last stage in which the hero, as a result of his downfall (nemesis) realizes why he was punished by this catastrophe and is generally enlightened as to his destiny. So the complete cycle is one of hubris-error-downfall-wisdom.

·        Dramatic irony is a circumstance in which characters reveal their inability to understand their own situation. Dramatic irony is most effective when characters make fateful choices based on information the reader realizes is incorrect.

Possible outline:

I. Is the story of The Picture of Dorian Gray determined by fatality?

There is indeed a causal chain in the plot from the painting of Dorian’s picture to his death.

Dorian is changed by seeing the picture and by Lord Henry’s influence, and his destiny is the result of this transformation.

II. Is Dorian a tragic hero?

Is Dorian a hero (as opposed to a villain)? If the reader pins him down as a villain, his tale will be a moral one but not a tragic one because the reader won’t feel pity for his fate (see Aristotle supra).

Is Dorian’s destiny that of a tragic hero? His story does seem to progress from hubris (his wish to escape the laws of time and corruption) to mistake (his thinking that he can destroy the picture and stay alive) to nemesis (his death). However, does he reach the stage where the tragic hero finally grasps his destiny?


1. Reader response.

Aristotle has it that tragedy arouses pity and terror in the viewer. Does this hold for The Picture of Dorian Gray?

2. Worldview.

Tragedy implies a certain view of the world: one in which the universe is ruled by supernatural powers which are not necessarily benevolent or peaceful (fate), as opposed to the Christian view, which believes in one benevolent God who wishes mankind to turn its back on violence. The god or gods of tragedy often require a sacrifice, for instance that of Œdipus. Does Wilde express such a vision in his novel?