Why is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde a good choice for your English class? First of all, it’s a fascinating story, one that everyone will remember. It is also an often quoted and referenced novel with numerous film adaptations and at least one graphic novel adaptation. Secondly, its language is an excellent resource for language learning as it has more dialogue than description in it, and through Oscar Wilde’s witty conversations we can read and learn about the sophisticated language of the English upper-middle class and aristocracy at the turn of the century. Apart from providing a colourful and entertaining language experience, the themes of the novel (youth and beauty, hedonism, Aestheticism, the purpose of art, the Faustian bargain, good and evil) offer discussion points for your whole class. It is a novel that will equally appeal to the boys and girls in your class.
Before you start reading the novel and doing the Before Reading activities, have a short interactive lesson to raise interest, activate/provide background knowledge and get your students thinking about what they are going to be reading.
- Level of activities: CEF A2-B1 (Cambridge PET, Trinity 4-5, pre-intermediate level)
- Materials needed: your PC, a projector or interactive whiteboard, Internet connection
1 Get familiar with the era: fin-de-siécle and the Aesthetic Movement
Questions for class discussion and research:
- What does ‘fin-de-siécle’ mean?
- What is the Aesthetic Movement?
- What do you know about the Victorian Era?
- When did it start?
- When did it end?
Watch this video to learn about the Aesthetic Movement:
- Victoria and Albert Museum: Video: Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement (video with transcript)
- Images on the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum (with reference to the age of Wilde)
Use these resources to learn about Victorian Britain:
- BBC Primary History: Victorian Britain
- BBC History Trails: Victorian Britain (higher level)
- BBC History: Victorians (higher level)
Look at these illustrations from the Helbling Reader The Picture of Dorian Gray.
(Level 4 reader, adapted by Elspeth Rawstron, illustrated by Rossella Trionfetti)
- Describe the people, their clothes and their appearance.
- Describe the rooms and the decoration.
2 What is a ‘dandy’?
- Look at the clothes and the appearance of the men in the illustrations above. What do they look like?
- Go to a dictionary or encyclopedia and read the definition of ‘dandy’.
- What would a dandy be like today?
3 The language of Dorian Gray
Project this page onto the wall or the interactive whiteboard. First read it alone, then do a role play. You will need three characters: Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton. Set up the classroom as if it were Basil’s room. You can draw a portrait on the board.
As you are reading the passage, find examples of interesting language, such as:
- ‘I’m in Lady Agatha’s black books at present.’
- ‘That’s very horrid of you.’
- ‘Can I ask you to leave?’
- ‘If Dorian wishes it, of course you must stay.’
How would you say these sentences in natural contemporary English?
4 Film adaptation
Imagine that you are a film director. You would like to make a film adaptation of the novel in a contemporary setting. Create the IMDB page of the film project. Write information about the following details. Here is an example of another film adaptation on IMDB.
- Title – Year of production – Length of film
- Summary of the film
Remember, this film is set in the 21st century!
5 Photo and drawing project
Do you like taking photos and making sketches? Here are some tasks for you.
- Take a photo or draw a sketch of your best friend’s profile.
- You can also take selfies or draw a self-portrait.
- Draw a picture of your friend and then draw a self-portrait. Ask your partner to do the same. Now compare your portraits.
- Take a series of pictures of yourself when you have different moods. Describe how your facial expressions change.
6 Extra activity for fast students: Witty language
Oscar Wilde was famous for his clever sayings. They are called aphorisms. Follow the link below and read his most often quoted aphorisms. Which one is your favourite?
- Oscar Wilde’s most enduring epigrams – infographic (higher level)
- Search the Internet for Oscar Wilde quotes.
Are you ready to read the novel?
It is a a gothic horror story, and it is the only published novel written by Oscar Wilde. It first appeared in a monthly magazine. You can see images of the first publication on the website of the British Library.
Here is the short summary of the story:
“I’ll grow old and ugly. But this portrait will always stay young.”
Artist Basil Hallward sees Dorian Gray at a party and suddenly feels that something bad is going to happen. But then the young and handsome Dorian becomes his friend and Basil paints the most wonderful picture of him.
What does Dorian wish for when he sees his picture? And why does Dorian then hide his picture for no one to see?
Want to read more?
If you are interested in other stories written by Oscar Wilde, check out the Level 5 Helbling Reader ‘The Canterville Ghost’ written by him.
If you are interested in another gothic story, read The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R. L. Stevenson.