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The summary below deals with the longest version, the 1891 novel.

However, certain episodes described—in particular Dorian's encounter with, and murder of, James Vane—do not appear in the version originally submitted by Wilde to Lippincott's.

[The narrative does not reveal the title of the French novel, but, at trial, Wilde said that the novel Dorian Gray read was À Rebours ('Against Nature', 1884), by Joris-Karl Huysmans.] One night, before leaving for Paris, Basil goes to Dorian's house to ask him about rumours of his self-indulgent sensualism.

Dorian does not deny his debauchery, and takes Basil to see the portrait.

He discovers the actress Sibyl Vane, who performs Shakespeare plays in a dingy, working-class theatre.

James relents and releases Dorian, but is then approached by a woman from the opium den who reproaches James for not killing Dorian.

On returning home, Dorian notices that the portrait has changed; his wish has come true, and the man in the portrait bears a subtle sneer of cruelty.

Conscience-stricken and lonely, Dorian decides to reconcile with Sibyl, but he is too late, as Lord Henry informs him that Sibyl has committed suicide by swallowing prussic acid.

Through Basil, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, and he soon is enthralled by the aristocrat's hedonistic worldview: that beauty and sensual fulfilment are the only things worth pursuing in life.

Newly understanding that his beauty will fade, Dorian expresses the desire to sell his soul, to ensure that the picture, rather than he, will age and fade.

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In response, Wilde aggressively defended his novel and art in correspondence with the British press, although he personally made excisions of some of the most controversial material when revising and lengthening the story for book publication the following year.

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