"The Picture of Dorian Gray" starts out with an artist who is obsessed with a young man that he is painting-- the young man (Gray) becomes the focus of all of his artwork, even that which does not feature people. Basil (the artist) states that Gray has woven himself so deeply into his emotional being that every stroke of the paintbrush has become about Gray. Dorian Gray is described as being immeasurably beautiful, with blonde hair, flawless skin, etc. etc. (although there is no blatant homosexuality in the book, it is worth mentioning that Wilde himself was homosexual and actually served time in prison for this reason; It's obvious that Wilde's attraction to men colors his descriptions in the book, and it actually gets a little distracting and hard to remember that the men in the book are straight.)
Through Basil, Dorian becomes friends with a man named Lord Henry, who develops into sort of a mentor for Gray. Lord Henry is a pretty well liked, apparently upstanding guy with some pretty radical ideas, and it is his ideas that start Gray on his downfall. Upon seeing the portrait Basil painted of Gray, Lord Henry states that the biggest tragedy is that the portrait will remain beautiful while Gray will slowly age and lose his youthful beauty; it is this observation/idea that causes Gray to pray that the portrait should age and show the wear of his choices and mistakes, rather than himself.
As time passes, Gray falls in love with a young actress well below his societal class; eventually he breaks her heart in a fit of fury and after he leaves her, declaring he doesn't want to see her again, she kills herself. This is the first time that Gray notices a change to the portrait-- the portrait gains a look of cruelty that was not there when originally painted. Gray realizes that his prayer/wish has been realized, and that the portrait is sort of a visual representation of his conscience.
Years pass, and Gray remains the same; he does whatever he wants, whenever he wants to, and the portrait grows uglier and uglier. For a long time this does not really bother him; he becomes an outcast in society and rumors are spread about his "wickedness." Wilde never really elaborates on what deeds Gray has supposedly committed to receive such a reputation, but the reader is given the impression that aside from his close friends (including Lord Henry), England's upper crust doesn't seem to like Gray at all.
The turning point seems to come when Basil, ready to go to France for 6 months, confronts his old friend about his reputation; Basil initially refuses to believe that all of the rumors can be true, and Gray kind of taunts Basil's loyalty/obsession with him by showing him the portrait. Basil is initially disbelieving and then horrified, and Gray becomes so overcome with rage that the painting was ever done at all that he kills Basil. The body is disposed of and Gray goes about his life, but his conscience wears on him and he becomes paranoid and anxious. The ending will be left a mystery, as I don't want to spoil it for anyone who might wish to read it.
This book was....OK. Not great, not bad. REALLY dry chapters, but a good plot and relatively good storytelling. Pretty easy to follow and stay interested in, but nothing I'll be raving about. I think that the biggest eye opener for me (having not previously read the book or seen any of the movies) was that the painting becomes ugly as a reflection of Gray's inner self, not necessarily due to age. All of the depictions/descriptions I've heard left me with the impression that Gray becomes some kind of immortal, living hundreds of years without aging. While it is true that in the book, Gray doesn't age, the book ends with him somewhere around the age of 40; the hideousness of the portrait is almost solely due to the moral ugliness of Dorian Gray. Quite the comment about the importance of living a moral life, and what immorality can do to a person's soul.